The Twin Cities has never been the sort of place where hordes of starry-eyed young people move for fame and fortune. But as it climbs the ranks of every "top 10" list for quality of life, it’s becoming a harder pitch to ignore.
What those lists don’t mention is the frequent insecurity these transplants know well, whispered with confessional despair in wood-panel dive bars after months of missed connections: “Is it just me? Or are Minnesotans total assholes?”
The second-guessing is a common trait. Small-town settlers wonder if they’re just misreading urban chic for frigidity. Transplants alighting from megalopolises like Buenos Aires and Berlin chalk it up to small-city small-mindedness. Folks from the South are quick to blame the isolating cold of northern winters, but that doesn’t explain how those hailing from other Midwest cities have a hard time cracking the icy Nordic shells of native Minnesotans too.
Those born and bred here don't always see it, but to newcomers we're not very friendly, at least in a deep friendship way.
It took Jade Ross of Colman, South Dakota, no more than one college party to catch on that "Minnesota Nice" is a trademark best used sarcastically. At 18, when she reported for school at St. Cloud State, everybody talked up the Minnesota Nice phenomena ad nauseum, she says. "I'd never heard of that before, and I didn't understand why you needed to talk about it," Ross says. "In South Dakota, we were just nice, and we didn't need to brag about it."
At parties she'd describe home as a small farming town of 500. She got responses like, "So do you have ... Internet? Do you ride a buffalo to go to school?"
College was easy picking for friends, but now that Ross is 26 and working as a nurse in Minneapolis, she can count only two Minnesotans as close friends. "I thought I was really social in Colman, but here, I don't know. There's this hesitancy. I just have more casual acquaintances."
Jared Townsend of Baton Rouge moved to St. Paul for a marketing gig because, as he puts it, there are no jobs in Louisiana. Two years in, he still considers his cat to be a better friend than most people he's met here.
"I'm a shy person, so maybe I'm not doing enough," he apologizes upfront. "I know I also need to put myself out there more, and have the courage to ask more people who have been here longer to hang out too."
But when Townsend does crane over the cubicle at the end of a work week to ask coworkers what their plans are, chances are they're going fishing with their high school buddies, or watching football with old college friends. "Minnesotans are just so close knit with their friends that they've had since they were kids, it's hard to break into that circle."
U of M Ph.D. student Esteban, who asked that we not use his last name, has found himself spending more time than ever on Facebook, Meetup.com, and other online forums for the chance to meet people outside the international student clique. Originally from Argentina, he's had a hard time acclimating to the skittishness of Minnesotans in the grocery store, on dates, or just passing by people on the street.
"The smiling thing, I thought it was weird that this person would be looking at me and smiling at me with no reason whatsoever," Esteban says. "Everyone here is super polite, I guess, but it's hard to get to know them. Everywhere I've been outside my country, they'll ask me questions about Argentina and the locals here, when I say where I'm from, they'll say, 'Oh cool.' And that's it."
That lack of curiosity makes it difficult to jump-start conversations with Minnesota women, Esteban says. Doubly confusing: figuring out what Minnesotans consider sexy.
"Argentinians love it when everyone's super straight-forward," he says. "When you hit on a girl, you're blunt about it, whereas people here might be socially awkward but that's not necessarily a bad trait. In Argentina it would be a really bad thing — for most women, at least."
To fit in and get by, Esteban has learned to tone himself down and comply with the culture. It's a part of growing up, he tells himself, and Minnesota will get better with time.
But for Melissa Boric, it hasn't gotten better, even after 17 years.
In 1992, at the start of the Bosnian War, she fled with her family to St. Louis Park. When she told people how she survived the conflict, the reaction of a typical Minnesotan would be, "Oh my god. Can we talk about something lighter?"
Boric now works as an artist and musician in Minneapolis. "You'd think artistic people have a very strong empathy," she says. "But no matter how nice you are, no matter how much effort you put in to make friendships, inviting people over, the culture is absolutely constructed to suit only people who are born here."
One friend recently moved back to San Francisco after 18 years in Minneapolis, Boric says. In all that time he wasn't able to find a single solid friend. "It took my girlfriend 12 years to invite me to a barbecue. I swear to God, it's like people from outside are not trustworthy or something," she says. It took about the same amount of time for her to realize another woman hated her all along.
"Talking back, straight to the face, that's not a Minnesota thing. It's an extremely emotionally deprived culture here, Minne-SOH-ta."