A guy came into my store yesterday and made a rather curious declaration, "People around here are kind of strange.". I knew straight away he was not from this neck of the woods, the accent placed him far, far south of Minnesota. Privately, I agreed with the guy, but then people are strange everywhere, right? I asked what he meant by strange, wondering if he had perhaps run across some of our fair town's more colorful citizens. He said he'd been in the area for a few days and couldn't get over how nice people have been. He was crossing the street and got a little paranoid when a car stopped, thinking he was about to have a COPS moment, but the driver was simply stopping to let him cross the street. A lady at the laundromat asked him if he wanted to use the remainder of her small box of detergent as she didn't want to take that little bit home. People he doesn't know said hi to him in the grocery store and gave that little wave while driving. The guy at the gas station greeted him like a regular customer on his second visit. After his recitation, the poor fella looked a little wild eyed, as if he had been plopped down in Stepford and wasn't sure if he was next. He said he's from Oklahoma and people just aren't that pleasant down there. I assured him this wasn't an area controlled by a cult and no one had been body snatched, and what he was experiencing is simply what's referred to as "Minnesota nice".
It's funny that niceness is rare enough that it's odd, commented on and even labelled as a quirk. It got me thinking about the whole "Minnesota nice" thing and I realized that it's a real thing. We ARE nice people, not just the country or small town folks, but the Minneapolitans, Saint Paulites and the Duluthians as well. We say hello to people we don't know, or at least make eye contact accompanied by a half smile or head nod. We give up seats on crowded buses, we hold doors open and tend treat wait staff like actual human beings. We chat with strangers when we're all stuck waiting in line, we help when we someone trying to lift something heavy, we push cars out of snowbanks and put our carts away in the Kart Korral at the store. We say please and thank you, and when we say "have a nice day" we genuinely hope you do. "Can I help you" isn't just part of the script, we actually want to help. Louie Anderson had a funny bit about Minnesota nice and four way stop signs that brings a smile to my face every time I encounter four cars at the four way. He talked about the stages of the Minnesota four way stop:
1. We all smile at each other and wait for someone else to go.
2. We all wave for the guy across from us to go.
3. Everyone starts to go.
4. Repeat steps 1 and 2
5. "No no, I'll back up, you go."
6. One brave soul goes for it, breaking the stalemate and setting the others free.
I think Minnesota nice comes from the fact that once upon a time, we truly had to rely on each other to make it. Whoever the first settlers of our fair state were, I am reasonably sure they did not settle here in January. My bet is they showed up sometime in May and thought they had found the perfect climate. Imagine their surprise that first December, but which time they were completely screwed and couldn't leave. They had to help each other out, share resources and make sure the guy on the next farm was still around come spring. Our forebears had to, literally and figuratively, huddle together to make it through. I think some of that mindset still remains. We see it every blizzard season in the neighbor with the nice snow blower who does the whole block. We see it in the college guys who roam the streets looking for cars to push out of snowbanks. We see it in the cup of coffee offered to the mail carrier as they struggle through waist high drifts. It shows every summer on the lakes and in the parks that we flock to for as many days as we can because we know what's just around the corner. We have the shared experience of coming out of hibernation every spring, happy to each other after the long, dark months. We compare blizzard stories, we admire towering piles of snow that will occupy the end of driveways until May and we are glad to see everyone made it through the winter. Minnesota nice started simply because our settler ancestors were so damn glad to see everyone made it through the winter, they just couldn't be mean to each other.
Yeah, something like that.
It's sometimes said mockingly, "Minnesota nice", but it's one of the best things about living here. As Frank Burns famously said "It's nice to be nice to the nice." I'm happy to be from a place that's known for being nice, assholes are overrated.