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Nov 20 2013

The Minnesota grading system

It’s grading time up here in the chilly North; we’ve got midterms we’re plowing through, and finals will come up in less than a month, and the students are all getting anxious. This is Minnesota, though, where we greatly value our emotional equilibrium, and our language emphasizes subtle distinctions that would more typically provoke a greater range of expression than you might find in New York or the South. This is also true of our practice of giving grades.

Perhaps you are visiting Minnesota, or are newly enrolled in one of the schools here, or are perusing a transcript from a Minnesota student, and you find yourself confused by our traditional folkways. Here then is a useful translation table from standard academic A-F grades to the more nuanced expressions we use around here.

Academic Minnesotan Translation
A Not too bad. You’ve done excellent work, but we wouldn’t want you to get too cocky now.
B You betcha. I am vaguely happy about your progress.
C That’s nice. I am not at all impressed, but I’m not about to say that to your face.
D That’s interesting. Are you from Iowa, perhaps? Or maybe Wisconsin? We don’t do things like that around here.
F That’s different. I am struggling to express my profound revulsion in a way that won’t immediately incite conflict.

(Note: C, D, and F grades may be emphasized with the modifier “sure”. “That’s sure different,” for instance, is a much stronger statement. It is not a good thing.)

Just as a general rule, Minnesotans value an affect as flat as the prairies up around Fargo/Moorhead, and must be read with an appreciation of delicate motor skills. A slightly raised eyebrow, for instance, has the same emotional impact as a Brooklynite screaming obscenities at you and making rude gestures.

This can sometimes have a devastating retroactive effect on visitors, once they realize how Minnesotan minds work. You know that nice little lady at the Mall of America who gave you cookie samples and greeted you with that lovely sing-song accent and smiled at you? The tightness of that smile, once you know how to read a Minnesotan, may have actually meant “I will make you dance the blood eagle and drape your bowels from the rafters, foreign scum!”

I am not a native Minnesotan, but my mother was born here. And let me tell you, it’s only many years after the fact that I realized how angry I’d sometimes made her when I was a child.

60 comments

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  1. 1
    Pen

    My grandad used to say ‘I can eat it’ which according to my mother meant ‘don’t ever make that again, woman, or the furniture will fly, the windows will shatter, you’ll be cowering in the box room and the police won’t be called because they don’t bother with the likes of us’. Those were tough days. (Industrial norther uk). My other grandad used to say one of ‘ar’ ‘now then’ and ‘blimey’ in all circumstances. (Yorkshire)

  2. 2
    richardelguru

    I’ve got a similar translation chart for British expressions outside my office.
    Full of things like:

    That’s not bad = that’s good

    With greatest respect… = you’re an idiot

    Oh, incidentally… = The primary purpose of our discussion is…

  3. 3
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Well, around here if somebody really likes a new recipe you’ve cooked they will tell you “welllll, that was something different for a change.”
    “It’s edible” OTOH means it was just good.
    Rumor also has it that in Swiss German the biggest praise you’re ever going to get is “Not too bad”, too. Maybe you should research whether there were many Swiss immigrants in Minnesota?

  4. 4
    borax

    C reminds me of an old joke. The punch line is,”before charm school I’d say ‘bullshit’, now I say ‘that’s nice’.”

  5. 5
    Matt G

    Everything I know about Minnesota I learned from Fargo.

  6. 6
    cervantes

    In the South, “Bless your heart” means “Fuck you.”

  7. 7
    opposablethumbs

    You lot in Minnesota sound positively British, from this description of nuanced disapproval and understated praise …. quite coincidentally, we Brits – or a good many of us – might venture the opinion that PZ is a pretty sound chap ;-)

  8. 8
    colnago80

    Re richardelguru @ #2

    That’s usually worded, “with all due respect”, which should be interpreted as, “you’re full of shit”.

  9. 9
    badgersdaughter

    Here in my work team, we have evolved this language. When we want very much to say, “This project frankly sucks and I’m appalled to have my name associated with it” we instead say, “Let’s think of a new approach”. “I think your idea is full of shit” is, “Mind if I say something about that?”. “I’m so overloaded and annoyed it’s a good thing I didn’t bring a shotgun to work” is, “I might be able to fit that in”. Even “holy fuck, did you roll in the cat litter this morning” for someone whose choice of fragrance is overwhelming in a small conference room comes out as, “why don’t we move this to the common area”.

  10. 10
    borax

    @6 Cervantes. Yep. Usually used right before or after insulting someone.

  11. 11
    otrame

    My Dad has some things that have been passed down in our family. One was insisting on tasting things in the kitchen, to “make sure it’s not poisoned”, and returning an empty plate to a cook saying “I managed to choke it down” which meant it was great.

