Minnesota Nice Meets Hollywood (and it isn’t pretty)


The minister at my church gave a sermon on “Minnesota Nice” last Sunday. When he read the Wikipedia definition of it, my mouth almost dropped open. (If I wasn’t Minnesotan, my mouth would have dropped ALL the way open.) He was describing a great deal of my personality:

Minnesota nice is the stereotypical behavior of people born and raised in Minnesota to be courteous, reserved, and mild-mannered. The cultural characteristics of Minnesota nice include a polite friendliness, an aversion to confrontation, a tendency toward understatement, a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out, emotional restraint, and self-deprecation. It can also refer to traffic behavior, such as slowing down to allow another driver to enter a lane in front of the other person. . . . Some traits typical of this stereotype are also generally applied to neighboring Wisconsinites and Canadians. Similar attributes are also ascribed to Scandinavians, with whom Minnesotans share much cultural heritage.

I never knew Minnesota nice had its own Wikipedia entry. I’ve read books and watched the movie (“How to Talk Minnesotan”), but I’d never seen the personality type spelled out so clearly before. The minister went on to explain what Scandinavian traditions could have inspired this behavior and how they are rooted in “the good of the group” mentality. In general, people were supposed to work together and not call attention to themselves for the betterment of everyone.

Although not Scandinavian, I am a fifth-generation Minnesotan. The Minnesota nice philosophy has had plenty of time to seep up into my ancestors and me from the soil. It’s been absorbed into my family from neighbors and community. I’ve found I have to work to overcome it in a greater society that values individualism and charisma. Self-deprecation, after all, makes it difficult to find a job, sell a product or attract a mate (unless that mate is also into Minnesota nice and recognizes it for what it is). I’ve also found I measure people from the perspective of Minnesota nice. I mistrust anyone who is too confident or self-promoting. I suspect they do it to cover up insecurities, but it also goes against the code of Minnesota nice.

I and another co-worker once took a news producer from Hollywood on an overnight trip up the North Shore of Lake Superior to the famed Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to film a spot for “Good Morning America.” That man could talk, and self-promote.

By the next day, when we were driving back to civilization, he could tell he was out of place. He complained that I and my coworker (also a Minnesotan) didn’t talk enough. “Maybe we don’t have anything to say,” was the reply. He didn’t know how to deal with that. We weren’t trying to be mean — we had been worn out by talking over the course of his tour and didn’t know how to relate to his foreign personality type. He gave up after that and we rode along in blissful silence — blissful for us, awkward for him.

Back to the sermon. The point of it was that Minnesota nice isn’t enough. It’s too constricting and confining – allows for too little self-love. There’s got to be a happy medium between self-sacrifice for the good of the group and self-love that promotes a fulfilling life. I’d like to think that I’ve learned this during my life, sometimes the hard way. Although it goes against my nature, I can brag when I have to, and I’ve learned how to appreciate certain traits and aspects of my personality. But I doubt I’ll ever feel comfortable around people like Mr. Hollywood.

5 thoughts on “Minnesota Nice Meets Hollywood (and it isn’t pretty)

  1. Okay, let me say a few things. Yes, with that opening line, you can tell I’m not Minnesotan. I have, however, lived here for over a decade. I’ve tried VERY hard to make my stay here work (because I’m stuck here), and I’ve learned a few things about the differences between us.
    1) Non-Minnesotans talk a lot to make you feel comfortable. It may seem egocentric, yes. But, interpersonal skills 101 tells you that to make someone feel comfortable sharing with you, you first share something personal about yourself. Non-Minnesotan’s do that with the expectation that you will, in turn, give a little to the conversation. So, although it sounds so strange to a Minnesotan, a non-Minnesotan is actually trying to bridge a friendship between him/herself and you when they talk about themselves. When you don’t share in turn, you seem closed, cold, prideful and judgmental. It looks like you are thinking you are better than. The awkwardness you are sensing the other person feel is actually not awkwardness with the silence, but with their realization you actually don’t care enough about them to make the effort to open up and bridge the gap. You don’t want to be friendly afterall.

