Too ‘Minnesota Nice’ to Brag

This is my Sunday column for the April 14, 2013 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune. A version of this piece aired on yesterday’s episode of “Between You and Me” on Northern Community Radio.

Too Minnesota Nice to Brag
By Aaron J. Brown

You never know what you’ll see when a “list post” circulates on the internet. It could be “Top 17 Swimsuits Too Small For These Starlets” or “The 31 Best Movies Based on Real Ax Murders.” So it was a surprise to see Andrew Gauthier’s “38 Things Minnesotans Are Too Nice to Brag About” on Buzzfeed recently.

Tops on the list: Bob Dylan. Also, hockey hair, Scotch tape, Post-It notes, tater tot hotdish and the Mighty Mississippi River, which originates just a few miles from where I sit.

It’s true, Minnesota culture tends to eschew braggadocio for “brag-a-what-now?” The writer Kevin Kling famously observed that Minnesotans would be happy to wave “We’re #2” foam fingers at sporting events. We are home to the phenomenon called “Minnesota Nice,” a working theory that Minnesotans are a conflict-averse people who seek to please our neighbors and guests.

Minnesota Nice has been challenged in recent years. Several sensitive writers from urbane places have suggested that we Minnesotans aren’t really “nice,” so much as we’re reserved and borderline passive-aggressive. It’s hard to make friends here, they say. People don’t open up.

My native Iron Range is a blue-collared mystery region tucked in the woods of the state’s northern environs. We represent a rarified variety of Minnesota Nice. We’re less passive-aggressive, more regular-aggressive. We don’t fear change, we accept it for the assault on our culture it truly represents. We aren’t cool toward new people, we’re cold. Because if you can’t survive the cold you really don’t belong here anyway. This is for your own good, because we’ve seen people die in the cold. People we know.

It seemed the Iron Range was left off Gauthier’s list for the most part, even if it did include hockey and Bob Dylan — two of our most lucrative exports. So here are four things that Iron Rangers are Too Busy to Brag About.

  1. We mined the iron ore that built your metal things, built the metal things that won World War II and built the nation into a superpower after the war. So, you’re welcome.
  2. Kevin McHale is from Hibbing, too. Maybe not the best GM in basketball history, but he’s an NBA Hall of Famer and he was good on “Cheers.” Did you see him on “Cheers?” He was good.
  3. Wood. The white pine forests of northern Minnesota rebuilt much of Chicago after it burned down in 1871. We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning.
  4. In the 1940s the Iron Range produced more WWII volunteers per capita than anywhere in the country; in the 1970s we produced more educated professionals per capita than anywhere in the country. We’re a hungry, immigrant people who don’t hug, but is that really as upsetting as you think?

I guess we Minnesotans don’t brag about our greatness, or hug strangers or make idle small talk with people. It just comes down to a simple rule. We don’t have time for all that.

Minnesotans talk fast because there no sense staying out in this winter weather or in the summer bugs longer than necessary. We talk about weather because it’s the only topic that unites everyone. If we know someone we’ll gladly talk about our nuanced positions on politics, Martin Luther or fish batter. But we’re not going to blow all that on someone we just met. Let’s get to know one another before we eventually disappoint each other.

The same is true of bragging. In the time it takes to drop important accomplishments into a conversation, we could instead awkwardly rearrange all the sugar packets on the restaurant table or shred our straw wrapper into a thousand pieces, and believe me that is what we’d rather do. Because as stoic as we may seem, most Minnesotans would rather be doing something than talking about it.

And for the few of us, like myself, who work in the profession of talking about things, we’d rather be talking about other things than talking about why we don’t like talk about things. What a waste of time. I could have talked about something else by now.

Come on, you want a hug? Well, no hug for you. Hugs are for when you’re crying. Maybe. We’ll see.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and community college instructor from the Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts 91.7 KAXE’s Great Northern Radio Show on public stations.

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