    But the one I always remember was the way he would listen to a complaint from one of us kids and then, looking solemnly over the top of his glassas, say, “That sounds like a personal problem. Maybe you should go see the chaplain about that.” Mind you, he did that before he even WORE glasses.

    Damn. I miss my Daddy. He is still alive but dementia has stolen him from us. But I have memories anyway. It will have to do.

  12. 12
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    To my knowledge, Giliell, the bulk of the European settlers of Minnesota were Scandinavian or German. The Pfft indicates that about 37% of the population are German and 32% Scandinavian. Less than 1% is Swiss by ancestry.

    Growing up as I did in Illinois, the stereotypical Minnesotan was seven feet tall, blonde, and talked like they were an extra in Fargo. It was an article of faith (incorrectly, apparently) that “everyone in Minnesota is Swedish.”

    *shrug*

  13. 13
    ChasCPeterson

    “everyone in Minnesota is Swedish.”

    not true. Norwegians.

  14. 14
    Sastra

    Bill Macy’s Minnesota joke:

    Q: How do you get 6 drunk Minnesotans to get out of the swimming pool?

    A: You say “Excuse me — could you all please get out of the swimming pool?”

    “That’s different.” –> I am struggling to express my profound revulsion in a way that won’t immediately incite conflict.

    This one made me laugh. It vividly reminds me of the standard liberal theist Argument from Shut Up which is frequently directed at atheists.

    “Here is why I think the God hypothesis is wrong…”

    “Look, think about respecting diversity and every individual’s need to be who they are: there’s no right, no wrong, just different. You and I are different, that’s all.”

    Translation: I am struggling to express my profound revulsion for atheists in a way that won’t immediately incite conflict — or allow it in the future. So shut up.

  15. 15
    magistramarla

    Perhaps it was just an affectation in my husband’s family, but he and his brothers would often look at a crying or complaining child and ask “What’s your major malfunction?” That would usually stop the crying or complaining, as the child would either be giggling or confused by that question.
    My mother-in-law had the cutest way to avoid cursing in front of children. It was a hoot to see her if she spilled something, stubbed her toe, etc., as she exclaimed “dirty word, dirty word, dirty word”.

  16. 16
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    FWIW, my (Norwegian-from-Norway) ex-girlfriend told me once, rather indignantly, that she doesn’t know where Americans get their mental image of Scandinavians as tall slender blondes from. She says that most Scandinavians are (relatively) short, stocky, and dark-haired. The tall skinny blondes are either (1) northern German or (2) Saami.

    I am unable to comment on this, as I lack data.

  17. 17
    ChasCPeterson

    A: $90-100%
    B: $80-90%
    etc.

  18. 18
    chigau (違う)

    Bribery?

  19. 19
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    When I was in first grade (at Death Valley Elementary School), my report card came home with the note: “Billy is very, very verbal.”

    Which I think is a polite way of saying, “Can you please get your damn kid to shut up?”

  20. 20
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    My French teacher once wrote on my report card, “Elle aime montrer ses compétences linguistiques.”

    I think, perhaps, that this was supposed to be interpreted as, “she’s a motormouth in multiple languages.”

  21. 21
    rodriguez

    Esteleth @16 I always believed the tall Scandinavian thing too. Here’s a pdf. It’s got a chart of height for European males with Denmark and Sweden at the top and Portugal and Spain at the bottom. The Evolution of Adult Height in Europe

  22. 22
  23. 23
    chigau (違う)

    “Prefers to work alone.” = antisocial
    “Takes leadership role.” = bossy
    “Always willing to answer questions.” = opinionated

  24. 24
    Inaji

    Ogvorbis:

    When I was in first grade (at Death Valley Elementary School), my report card came home with the note: “Billy is very, very verbal.”

    Which I think is a polite way of saying, “Can you please get your damn kid to shut up?”

    When I was in Catholic school, the word of choice was ‘loquacious’. “Your child is gifted with loquaciousness.”

  25. 25
    ImaginesABeach

    We Minnesotans avoid expressions of strong emotion whenever possible. We have elevated avoidance to an art form.

  26. 26
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    Caine:

    I have a hard time picturing you as someone who talks a lot.

    Well, not really.

    Hi.

  27. 27
    Tetrarch

    My great-grandfather emigrated to Minnesota from the Bern area of Switzerland; the rest of the ancestors are German or English.

    I might recommend How to Talk Minnesotan by Howard Mohr. It’s “newly revised for the 21st century.”

  28. 28
    Inaji

    Ogvorbis:

    Caine:

    I have a hard time picturing you as someone who talks a lot.

    Well, not really.

    Hi.

    Hi.

