Sometimes you hear a certain phrase in reference to Minnesotans. It’s particularly popular among visitors to our great state, but even locals use it once in a while. I’m talking about “Minnesota Nice.”
On the surface, this sounds like a good thing. If you come to Minnesota you will meet nice people. Isn’t everyone nice? Isn’t it nice that we’re nice?
But the first thing to know about Minnesota Nice is that we’re not actually nice. I mean, some of us are, but no more here than average. No, the critical element of Minnesota Nice is that, collectively, we’re afraid people might think we’re not nice. To be thought of as not nice is the worst thing we can imagine.
So we endeavor to seem nice. Usually, we are pretending, often not very well. We’re not actors. We’re farmers, mostly. Or bloggers.
Now, right here, many of you who are Minnesotans may feel rage boiling up from your innermost being. What’s he saying? Of course we’re nice! We’re the nicest! But see, this is all part of my larger point. This isn’t a nice reaction, but a defensive one. Nice people don’t think this way.
Daniel Elezar described three types of political culture in the United States. Traditionalistic, individualistic and moralistic. He classifies Minnesota as moralistic and he’s not wrong.
A moralistic state believes that there’s always a better way to do things; a higher state of being. Abolition of slavery. Public education. Health care. Even prohibition. People forget the Volstead Act was named for a Minnesota congressman. What does all this have in common? Minnesotans were trying to be nice, to enforce nice, on a global scale.
The earliest seeds of moralistic thinking were planted with the Puritans in New England. Many of those seeds spread west to Minnesota in the mid-19th Century.
That means all this started because we were afraid of going to Hell. It’s only in modern times to we consider pretending to be nice the same thing as avoiding hell.
Maybe now you see roots of this. Under this philosophy every new person Minnesotans meet could potentially send us to Hell if they don’t like us. Any one of these strangers, based on our behavior, could send us hurtling down in the fire pit of Mephistopheles.
Minnesotans are ruled by this terrifying fear of not being nice. If you say something rude, could that be the ONE THING that sends you for an eternal swim in the River Styx? What if you don’t smile? What if you don’t offer guests enough food at 2 in the afternoon for some reason? Lava is hot. We’d rather make more tiny sandwiches than we actually need. Because Lord knows we’ll eat them if they don’t.
So we try. We try so hard and we’re so scared we might get it wrong. We try to relate and we get nervous, so we say, “oh.” We feel guilty for ending sentences too early, so we say, “so.” Sometimes, for no discernible reason we say, “ya.”
We even say excuse me when people bump into US. Because we want to go to Heaven, see.
You don’t have to be religious to be Minnesota Nice. You don’t have to believe in anything, except the notion that the judgement of others has the power to crush you. You’ll find, once you’ve lived here a while, that this notion slips on easier than a pair of Golden Gophers sweatpants.
Critics of Minnesota Nice say that our state is a great place to meet nice people and never quite become their friends. I get that. My wife and I have a thick rolodex of acquaintances. Wonderful people. We’re just afraid of them, that’s all.
For a Minnesotan there’s nothing more comforting than the sight of taillights leaving the driveway. In that moment we know that we were as nice as we could be, and now we can finally be ourselves.
What a relief.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org).