I’m not from here. Really.


Paul Kix explains the essence of the Midwest — he starts with the inevitable discussion of the movie Fargo, which is how most outsiders are exposed to our exotic inscrutable ways.

What Fargo nails, in other words, is Midwestern Nice, the idiosyncrasies of a steadfast populace that appear banal and maybe even bovine to the uninitiated, but in truth constitute the most sincere, malicious, enriching, and suffocating set of behaviors found in the English-speaking world.

Read the whole thing. I’ve been living here for 15 years now, and I’m only sufficiently familiar with the culture to be simultaneously entranced and horrified. It’s even: I sometimes seem to shock the natives with my blunt and awkward ways, too.

To be fair, though, at least I had a transition. My mother was born in Minnesota, and her family were all tried and true Scandinavian Minnesotans, so I moved here as a sort of mongrel Midwestern/Western hybrid. I also see a lot of my mother in that essay: she’d never say an unkind word about anybody, and tends to be quiet rather than snarky. Not that she’s unaware, though — she always knows exactly what’s going on.


  1. Grue Convention says

    I lived in the Twin Cities for 6 years. “Minnesota Nice” is an utter falsehood. Vaguely friendly to your face, followed by vicious backbiting. It was a miserable experience.

    If you’re not from there, you will never make a friend– people grew up there, never moved, and make no attempt whatsoever to get to know new people. I literally had someone say, to my face, “I have too many friends. I don’t need any more” while driving to a field site. The only friends we made were not from Minnesota, because they were as isolated as we were.

    Recently, we’ve moved to the northeast. The honesty is refreshing. I’d much rather have someone disagree with me to my face, as opposed to verbally attack me when I’m no longer present.

  2. cartomancer says

    These sorts of cultural differences are really interesting. One thing that has often struck me about Americans (well, Canadians mostly, but it seems US people do it too) is how they tend to use the phrase “passive aggressive” an awful lot, to describe what to them are peculiar and unusual behaviours but what to most British people are perfectly straightforward aspects of social politeness. We don’t tend to use the phrase at all – guarded and suggestive are the norm here.

    I suspect these Midwestern people are the same. Though where their rationale is to appear nice and placid and non-confrontational ours is to appear aloof and disinterested and dispassionate. There’s a substantial strand in my culture that disdains strong emotional involvement. “I want to go home now” expresses weakness, “should we call it a night?” or, preferably, “I suppose we could stay a little longer if you want to” is much less forthrightly expressive, and thus better.

  3. davedell says

    Gotta say you can’t beat the South for nice/not nice in the same sentence:

    “That child is uglier than a bucket full of assholes. Bless his heart.”

  4. Paul K says

    I’m going to have to agree with jehk at comment 1. I grew up in St. Paul, spent much of my adult life in Minneapolis, and have lived in several other places as well. Now I’m in a small town (pop. 1500) in western Wisconsin. People are people, and there are certainly cultural norms everywhere, but individual differences are much broader than regional similarities.

    I’ll never really be accepted as someone ‘from’ the town where I now live, but I don’t see that as unfriendly, just as something true. I am on the school board, but I didn’t go to kindergarten with the other members, or to the homecoming game in 1975. I don’t share a history.

    As far as being nice to your face and backbiting later, that happens everywhere. If you think it doesn’t, I think you’re wrong. I do it myself, occasionally, (and I bet most people do) and I don’t see it as something false or wrong, but as getting along in society.

  5. says

    ” I also see a lot of my mother in that essay: she’d never say an unkind word about anybody, and tends to be quiet rather than snarky. ”

    I presume you take after your father?

    It’s exciting to hear that you live near Fargo. Do you have a woodchipper?

  6. LicoriceAllsort says

    This style of “MN nice” was pretty much what I grew up with in a fundy Protestant church out west and very much how my British-derived family still interacts. It still gives me a lot of anxiety.

  7. EigenSprocketUK says

    Isn’t this just an example of a coping behaviour for a cloistered situation? Not a good behaviour, but an understAndable one.
    A bit like the way one feels the need to be nice to family members even if they create seething fury on the inside: you’re stuck with family and might rely on their support in the future so you make extra effort to get along punctuated by occasional snark and back-biting. My (total guess) is that this is common to isolated communities.

