John Oliver is a TV talker who is an expert on something new every week. He reads serious opinions in a humorous manner, and vice versa, with an audience laughing at the funny parts to help those watching along at home. Recently he went after North Dakota’s oil industry, and — long story shortened, because I’m bored already — he put up a billboard telling people to Be Angry — not “Be Polite,” as other public service billboards suggest. Some people responded with a billboard that told him to try some “North Dakota Nice.”
Yes. You read that correctly. Hold it right there, folks. That’s our term.
To which a NoDakian might look confused and say “You call yourself North Dakota Nice?”
No, you OILSOAKED HAYSEEDS — er, sorry. No, our cousins in the great agrarian plain. We say that we’re Minnesota Nice. That’s our self-congratulatory cliché that reinforces our belief in our own virtue. Choose something else, OK? We’re Nice. Got it? GOT IT?
Some states have moods and personalities, and we’re all familiar with the stereotypes: Californians are superficial and addicted to goofy fads like avocado colonies and plastic surgery to plane down pointy elbows; Texans are squinty and flinty and would just as soon shoot a fly than swat it; southerners are courtly and slow; Kansans are — oh, who cares. People from New Jersey and New York are jerks who get repetitive stress injuries from flipping the middle finger.
They’re all gross overgeneralizations, frequently wrong, but there’s a little truth there. New Yorkers come to Minnesota and suspect that low-flying crop dusters spray the streets with a fine mist of Prozac every other week. Californians go to Texas and see a sign that says GUNS & BAGELS and think these people are nuts. I mean, so much gluten in a bagel.
The niceness of Minnesota, however, can be quantified. Scientifically.
How? Well, a new study has shown how much we don’t swear. Let’s see where you fall on the spectrum. What do you say when you hit your finger with a hammer?
1. “Oh jeez that’s a bad deal there. Holy cow that smarts.”
2. An unprintable string of corrosive phonemes that makes Satan prick up his ears and think, “I got to write that down, that’s good”
3. “That was an odd thing to do, seeing as how I’m just pouring a bowl of cereal.”
4. “Gosh! Gosh darn it all to Hector! Criminy dangnabbit Judas CHEESE all mighty!”
We’re 1 and 4, for the most part. A British linguist who maps American cursing studied almost 9 billion tweets, and Minnesotans say “darn” at rates that greatly exceeded the really bad effenheimer word you never say in front of the kids, unless you’re looking for a quick way to squander 10 years of moral authority. We say “gosh” less than “darn,” but we do tweet out “damn” about as much as Montana, Maine, New York and Wisconsin.
Context would be nice: for example, do Minnesotans often tweet “Enjoying the original cast soundtrack of ‘Damn Yankees’ again!” at greater frequency?
NO OF COURSE NOT. It’s a meaningless study. It’s based on what people say in tweets — a small, younger demographic who might belong to casual cuss culture in normal life, but don’t swear on Twitter because Mom follows them. But we’ll add that survey to all the others that reflect nicely on us, because, well, we’re nice. And we want to think we’re nice. Because that would be nice.
Which brings us back to North Dakota. Now that I’ve calmed down over their shameless appropriation of Minnesota’s defining characteristic, I realize two things:
1. It’s ridiculous to think that the border between Minnesota and North Dakota is like the line between East and West Berlin, with radically different cultures and ideologies on either side. No one ever tunneled under the Red River to reach the freedom of Fargo. We all belong to a culture that values civility and treating people with basic dignity and courtesy.
Unless that other person cut in front of us on the freeway in which case you tailgate that jackwipe all the way to Hinckley, the bleeping dill weed.
2. That said, North Dakotans might have a greater claim to Nice than Minnesotans. People say that Minnesota Nice really isn’t; it’s just a cover for passive-aggressive behavior. We don’t say what we really mean. We just smile and act nice. Critics say this as if it’s a bad thing. What’s the alternative to passive-aggressive? Active-aggressive? A punch in the snoot? If “Minnesota Honest” meant stomping on someone’s foot because he brought 11 items into the Express Lane at the grocery store, this would be a worse place to live.
It’s better to repress. People think that Minnesotans don’t speak their mind, but we do. We just say, “Well, that’s different,” instead of, “You’re an idiot from a big city who probably thinks cows grow out of the ground from calf-shaped seeds.”
North Dakotans, on the other hand, have a characteristic that’s related to Nice, but slightly different. As noted before, a series of billboards urged people to “Be Polite,” which can be described as using good manners when you don’t really want to be nice. Niceness can be a mask. Politeness is how grown-ups behave, and you can be polite without being nice.
See the difference?
Nah, me neither. So: we’d be much obliged if you’d stop swiping our defining characteristic, North Dakota. We’d be downright gosh-darned indebted to you.
To put it politely.