Minnesota Nice, explained.

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Cathy Schaefer of Minneapolis, left, chats with Rayane Alamuddin of Minneapolis during a gathering of “League of Extraordinary Women.” Schaefer said she started the group as a way to meet people in Minnesota after she moved here more than two years ago. (Photo by Jeff Thompson)

I’ve been digging out from all the responses we’ve received from our series exploring Minnesota’s polite reservedness toward newcomers.

One lengthy email came from Roger McKnight, a retired professor from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter. McKnight, who taught Scandinavian studies, was disappointed we did not explain the roots of our state’s perceived standoffishness.

In a nutshell, the state’s settlers from northern or central Europe — primarily Germany and Scandinavia — had a profound impact on how the social culture here developed, McKnight contends.

“The traditional culture of Norway/Sweden was for centuries based on the concept of One People, One Language, One Religion,” McKnight writes. “Swedes’ lifelong friends were chosen from among people they went to school with and their kinship group. An individual made friends slowly, but they were friends for life — in the true sense of the term ‘for life.'”

Anyone who has lived in Scandinavia, as McKnight did for years, knows that “it’s somewhat hard to get an ‘in’ there,” he said. But once the friendship is established, “all barriers to communication break down and there results a torrent of friendship, expressions of sincerity, and even personal confidences.”

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Ylwa Eklund Falk and Fredrik Eklund, who moved here from Sweden last year, pray at Eagle Brook Church in Lino Lakes. (Photo by Alex Kolyer)

The lovely young Swedish couple I met in the second part of my series, Ylwa Eklund Falk and Fredrik Eklund, also pointed out this cultural nuance. Falk once heard one of her countrymen compare Swedish stoicism to American friendliness with a clever fruit analogy.

“Americans are like peaches. They have this nice, soft outer shell that’s easy to penetrate. And there’s a tight, hard core that’s hard to get underneath,” she told me. “Swedes are kind of like oranges. It’s a thick, hard peel at first, but there’s a big soft mushy inside.”

In other words, once you get to know a Swede, “we tend to be very open about our lives,” Falk said. “With Americans, it’s easy to get to know them, but hard to make American friends.”

This interesting mix of fierce loyalty and initial aloofness apparently applies to Germans, too. That’s according to my colleague Alex Friedrich, son of a German immigrant. Alex lived in his father’s home country for five years, and says the people there tend to be more reserved.

“No one moved. Everyone already had their friends already,” he said. “They see friendship as a sort of investment, and they consider Americans shallow people who say ‘LOVE YOU!’ and then flake out when you need them. No need to bother with us unless we prove our worth.”

But the Germans — and Minnesotans — will lend a hand when it counts, Friedrich said. Not because they’re warm and loving, but because it’s the right thing to do.

“After growing up in California, I’ve come to appreciate that way of thinking,” he said. “My home state is really flaky.”

Moreover, Professor McKnight explains, there’s something in Scandinavian culture called the Law of Jante, a proverbial concept that values understatedness over backslapping. Tell me if his description sounds familiar:

“Not making a fuss of oneself, not boasting in public, not thinking a person is better than anyone else,” he says. “It says in the ten commandments: Don’t think you are better than us; don’t think you can stand out from us. In short, conform and don’t make a commotion of yourself.”

So there you have it.

Many, like McKnight, applaud Minnesotans for their sincerity.

But judging from the barrage of responses and social-media chatter our series generated, a lot of transplants to the state are having trouble moving their relationships from “acquaintance” to “friend for life.” Some have even emailed us asking for advice on where to meet people.

Here’s hoping when they do find friends, they’ll be rewarded with that big, soft mushy inside.

  • Claudia

    When I was a student traveling in Europe, my advisor gave me a “Cultural Tips” sheet that said, among other things, “Don’t expect the French to invite you into their homes. They believe friendship comes only after long acquaintance.”

    So why don’t we just paint similar advice on the “Welcome to Minnesota” sign and just let that be that. I moved here from another state and had no trouble making friends. Like invite-me-into-their-home friends.

    I get very peevish when I hear people complaining about how awful it is here. Try being a friend first and don’t expect an area’s culture to change to suit you.

  • http://mariahayhow.com Maria Hayhow

    As a newcomer to Minnesota (born and raised in Cincinnati,Ohio), I have seen a fair share of peaches and oranges. This article/extended metaphor definitely resonated with me. Good stuff!

    Any additional info on the “League of Extraordinary Women.”? Sounds interesting!