    I don’t talk a lot, at least not when I’m around more than a couple of people. The more people, the more I watch and listen. In Catholic school, I made the mistake of talking back a time or two, when one of the nuns got something wrong. They didn’t, er, care much for that sort of thing. So ‘loquacious’ was code for ‘smart ass know it all, must be taught not to sass back’.

  29. 29
    The Mellow Monkey: Non-Hypothetical

    My nickname as a baby and young child was Poker Face (thankfully, this was long before Lady Gaga). My stoicism combined with a very precise manner of speaking is apparently read as angry in Wisconsin. This was a great deal of trouble when I worked in customer service and what I considered to be very pleasant and friendly apparently came off as snooty asshole.

    Maybe I was accidentally mimicking displeased Minnesotans.

  30. 30
    ekwhite

    Cervantes @6

    Native North Carolinian here

    “Bless your heart” can also mean “you are so stupid that rocks have a higher IQ.” As in “he means well, bless his heart.”

    Of course, when my grandmother got really frustrated with someone, she would call them “too dumb to bell a cat.”

  31. 31
    Rich Woods

    opposablethumbs #7 said:

    quite coincidentally, we Brits – or a good many of us – might venture the opinion that PZ is a pretty sound chap ;-)

    PZ, I apologise for my countryman’s embarrassing, sweeping, exuberant outburst. He really meant to say that you seem alright to him.

  32. 32
    Trebuchet

    Half my wife’s recent ancestors were Minnesota Germans. They went to St. John’s Lutheran church. The German one, not the Swedish St. Johns Lutheran a mile away.

  33. 33
    Artor

    When my kid was newborn, I went back to Minnesota to visit my mom’s extended family with my wife. Someone gave her a book, “How to Speak Minnesotan,” with all the pithy translations and Prairie-Home-Companion-isms. She thought it was a joke…until we got to Minnesota, and she realized everyone really does talk that way.
    Also funny; trying to explain a vegan diet to Irish Catholic Minnesotans. “You don’t eat meat or dairy? What else is there to eat?”

  34. 34
    Rich Woods

    He really meant to say that you seem alright to him.

    Not that I know why he’d ever want to tell you that.

  35. 35
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    So, I was pretty much “struggling to express my profound revulsion in a way that won’t immediately incite conflict” on first reading this and then it hit me: Minnesota fucks with everyone else the way everyone else fucks with people with ASDs.

    That’s actually kind of awesome.. :3

  36. 36
    chigau (違う)

    Minnesotans are almost Canadian?

  37. 37
    PZ Myers

    #35, Azkyroth:

    Minnesota! Land of equality!

  38. 38
    Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human.

    Caine:

    They didn’t, er, care much for that sort of thing. So ‘loquacious’ was code for ‘smart ass know it all, must be taught not to sass back’.

    Ah. In middle school, that translated as, “Billy is very willing to share his knowledge and experiences.” This from a social studies teacher who told us that Arizona was a state that was nothing but desert. When I explained that I lived there, learned to ski there, and that Northern Arizona, including the Coconino and Kaibab plateaus, the Mogollon Rim, and the Kachina Peaks she called me a liar. And when I brought in my yearbook and photos of me, in snow, at Grand Canyon, she sent me to the office for disrupting class.

    Eventually I learned to shut up and regurgitate.

  39. 39
    tbp1

    Going up on my office door immediately.

  40. 40
    Daz: Experiencing A Slight Gravitas Shortfall

    Rich Woods #31

    PZ, I apologise for my countryman’s embarrassing, sweeping, exuberant outburst. He really meant to say that you seem alright to him.

    Steady on! We don’t want this going to PZ’s head. A good egg at most, surely?

  41. 41
    efp

    My trip to Minnesota:

    “You wanna beg?”

    “A what?”

    “A beg.”

    “Pardon?”

    “A beg.”

    “I’m sorry, I …”

    “do you wanna beg?”

    “Oh, a baaaaaaaaaaaag.”

  42. 42
    ekwhite

    Daz @40

    I reckon PZ’s an alright kind of fellow.

  43. 43
    dianne

    A slightly raised eyebrow, for instance, has the same emotional impact as a Brooklynite screaming obscenities at you and making rude gestures.

    What, none at all? A Brooklynite screaming obscenities and making rude gestures is just having a normal conversation and can’t imagine why you’re getting upset about it.

  44. 44
    dianne

    I’ve been told that a rural Dutch person who thinks something is really good would praise it by saying, “I wasn’t expecting much, but that’s not bad.” If she’s extremely displeased she might say, “Hmph.” Sternly. Can’t confirm, having only been in Amsterdam and Leiden, i.e. the Manhattan parts of the Netherlands.

