I spent last year in Manhattan trying to shake my “Seattle frío” or “Seattle freeze.” It wasn’t serving me there.
If you’re not familiar with the “Seattle freeze,” the term refers to the tendency Seattlites have to leave other people alone. Newcomers to Seattle hate it, and I don’t really care. Here’s the urban dictionary definition, a YouTube video, and a magazine article. What amazes me is how unobservant all the newcomers are about it; they can’t see it for what it is.
Seattle is a new town. Very few people I know can say they are 3rd generation or 4th generation Pacific Northwesterner, much less 3rd or 4th generation Seattlite. If you ask someone, especially a white person, what they’re doing in Seattle, you’ll usually hear a story about starting over, packing up and going somewhere obscure to disappear and make a new life. People could have just as easily moved to Chicago to start over, or to Atlanta; maybe they did. But Seattle throughout its history has been a city full of newcomers. Remember that dopey Newsweek cover?
When I was living in Ann Arbor for graduate school, I counted ten people that up and moved to Seattle, without knowing a soul here. I was only there for two years. People moved away from Ann Arbor all the time, of course, but it struck me how many people picked Seattle, without a job, without a plan, they just packed up and headed to the northwest.
So what’s up with the “Seattle freeze?” Its our regional cultural tendency to leave people alone. To respect their boundaries. To not impose. To not bother, to not butt-in. As someone who exhibits this tendency, I find myself in situations where a New Yorker, say, or a even a Californian would jump into the fray… me, I hear myself thinking, I’ll help them if they ask for help, but I wouldn’t want to be presumptuous. Isn’t that exactly what you’d expect from a place that’s made up of people who wanted to start over?
So when newcomers show up and complain bitterly that no one is leaping to gratify their social needs the way they did back home, I just think, wow, how ungrateful. All this time we are treating them with respect.
What’s the big secret of breaking through the Seattle freeze, and having an active social life? Write this down. If you want to talk to someone, you ask politely. Yes. Yes, that’s all. The key to getting to know Seattlites is asking politely. Not whining about how Seattlites are impossible to get to know, not looking helpless and expecting someone to volunteer, you have to actually ask politely. With words.
So here I was in Manhattan with this whole “ask politely” ethic, and it was getting me nowhere. For those of you who don’t know, New Yorkers don’t ask for directions with a bunch of blahblah. What they do is say “Where is the C-train” to no one in particular, and someone will step up and give you precise directions. If you forget to be direct, and start your question with, “Excuse me, Sir? Hello, Sir? Sorry, I was wondering if you could just tell me…” No no no. To a New Yorker, that’s both a waste of their time, plus you sound like someone whose asking for money. Just yell your question.
It took me a while to shake my “ask politely” habit. I felt it marked me as a Seattlite. I knew I had to change when a family of French tourists went the wrong way on the subway, because I was too Seattle to bother them (read that story here, 2nd act). The Seattle freeze is not right for New York.
Anyway, I’m back in Seattle now thank goodness, so I can go back to freezing out the jackasses (see “Seattle polite,” 4th section).
So that’s a lot of set up. What I really wanted to talk about was how newcomers to Seattle are horribly, horribly bad at identifying a local. It’s so bad.
Back in grad school, my friend Judy’s daughter up and moved to Seattle, and Judy and her husband flew out to help her get set up. They were on Broadway and were a little turned around, so Judy said, in her Michigan accent, “We looked for the most Seattle-looking person we could find… and we found this guy, who was like, you know, earrings, tattoos, dreadlocks, he looked totally Seattle!” by this point I already know where the story is going. “S0 he said to me, sorry, I don’t know my way around, I just moved here from Ohio!”
Saw that coming from a mile away. Look, Judy, I told her, if you’re ever lost in Seattle, ask a brown person; there’s a much higher chance that they’re local.
“Oh!” Judy said happily, “well that’s good, because there were Asian people just all over the place.”
That’s right, I said.
Guh! Don’t ask your stereotype for directions; that dude MOVED HERE so he could be that stereotype! We Seattlites cannot be responsible for the stereotypes you brought with you.
Just the other night, I was at the Bottleneck. Some very fancy, expensive haircut dude (yes, it’s a euphemism, but it also describes this guy quite precisely) with an ironed shirt, a tailored vest, and sparkly cuff links sat at the middle of the bar and opened a very thin paperback. K who was sitting next to me complimented his sparkly cuff links. He ignored her.
So whatever, we left him alone. But then K, who is from socal, tried to engage him again a little later on. “What book are you reading?” she asked, cheerfully. He ignored her.
I was like, “I’ll check,” and I leaned over to read the cover. I couldn’t read it because it was too damn dark. So I said, “haha sorry, I’m just trying to read the title of your book.”
“Please.” He said, full of contempt.
“I’m sorry?” I asked, because I didn’t hear him correctly.
“Please.” He said, full of contempt but somehow satisfied.
I laughed and reported back what happened. We froze that guy out the rest of the night, and then when he left in his cab, we all laughed.
“That,” declared a newcomer, “was pure Seattle.”
Wroooooooonnng. It’s really appalling how bad the newcomers are at identifying EACH OTHER. Yes, that guy was a mind-you-own-business tool, but it wasn’t respectful. How can you think that guy grew up here, in Seattle, and then became this fancy over-coiffed, look-at-me-don’t-look-at-me, reading-at-a-dark-bar, cab-taking jackass? Seriously, what backstory do you ascribe to this guy, that he was born at Swedish and went to Garfield High School and then was rude to a sunny white girl and a big filipino guy?
No, what a joke. That guy MOVED HERE to be that way. It is mind-boggling that they could be so wrong about that.
Yes, we Seattlites sometimes go out in public to be alone. Absolutely. I’ll bring a book or a laptop to a cafe and enjoy my own company. And I’ll wear socks with sandals to do it. Who cares?
(In fact all those people who act like they’re gonna die because they see people working in a cafe can go bite off their own necks. Or they can call their mamas, and ask their mamas over the phone to go to the fabric store and sew them a pillow, so they can lie down on that pillow and weep to themselves about having to share a cafe with people who are not bothering them and not hurting anybody).
Yes, we do that.
But the first rule about the West is that we will not be rude first. We are not rude unless you give us a reason to be rude, and even still, we don’t want to be rude. We do not lead with rude. Not even the rude people.