  • Laura Yuen

    Hi Maria,

    I’m sending you the contact info for the League of Extraordinary Women in a separate email. Thanks for your interest!

  • Claudia

    To counterbalance my previous peevishness, I would like to offer a suggestion to anyone who is a transplant. In my 11 moves in 20 years, I learned to have an open house as soon as I had even remotely settled into my new home (it’s amazing how many boxes I can hide behind a shower curtain). I would invite all of my co-workers and as many neighbors as feasible. and be certain to ask people to bring a dish to pass. I found having a “group participation” food like a chocolate fondue helps and if possible, a number of really stupid yard games.

    This approach doesn’t guarantee life-long friends, but I found that for me, it has always gotten life in a new town or neighborhood off to a very good start.

  • Heather

    Just heard Mary Lucia say that she enjoys “hanging out” with us each afternoon, and it made me wonder how many MPR members are transplants who feel especially close to your station. I’ve been here for almost 6 years now, and am still grateful for how welcome the MPR on-air people made me feel when I didn’t know anyone else. Thanks, all!

  • Sue

    I moved to Minnesota in 2004 from Pennsylvania, and while I have had issues with the passive-aggressive way of communicating that many native Minnesotans have learned, I too did not have trouble finding people that I consider life-long friends. There is a long list of people that I once considered friends – would attend happy hour or go to a club with them – that are no longer in my life; however, there are Minnesotans that I know will always be in my life no matter what. I left Minnesota in August of 2011 and felt like I had made a huge mistake. After watering my roots for a year back in Pennsylvania, I am ready to come home to Minnesota where I will be welcomed back with open arms by those I’ve taken the time to listen to and be open with.

  • Laura Yuen

    Great suggestion, Claudia. We could probably do an entire story on how to make friends as an adult, period. It’s not easy. Heather, thanks so much for your kind words. We are so lucky to connect with our listeners.

  • Beth-Ann

    As a newcomer I used an analogy from biochemistry. A molecule has binding sites that it uses to attach to other molecules (like keys in locks). If all the binding sites are full, no more attachments can be made no matter how favorable the conditions.

    I lived in several areas with many transient residents. It was easy to make friends because folks were always leaving and making openings in the social circle.

    Minnesotans are more likely to be saturated. They live near friends and family and stay close to them. There is no room for new people.

    It is intentional exclusion or discrimination ; it’s just kinetics.

  • Brian

    This is the exact Opposite of what ‘Minnesota Nice’ means. Since this is an article on MPR, I’m sure it’s against policy to bash Minnesota (am I right, Author?) Minnesota Nice: To be outrageously passive aggressive.

    There. Your Welcome.

  • Joanna

    If this “Law of Jante” is still relevant after generations upon generations of Minnesotans, then explain to me why people brag so much about this state? That’s the opposite of what was explained here. I have never seen anything like it anywhere else!!

    After giving this state a fair chance after 3 years, I have determined that I do not like the culture here and I plan on moving. However, if that topic comes up in conversation (which I tend to avoid), I feel like a native Minnesotan will start shoving facts, stats, and other “justifications” as to why this state is so great down my throat. “We’re the healthiest state!”, “We’re the most hipster state!”, “We have the best quality of living!” “Our moms make the best cookies!” “Minnesotan dairy products give you super powers!!!” GAAAH!!

    I have already made up my mind. It’s not for me. It almost seems like some natives are brainwashed and feel a need to spout all of this information (which probably hasn’t been fact-checked) to justify their reasons for staying here…or they’re insecure. I don’t know. I just avoid the topic of being a transplant or moving because I don’t have the time. At times it seems like a lot of people have “drank the kool-aid” and they’re feel the need to convince me that my opinions and decisions are wrong.

    What really gets me is that every single person that has had these conversations with me was born here and has never lived anywhere else. Most of them have not traveled outside of the midwest.

  • Jill

    As a native Minnesotan of Scandinavian heritage I would like to offer further explanation. The vibe I got growing up was…”Oh, we don’t want to bother them”…”Don’t ask too many questions, it’s private”. It seemed to be good manners not to pry and to only talk about the weather. When you try to supress the urge to cook up and drop off a stew (because you don’t want to “bother” them) when you see the neighbors sneak into their house with a new baby, you tend to get a little passive-agressive, I guess! Of course, maybe that is just my weird family.

  • Andrea

    Thank you so much for this article and for all of the comments! I was born and raised in Saint Paul by parents who were born and raised in the deep south. After high school I went to college, graduate school and worked in the deep south and then moved back to Minnesota.

