Tracing the origin of "Minnesota Nice"

Syl Jones
Syl Jones
Courtesy photo

Minnesotans know it's not nice to call someone "Minnesota nice." It's a synonym for phoniness and passive aggression. And Minnesota playwright Syl Jones says he's uncovered the roots of Minnesota nice. He traces it all back to the Scandinavian immigrants who settled here more than a century ago. Jones argues in this essay that his discovery goes a long way toward explaining all kinds of strange Minnesota phenomena.

Syl Jones: In the 1930s, a Danish-Norwegian novelist, Aksel Sandemose, described the unwritten laws that governed his fictional town of Jante. He listed 11 so-called Janteloven, or Jante laws, but three are enough to give you an idea:

Don't think that you are special.

Don't think that you are good at anything.

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Don't think that you can teach us anything.

Sound familiar? It should. Jante Law explains a lot of what goes on in Minnesota. Former Gov. Wendell Anderson met his downfall because people thought he'd forgotten to act like he wasn't anything special. Former Gov. Jesse Ventura enjoyed initial success because he appealed to people who thought the political establishment had nothing to teach them. Unfortunately, he also forgot to act like he wasn't anything special. These principles, which may have been intended to maintain a measure of egalitarianism back in the old country, find their cultural expression in what we call Minnesota Nice. People who have grown up with it know that Minnesota Nice doesn't have all that much to do with being nice. It's more about keeping up appearances, about keeping the social order, about keeping people in their place.

But in a meritocracy like the United States, such principles can make us feel just a little "less than" everyone else, and also like we're groping in the dark when it comes to communicating. The message is, "Don't Go Thinking You're Exceptional" even if you are. It's probably NOT a good idea to stare at yourself in the mirror all day long, but still, it wouldn't hurt if people were a little more direct.

Of course, many Minnesota residents today don't come from a Scandinavian background. Yet, there's something contagious about Janteloven. It's tempting for people of all backgrounds to pretend to be nice when they aren't. In fact, part of that famous Minnesota charm - the part that can actually lull you to sleep, if you're not careful -- is the idea that things are, well, just fine around here, thank you very much. Even if the roads are crumbling, health care is declining, and the school systems are running out of money. Better just to pretend that everything's A-OK.

But don't worry. I'm not trying to change anything or anyone. In fact, I agree with you: We're all pretty much the same. Have a nice day.