If I told you what I think of you, would you still dig me out of a snow bank?

Jose Leonardo Santos
Jose Leonardo Santos is an assistant professor at Metropolitan State University.
Photo courtesy Jose Leonardo Santos

By Jose Leonardo Santos

Jose Leonardo Santos, a native of Texas, is an anthropologist and assistant professor of social science at Metropolitan State University.

"Minnesotans tell you everything except where they live," a Californian said to me. Being a transplant from Texas, I'd remarked that Minnesotans seemed friendly — but that I'd had trouble making close friends.

As a cultural anthropologist, I'm adaptable. I research masculinity. That means I can walk into bars, avoid getting a black eye, and change strangers into buddies. I've routinely turned trips to bars into invitations to barbeques, or to watch movies on a brand-new flat screen. But this hasn't happened here.

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I get plenty of smiles, pleasantries, and weather commentary, but no invitations. Well, I get the "we should do something sometime" kind of invitation that withers when I ask for day and time. And nobody drops by my well-located apartment in Lowertown to go bar- and art-hopping. What gives? People are nice. Yet intimacy — and even more so, honesty — seem hard to come by.

Here are some informal theories I've come up with over the year I've been here:

Minnesotans stay in Minnesota, or they return to Minnesota. Most still hang out with the folks they went to prom with. Their circle is complete, comfortable and safe. There's no need for other friends. New ones take extra effort.

Minnesota is diverse, but not mixed. It's an anthropologist's dream. Somalis, Swedes, Hmong, Germans and Native Americans all live here, embodying the global society. Kind of. These groups exist beside but not among each other. Why mix when you've already got a group? In a nightclub once, I approached a young woman of color and asked, "Are we the only nonwhite people in a mile radius, or is that just me?" She smiled and said, "Welcome to Minnesota."

"Minnesota nice" evolved similarly to "in-law avoidance" among Australian aborigines. It seems weird that any similarity would exist, as the Outback is deadly hot and Minnesota gets satanic cold.

Aborigines hold parents-in-law in high regard. It is a relationship of absolute reliance. You can go to them under any circumstances and they are culture-bound to help. When you show up hungry, they must share a chunk of kangaroo.

I'd expect that relationship to be intimate, but in fact it is notoriously detached. They avoid in-laws, and don't talk to them. Why? Because you would never want to accidentally insult them. Say the wrong thing, and you starve.

Minnesota culture evolved with a need for help digging out of the snow. You want everybody's help. That means smiling and making nice. Brutal honesty would threaten that. Someone might leave you freezing because you once told him he was a jerk. Pleasantries and honesty-avoidance make allies. You want people close enough to help, but not so close they actually know what you think of them.

Those of us who never learned to pretend to like things we don't have more to fear in Minnesota than mere cold.

So what should I do? Do I make friends solely with other transplants, or content myself with superficial interactions, or continue to feel like a stranger after 20 years?

I'll take the anthropological approach and continue to theorize. My goal should be to understand, never condemn. That would be rude.