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.