    As a native Minnesotan who has lived in several other states, I definitely have to agree with Brian and Joanna. Although of all the places in the United States that I’ve lived, Minnesotans seem to have more than their fair share of common sense and ethics, the passive-aggressive communication style that is so common makes “Minnesota nice” a back-handed compliment.

  • Claudia

    Heather’s kind words also point towards an answer to finding friends. Go where you feel a connection.

    MPR hosts wonderful events and I’ve never met someone at such an event I didn’t like. Approach the people you meet with the assumption that they’re as welcoming as Mary Lucia and chances are they will live up to that expectation.

    Accept that it will take time for the friendship to develop and to get through that orange rind. (That is such a great analogy.) I found Sue’s comments touching; she really expressed why it’s worth the effort.

    Best of luck Fellow Transplants! You’ll soon be thriving.

  • Peter

    OMG. That is what I was told as a child. “Don’ make to much of yourself. You don’t want people to think you are proud.”

  • Anne

    I, too, would love to have more information about the League of Extraordinary Women!

  • Dawn

    I thought of the Law of Jante immediately when I heard these stories and discussions on MPR. Here’s the complete list:

    -Don’t think you are somebody

    • Don’t believe that you are as good as we are

    • Don’t believe that you are smarter than we are

    • Don’t believe that you are better than we are

    • Don’t believe that you know more than we do

    • Don’t believe that you are more than we are

    • Don’t believe that you a good at anything

    • Don’t laugh at us

    • Don’t think that anybody cares about you

    • Don’t believe that you can teach us anything

    I think these “laws” describe the negative aspects of a “small town” mentality – and especially a small town where people haven’t been anywhere else so they have nothing to compare their own experiences with. And yes, rather large cities and even whole states can have this small town mentality.

  • Katie M.

    I think this article is really accurate. I’ve been here for a few years and all of my friends are transplants or students.

    I’d be interested in finding out more about the league of extraordinary women too! Is there any way to do that?

    Thanks!

  • KS

    I have lived my entire life in Minnesota and moved several times to relocate for my career. It has been interesting, to say the least, to try and make friends outside of my hometown. While each experience, location and institution is unique, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to effectively network and find close friendships with native Minnesotans where I didn’t have some sort of friend-of-a-friend connection via someone from my hometown or a relative. Its bewildering even to me, and I’ve lived here my entire life.

    I am very interested in the League of Extraordinary Women and I would appreciate any information I could be provided about the group!

  • Prokriti Mukherji

    I have lived in Minnesota almost nine years now. My take on it.

    What is Minnesota life like?

    Answer: 4Cs

    Corn

    Cattle

    Children

    Churches

    So if you cannot do at least one of these you are doomed to a life of being alone.

    Minnesotans are good people but their “goodness” stems from the church and not from any secular source.

  • Kristi

    Please may I also have more information on the League of Extraordinary Women? I’m a native Minneapolitan, but I just moved back from Georgia after living there for many years. I’ve noticed some hesitance to be too friendly, but more so I’ve heard some crazy things that people wouldn’t dare say down south. Also, there are passive aggressive people everywhere. The difference is the method of expression.

  • http://www.lesliehongcounseling.com Leslie Hong

    I’d also like to find out more about the League of Extraordinary Women!

    Thanks!

  • Cathy Schaefer

    Just a quick note for anyone interested in the League- and Beth-Ann whose biochemistry comments struck a chord in my heart- we are having an event for everyone who is interested at the Lowry at 7:30 tomorrow. A few of the league ladies will be on hand, just to meet up in a casual atmosphere. Open to all who identify as female… and any extraordinary males who want to help with the tab;-)

  • CL

    Hi, I have moved all over the US on temporary projects for about 17-years and recently accepted a permanent job here in MN after being here for two years previously on other projects. I made the assumption that MN was “nice” during that period but didn’t realize at the time that most of the people I worked with were from other states and here temporarily also. It is a very nice state and had hoped to make this my home. I have went to great lengths in the 11 months I have been here to try and get to know people (ie: church, running club, gym, etc.). The people here for the most part lack all social skills that most others have in the country, regarding being able to have normal conversations with people that they don’t know. It is true that it does take time to get to know people and I certainly don’t expect to have 25 best friends by now.

    However, the conversations that I have with people here are painful and I find only myself asking them about themselves and the people here have no problem telling you about themselves. However, they don’t have the ability to counteract by asking you questions about yourself in an effort to get to know you. It’s simply how it works, period.

