MINN 101: Learn to speak “Minnesota Nice”

MINN+101%3A+Learn+to+speak+Minnesota+Nice

There is nothing Minnesotans are more (in)famous for than a little thing called “Minnesota Nice.” Out-of-staters, of which there are many at Macalester, come in with all sorts of different interpretations. They often say Minnesota Nice is confusing, passive-aggressive or infuriatingly indirect. These criticisms may be true at times, but they can also be pretty presumptuous. Before you can understand Minnesota Nice, you must appreciate what it is and whence it came. This requires open-mindedness, so check your current assumptions at the door, please.

Zabel '16 as a tiny, proud Minnesotan.
Zabel ’16 as a tiny, proud Minnesotan.
Over a century ago, Scandinavian immigrants from Sweden, Norway and Denmark came to Minnesota. They brought with them egalitarian values, contentment, polite friendliness and a dislike of conflict. Over the years these have become cultural values for many Minnesotans, part of a kind of social contract. Minnesota Nice is an important way of respecting and communicating with one another. Enter lesson number one: to many Minnesotans, Minnesota Nice is ACTUALLY NICE.

In fact, there are many wonderful things I love about Minnesota Nice. A little over a year ago, I was driving back from Duluth with a couple non-Minnesotan Macalester students. I got a flat tire outside the Twin Cities and my carjack was broken. “Should we call AAA?” they asked. I was dumbfounded. This is Minnesota! I knew someone would just pull over and help. I was met with skepticism, but within minutes, two cars stopped to help. I think that’s pretty neat.

Minnesota Nice is also thought to fuel Minnesota’s distinctive progressive and populist values. Whereas many other parts of the U.S. function generally as a meritocracy, Minnesotans tend to privilege egalitarianism and humility. This has manifested in our unique political climate and strong education and health care systems (see David Carr’s New York Times article “The Odd Politics of Minnesota”).

Zabel '16 as a less-tiny but even more proud Minnesotan
Zabel ’16 as a less-tiny but even more proud Minnesotan
Of course, those who weren’t raised with Minnesota Nice often misinterpret it. For example, aversion to conflict and politeness are often mistaken as passive-aggressiveness. Our contentment can be seen as a resistance to change. By trying not to intrude on others’ lives (a product of excessive politeness), we sometimes make new residents feel excluded. Miscommunication is a normal part of visiting and living in a new place, which brings me to lesson number two: try to assume the best of us while you’re here (and we won’t take it personally if you don’t smile back at us on the street).

That being said, here are some guidelines for the Minnesota Nice beginner:

1) Accept that to many Minnesotans, Minnesota Nice is actually nice…

2) … But not to all Minnesotans. Minnesota Nice is a stereotype, and as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would say, don’t make that the “single story” about MN. And just so it’s out there, we don’t pretend to have a monopoly on nice. There are really nice people everywhere!

3) “Minnesota Nice” is often used as an insult. We know you mean “passive-aggressive and phony.” That hurts, so please don’t do that.

4) Know* the basic rules as understood by Minnesotans: be polite, don’t think too highly of yourself, put others first at any cost (even if it borders on martyrdom), mind your own business, say mean things as nicely as possible and be content.

5) If someone smiles at you, just smile back. Easy-peasy.

All things considered, there is a lot to love about Minnesota and plenty that could be better. Minnesota Nice falls into both of those categories and that’s okay! It’s my hope that while you’re in this great state, you explore all Minnesota has to offer, from wacky traditions to natural beauties, and that navigating Minnesota Nice is all part of the experience.

*This doesn’t necessarily mean follow! You do you, friend.