When I unexpectedly announced, in fall 2013, that I was moving from Washington, D.C., to Minneapolis, there were plenty of raised eyebrows.
Friends and family on both coasts marveled at my eagerness to endure Minnesota’s cold, long winters. (“I’ll never visit you,” threatened my summer-loving sister.)
Some wondered where exactly the Twin Cities fell within flyover country. (“They’re, like, suburbs of Chicago or something, right?”)
Others expressed concern that I’d end up in a woodchipper, become an ice-fishing fanatic or, as one friend put it, “fall in love with a lumberjack, move to the tundra and never be heard from again.”
But no one warned me about Minnesota Nice.
The locals were the first to advise me. The first was one of my new colleagues, at Experience Life magazine, who asked whether I’d heard the expression: “Minnesotans will give you directions anywhere except their own house.”
I hadn’t. I tried to forget about it, but suddenly I was hearing similar warnings everywhere I went. I couldn’t believe it. The “nicest” people in America kept telling me they are really cold and awkward. They promised Northerners would give me endless lists of where to go, what to see, where to eat and how to make the most of life in Minnesota. They’d do it with grace and polite smiles.
Then they would walk away.
They wouldn’t invite me for dinner. They wouldn’t ask me to happy hour. But it was worse than that, they said. They wouldn’t initiate hanging out, but they wouldn’t accept my invitations, either.
Why would they do this? It was explained to me that: We grew up here, so we already have friends. We don’t know how to act around new people. We hold tight to our Northern European tradition of keeping people at arm’s length.
Sure, these Minnesotans were trying to be helpful. They were trying to be a little playful and self-deprecating. But I started to suspect it was just another way of flashing a “Keep Out” sign.
Normally, I’m all for respecting personal boundaries. But in this case, respecting Minnesota’s social limitations meant I’d be spending my first winter in the Upper Midwest all alone, sitting in my apartment eating almond butter straight from the jar while watching “American Idol.” I would not let that happen.
I’ll show you, Minnesota, I huffed to myself. Gauntlet, thrown. Challenge, accepted. I was determined to prevail. But to do so, I needed a plan of attack.
Step 1. Find the people.
Arriving in Minneapolis at the tail end of October 2013 meant I arrived to frigid temps and a city already settling into hibernation. Since I didn’t know anyone and also couldn’t count on stumbling upon people sitting on stoops and in sidewalk cafes, I had to be where the people were.
I resolved to be the first to arrive at work in the morning and the last to leave in the evening. I wanted to make contact with everyone in the office. I joined a small gym, The Movement Minneapolis, known as much for its tight-knit community as its killer workouts. I reached out to the local chapter of Girls on the Run, a non-profit organization I had volunteered for back in D.C.
When I wasn’t working, working out or volunteering, I’d bounce between coffee shops, museums and the lakes, testing different neighborhoods and gauging relative friendliness. Initially I was going for quantity, and within days of my arrival I was surrounded by friends-to-be.
Step 2. Make the first move.
Historically, I’ve fallen into the “sweet, but shy” category. I’m most comfortable playing the quiet observer and letting people come to me. But that wouldn’t help me in Minnesota, so I decided to do the exact opposite of what came naturally.
Like Superman in Bizarro World, I became a sort of Bizarro Maggie. Everywhere I went I smiled wide, introduced myself and confidently stuck out my hand for a shake. The first few attempts were nauseating. Over time I developed more bravado, surprising more than one person with a hug upon our first meeting. “I’m not from here!” I’d exclaim. “I grew up in New Jersey!” As if this explained my odd behavior.
It was a grand experiment with positive results: Not a single person punched me in the face or told me to back off. In this regard, Midwestern civility worked in my favor.
Step 3. Tell, don’t ask.
Once I identified potential friends, I needed to find ways to lure them into social settings. I was cool with making friendly small talk with the person behind me at the co-op checkout and in the next squat rack, but I was looking for more. I wanted brunch and travel buddies, friends with long-term potential with whom I could laugh and cry and eat ice cream.
To step up my game, I changed the way I talked. Instead of asking if someone wanted to hang out (a surefire path to rejection) or open-endedly suggesting “Let’s hang out sometime,” I started giving orders.
“Let’s grab a drink!” I would propose on my way out of the office. “Meet me at the Kenwood!” I would say to my ravenous classmates after a weekend circuit workout. I organized happy hours and planned dinners, and suddenly I had people to hang out with — all without asking or being asked.
Step 4. Seriously though — be aggressive.
Acquiring acquaintances in this way was fun, if a little hard on the wallet, but my mission wasn’t complete. As with romantic dating, one of the biggest challenges in friend-making is getting someone’s phone number. It ups not only their accessibility but also their vulnerability.
“Here!” I’d say, thrusting my phone into someone’s face, the blank contact form already pulled up on the screen. In my boldest moment, I grabbed the other person’s phone, entered my contact info and texted myself from his phone.
Step 5. Be shocked when locals reach out. For all the Minnesotans who warned me about their antisocial ways, even more welcomed me with open arms. The more I used my zealous tactics, the more open I became. And the more open I became, the more people I attracted.
I’ve been here for nearly two years now. I’ve amassed more casual friendships than anywhere else I’ve lived and cultivated some of my deepest relationships. Most of the best people I know I’ve met in the Twin Cities — and that’s neither because of nor despite the veneer of “Minnesota Nice.” It’s simply because I, an outsider, made an effort to smile and be the first to say “hi.”
Maggie Fazeli Fard is a former breaking news reporter at The Washington Post and currently the senior editor of fitness at Experience Life magazine. She lives in Minneapolis.