    I attribute it primarily to the fact that people here don’t go anywhere other than “up north” and they keep their friends from high school, neighborhoods and college so they never HAVE to have that type of interaction where they ask someone questions about them- they already know their friends for a long time so it’s not something that the people here are used to. Perhaps it’s laziness,not sure- I don’t plan to stay here long enough to figure it out.

    My job reminds me of “high school” and everyone only talks to people that they know from college or a long period of time- you can hear a pin drop in this office although there are a lot of people here. It’s what happens when you only talk to people that you know- it’s boring and you run out of things to talk about it. I often wonder if they realize that although they act like High School students, that they are nearly 40+ years old? I have walked by people here that I see every day and used to say “good morning” or “hello”. I am not asking these people to skip down the hall with me and hold my hand but a simple “hello” or “good morning” rather than ignoring me, is a common social skill that most Americans have, except for here. I have never experienced this anywhere I have lived, including NY, NJ or CT. It’s flat-out RUDE.

    And the people just look miserable here. Now, I won’t say a word to them and look the other way. They seem to be OK with this- Really??? Is that what you MN people want?

    I think that it’s unfair for anybody that has not lived somewhere else to form an opinion because you have nothing to base it on.

    Sure, the MN people think that they are friendly because they are- to eachother, only.

    Look inward at yourselves- when was the last time you have ever met someone that you didn’t know and asked them to do something with you, invited them to your home or simply asked them questions about themselves in a true attempt to get to know them? If you answer “never” or “not for many years”, then you have proven my point.

    I have given up on asking anybody from MN questions about themselves to attempt getting to know them as they are not all that interesting anyways and it gets a little old only hearing about them.

    Also, I can definitely handpick the MN people that have moved away, lived somewhere else and moved back here- they are easy to spot. They get it because they went through it themselves. I have normal dialogs with these people. That’s how I know they have traveled.

    I lived in many other states, sometimes only for a few months and am still friends with people I have met after many years. I am rather socialable but it takes “two”, not just one person to establish a friendship.

    So MN people, stay here forever where you are comfortable and next time that you are talking to someone you don’t know, try and look inward and determine if you are actually having a dialog with the other person or only talking about yourself, which most people here seem to love doing (or they talk over you).

    We all have things we need to work on.

  • Robert Zuniga

    I was born and raised in Northern New Jersey my entire life before joining the Air Force back in 2004. I’ve been stationed at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota since 2008 and have taken many trips with my wife and children to Minnesota.

    From what I can gather North Dakota/Minnesota people/culture have many similarities in that they are both mainly comprised of German/Scandinavian people. When we first moved here, I have to admit that I was a little surprised at first at what I perceived to be aloofness from the people.

    You have to understand my context, though. Coming from Northern New Jersey, it’s comprised of many Italian, Latin American, Jewish, and Indian people, many of whom are the touchy-feely types. Where I’m from, if you’re an out of town stranger, my Jewish friend’s mother would drag you by the ears into her house and feed you until home made food was coming out of your nostrils. Where I’m from, if you’re an out of town stranger, my Latin American friend’s mother would turn on the Salsa music, grab you by the hand, and force you to dance with her. Those particular ethnic groups just seem to be more touchy-feely — in a good way — and are outwardly passionate people.

    From my experience, North Dakotans/Minnesotans, whom are mainly comprised of German/Scandinavians, just innately seem to be a more reserved people by nature. Generally speaking, they’re not really touchy-feely outwardly emotional people. At first I was put off by it because I came from a different context. But after being here or almost four years, I understand them a lot better and don’t take it personal. Being quiet and reserved isn’t in and of itself a bad thing, it’s just how they are.

    And now, after being here almost four years, they are really starting to warm up to me and my family, and I don’t think that’s necessarly a bad thing either. It takes many years to form meaningful, long lasting relationships.

    I would advise out of staters to get involved in the community and temper your expectations regarding how quickly you make friendships. Don’t just jump in and expect to make friends overnight. Take it nice and slow and let it happen organically. You can’t be friends with everybody, but the ones you do make will be good locals who will be friends for life. Our local friends are now oh so quick to give us fruits and vegetables from their gardens or invite us to their farms to hang out or to borrow tools to fix our house and stuff. In my humble opinion, North Dakotan/Minnesota German/Scandinavians are good hard working people. Don’t let a few bad experiences ruin your outlook on everybody.