  45. 45
    spamamander, internet amphibian

    I didn’t know people said “uff da” in real life until attending a funeral for my then-husband’s grandfather in rural MN. His family was a bit of a scandal, really… of his grandparents, one was Swede and the other Norwegian, and that just did NOT happen, that intermarriage thing. I always wondered if I married into the one short, brown-haired Scandinavian family ever. All of the men look identical and tend to be in the 5’9″ range. Grandma, however, was more the formidable type, having several inches over her husband and a large bone structure. Lovely woman, except that she eventually cornered me into eating potato sausage.

  46. 46
    badgersdaughter

    My Ulster Irish husband, in expressing genial agreement, has managed to abbreviate “aye” into something best represented by a schwa, spoken quickly in a low tone: Me: “Honey, would you like mash with your dinner, or, I know, why don’t I make gratin potatoes?” Him: “ə”. The first through thirtieth time he said that, I looked over to see if he’d bumped his elbow on something. The twentieth through fiftieth time he said it, I actually thought he was saying “no”. Now I assume he means “sure, yeah” unless he makes it clear he doesn’t.

  47. 47
    truthspeaker

    This reminds me of a joke we Minnesotans have about people of German descent:

    “Did you hear about the German man who loved his wife so much he almost told her?”

  48. 48
    Rich Woods

    @Daz 40:

    Steady on! We don’t want this going to PZ’s head. A good egg at most, surely?

    “A good egg”! I’m afraid that’s verging on the unequivocal. How might that leave a decent person the chance to modestly and discreetly deny the compliment?

  49. 49
    Esteleth, [an error occurred while processing this directive]

    Spamander @45:

    I always wondered if I married into the one short, brown-haired Scandinavian family ever.

    In light of my @16, this amuses me more than it should.

  50. 50
    Brother Yam

    My Norwegian grandfather thought this was a real knee-slapper:

    “Dja hear da vun ‘boot da Nor-vee-jin vut vent inta town foor a pair ov loofers? He came back vit two Sveedes!”

    Warren, Minnesooota’s finest barber-comedian…

    Also: Ole and Lena jokes.

  51. 51
    Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :)

    “Well, the raccoons are gone but now there’s a family of Norwegians living under my porch!”

  52. 52
    Tethys

    6 helpful tips for interacting with Minnesotans

    # 1. Be Nice!

    It is true, I come from the land of nice. My elementary school had a large population of blonde haired/blue eyed children with Scandinavian surnames. Heck, you can visit Finland, Denmark, Stockholm, and Oslo and never leave the state.

    Azkyroth 35

    then it hit me: Minnesota fucks with everyone else the way everyone else fucks with people with ASDs.

    Snortle! Living in the land o’ lakes has its own special challenges for non NT people. I have almost mastered it after 45 years.

  53. 53
    twincats

    This thread reminds me of all the Lutheran jokes I’ve ever heard (which I think predictably translate to Minnesotans and Iowans in general).

    We Minnesotans avoid expressions of strong emotion whenever possible. We have elevated avoidance to an art form.

    How do you know if a Minnesotan is warming up to you?

    When xe talks to you, xe’s looking at your shoes instead of hir own.

    How to Speak Minnesotan I actually stole this book from my aunt & uncle’s house in Iowa (or as I’ve been assured it’s pronounced up north in MN – Yova)

  54. 54
    gijoel

    It’s funny, because in Australia c*nt can be used as a term of endearment.

  55. 55
    gijoel

    Whereas, sir or madam can be a subtle insult.

    (Sorry for the double post)

  56. 56
    hcdfanatic83

    @Giliell #3

    ””Rumor also has it that in Swiss German the biggest praise you’re ever going to get is “Not too bad””

    I can confirm that. (And btw: “Not too bad” would roughly translate to: “Nid schlächt”. Not that any of you would ever need that information…:-))

  57. 57
    qwerty

    I am sure in public my 97 year old mother would be polite but at home “Can you spare it?” means you haven’t given her a large enough portion and “I can’t eat all that!” means she thinks you’ve given her too much. And “Can I get a little meat around here?” means you should not have made her fish for dinner.

    I think her MN nice has worn off; but this is at home and it seems waitresses love her; so, she must retain it in public.

  58. 58
    mnb0

    ”Rumor also has it that in Swiss German the biggest praise you’re ever going to get is “Not too bad””
    The same in the Dutch province of Groningen, preferably preceded by a grumbled “mwah”.

  59. 59
    Lyn M: ADM MinTruthiness

    I now work with a lady from Minnesota. (Lady comes naturally in this context.) She started talking in a very broad accent and I thought she was mocking my Canadian accent which comes and goes since I have been away from the land of maple and slapshots for a long time. Then I realized she was kidding about her own accent, and totally cracked up. She even says ‘eh’, properly!

  60. 60
    keresthanatos

    Ya’ll seem like good people to me. I’d take any ofya fishin. But first I’d ask anyofyajeetyet or ywanna wait?

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