    You say, “Although it goes against my nature, I can brag when I have to…” However, when a non-Minnesotan “brags,” they are only trying to be transparent. It is in transparency with one another, after all, that we can truly know each other. I know, I know. That comment makes all Minnesotans shutter. But why? Is it fear of being hurt? fear of being known? fear of not having control of your information? Ask yourself why. Also, if you listen carefully, you will notice that just because a non-Minnesotan points the conversation towards him/herself, they aren’t necessarily bragging. They are sharing both positive and negative things about themselves. They are curious about you. They want to be your friend. They actually enjoy connecting…deeply…sincerely…with others and want to do so with you. Just because people use the pronoun “I” a lot doesn’t mean they want to focus on themselves. They really want you to say “I” too every once in a while.

  2. I’d like to begin by taking the liberty of apologizing to you on behalf of all Minnesotans. I am sorry to hear you have had a difficult time with us. I understand what you are saying about sharing and transparency. Although the incident I describe in the “Hollywood” story happened many years ago, I was old enough to know the difference between bragging and sharing. The videographer was definitely bragging (and I didn’t mention he was also being vulgar, but that’s beside the point).

    It sounds like the way you are trying to connect with Minnesotans isn’t working. You are sharing information about yourself and expecting us to do that same back. Let’s call it the “Sharing Method.” What do you think about distancing yourself from the problem a bit and trying a social experiment in the form of alternative communication tactics to see if you can find one that works better? I hope that after a decade of trying, you have the energy.

    I have problems breaking through the hard social veneer of Minnesota Nice sometimes and (although I am no social psychologist) I’ve thought of three methods that have worked for me that you might want to try. The trick is to spark curiosity so that we ask questions and want to know more about you; and instead of sharing a direct observation or feeling about your personal life FIRST, share it SECOND.

    1) The Storytelling Method: In the course of conversation bring up something that happened to you that’s related to the topic. It could be something funny or weird or heartwarming. That will show listeners who you are (vs. you telling them who you are) and will hopefully spark some curiosity and questions. At worst, the story won’t resonate and will bomb, but at least the people you are speaking with will think of you as “That man/woman who had the piano fall on their foot,” (and maybe they’ll ask you about it the next time they see you) versus “That man/woman who likes to eat green beans.”

    2) The Concentrating on the Other Person Method: Be curious about the other person and ask them all sorts of questions about themselves. Unless they are totally self-centered, they should, in turn, ask you something about yourself. Don’t volunteer much until they ask.

    3) The Don’t Share Anything at First Method: Sometimes I feel that Minnesotans expect “outsiders” to earn the right to share information about themselves. Sometimes you might need to play a nonthreatening role in conversations over the course of several meetings (nonthreatening meaning not sharing anything personal – keep it to topics like the weather and the news). Then in the third conversation, suddenly, something might come up that relates to you personally. If you share something now, Minnesotans will be more apt to listen to you and be interested because they are comfortable with you and feel they owe you because you have listened to all their observations.

    I would love to hear if any of these suggestions works better for you. Thanks for responding to my story. It’s nice to know somebody’s paying attention out there on the Interweb.

  3. Minnesota Nice is nothing more than Political Correctness. While your story focused on how non-Minnesotans make you feel, you are not looking at how you make non-Minnesotans feel about you. While I understand that it is a cultural issue that is deep rooted over many years. However, it is not accepting of others, and lets face it, America is a melting pot of cultures. Only in Minnesota is it a problem that others have to address to keep you (the Minnesotans) from being offended. In the rest of the country, it is up to everyone to work together to accomplish goals/tasks.

    Unfortunately, Minnesota Nice is nothing more than spin for “We have taken Political Correctness as far as possible.”.

    • I did not know that Minnesota Nice is such a volatile issue, and I never thought of it in terms of political correctness. Thanks for your comments I appreciate hearing them. And I have this nagging feeling that I am being too “nice” in my answer!

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