  8. gmacs says

    Jesus fuck I hate generalizations about huge groups of people.

    Well, you’re right in that no place has completely homogeneous personalities. And even in Minnesota, there are regions where I’ve found people to be less likely to hide their venom. However, when the article talked about the different tones in how a person says “Oh.” or loaded silences, I immediately thought of conversations with my mother-in-law, or really any woman in my wife’s family. (Yeah, there’s a serious gender imbalance there as to who expresses their opinions.) Also, the passive-aggressive way my aunt treats my mom (the baby of the family). There is definitely a passive aggressive communication system I grew up with that I don’t see in many people from outside the region.

    Not that we all use it. My dad and his mom are both really blunt. I never personally mastered the art of subtlety, and I fucking hate trying to use it. I prefer people openly communicate with each other instead of trying to parse out meaning from everything.

    What I really hated was the end of the article, where it said we were on a “heightened plane of consciousness”. That’s some pretentious shit there. And I’ve seen people who can “read a room” misread the hell out of people.

  9. LicoriceAllsort says

    Also, this line at the end:

    To be from here is, quite simply, to read a room better than fucking anyone.

    This just doesn’t jibe with me. People who are within a familiar culture will always pick up on cues that will float right over an outsider’s head. A Midwesterner is still going to be lost as shit in a black church (if unaccustomed to them; warning for same brand of tongue-in-cheek-but-stereotypical shit) or in NYC for the first time. Even worse, folks who assume they’re oh-so intuitive (and somehow better?) set themselves up for more embarrassment.

  10. Sastra says

    Well, I guess I did think it was a little bit strange when Mr. Kix wrote that Midwesterners “read a room better than fucking anyone” right smack dab after showing a clip from Fargo, the one where Margie is just bowled over to find out that the ‘widower’ she’d been dining with had never been married. Plus the woman he said was his ‘wife’ was alive and well and didn’t die of no cancer or anything. So it seems that even that very good Midwestern police officer was a bit lacking in the whole “heightened plane of consciousness” thing, ya know? I mean, he was a nice man and all but she didn’t pick up on his being a liar. Because he should know better — and it wouldn’t hurt if she knew better, too, and pardon me but I have to say it even though that part didn’t show her in as good a light as the rest of the movie. Which was all based on a true story, it said so right in the credits.

    Some people don’t like nice. That’s okay. Doesn’t bother us at all. Nice works fine. You go and do what you have to and enjoy the beautiful day. It’s a bit chilly here in Wisconsin but hey, it’s October so there you go.

    There’s no God. Okay, bye-bye then. Like I said, have a good one.

  11. Callinectes says

    I find all social interactions utterly bewildering. I cope by alternating between honest and cryptic/insane, and I’m no longer skilled at distinguishing the two when I decide on one.

  12. neverjaunty says

    A Midwesterner is still going to be lost as shit in a black church (if unaccustomed to them; warning for same brand of tongue-in-cheek-but-stereotypical shit)

    No shit, since you seem to be confusing “Midwesterner” with “white”. Also, can we please drop the fucking rhetorical game where magical phrases like “satire” or “tongue in cheek” or “devil’s advocate” are preemptively deployed to ward off criticism?

  13. randay says

    I grew up in Wisconsin near the border with Minnesota. I found “Fargo” to be so accurate in its characterizations. I have also always loved Garrison Keillor’s books and “Prairie Home Companion” which are so reflective of people I knew.

    Famous Minnesotans: Coen brothers, Bob Dylan, Gus Hall(head of the American Communist Party). So some generalizations may be true, many are not. “I come from a country they call the Mid-West” — Dylan.

  14. Dark Jaguar says

    The running theme I seem to be getting in this thread is that in a lot of places, everyone is always mad at each other, and the only difference is how everyone deals with that. I must confess that hasn’t been my experience (with the exception of the internet). Is that really normal though? I get along great with my family and really enjoy their company, and I tend to get along well with others in my area too (though I’m pretty insular, so I don’t really socialize much outside a close group of friends and family).