North Dakota Nice

Published on March 9, 2016 by   ·   1 Comment

The first thing I noticed was the singing.  Everyone sings here.  I know it’s easy to dismiss that statement as a generalization with no meaning; I understand that, but it still feels true.  This is a very musical culture.

Nice 01I’m just over the halfway point in my trip to Cebu, Philippines to do some corporate training (my “big girl job” when I’m not stomping stages and sleeping with other people’s husbands) and even though I’m halfway ’round the world, far from everything familiar, this experience has me thinking about where I come from and how we treat each other there.

I don’t remember the first time I heard someone mention the phrase “North Dakota Nice,” but it just made sense to me.  I have often heard visitors from “the big city” – which was really any big city that someone might be visiting from – remark about how nice people are here.  They were used to the concrete gruffness of the city, people moving purposefully and not afraid to shove, or at best a sort of icy indifference (when people talk about the “Seattle Freeze” – that’s a real thing); I’m sure coming to a place where people actually smile at strangers, nod a quick greeting at people they don’t even know, or strike up random conversations was quite the experience.

But growing up queer in North Dakota also teaches you the limits of nice.  Nice often means adhering to this sense of propriety, a desire for stiff politeness over genuine discourse.  If you are the child who likes to say uncomfortable things, needs to say uncomfortable things, then those polite smiles can tighten as they quietly ask you to keep it to yourself.  If your identity is one of those uncomfortable things, they act like it isn’t there, the smell at the cocktail party no one acknowledges as they choke down their hors d’oeuvres and make small talk about who’s kids are going to college and who’s kid got knocked up after high school (with plenty of tongue-clicking) and the old standby of the weather (gawd-dayum, why do we talk so fucking much about the weather?!).

Nice 03I remember when I was pretty young, maybe 4 or 5, and my mom took me down to the Hall on Main Street for a bingo night.  I played a little bit, but the stiff cardboard cards with their sliding red windows to cover the numbers (this was long before the days of disposable cards, and even if they had been available our small town would have found them far too impractical for the times) and the homemade buns spread with Cheez Whiz could only hold my attention for so long.  My bored young mind was looking for excitement, and quickly zeroed in on where the real “action” was: on the stage where the bingo caller had his lit up box filled with jumping balls.  I realized that if I climbed up on stage, I could “help out” by grabbing the ball first and handing it to the caller.  I also liked that I would be the first to know, before anybody else, what was coming up next.  Even at that young age, I often felt like I didn’t fit in, like I was somehow missing out on vital information that other people had that would help me to just get along.  I liked the idea of being in the know.

Nice 06I thought I had it made, standing up on the stage, handing the balls to the bingo caller; a few people in the crowd laughed, but I don’t remember much else about their reactions.  What I do remember was my mom being angry when we got home.  Apparently, I had violated some sort of agreement I never knew I had made.  What I had done had “made a scene,” a phrase I absorbed early on to describe those people and situations that popped that fragile bubble of politeness, of North Dakota Nice.

Never one to shy away from a stereotype, I love musicals and I remember the first time I discovered Sondheim’s Into The Woods: one of the high schools in Minot was putting on a production and a couple of people that I knew from speech tournaments were in it, so on a whim I decided to go.  It really affected me; it was the first time I heard someone say out loud some of the things I’d been quietly thinking: that maybe some of the stories we tell each other and our children and ourselves are the root of the problems we find ourselves in.  Maybe it wasn’t enough to just be nice.

Nice 08One of my favorite moments from that show comes in the second Act when the Witch wants to turn Jack over to the Giantess to end her destructive fury; the Baker, Little Red, and Cinderella recoil in horror and refuse.  That’s when Bernadette Peters (always Bernadette Peters – no matter how many other productions I see or how many talented actresses may play the role, it’s always her voice that plays through my head) sneers at them and sings, “No.  You’re so nice.” – the condescension just drips off that word like thick syrup – “You’re not good, you’re not bad, you’re just nice.”

Nice 07That’s something else I learned growing up queer in North Dakota: nice is different than good (something else echoed in Into the Woods, by Little Red in her song “I Know Things Now”).  Behind all of the things we say are all of the things kept silent, the sideways glances, the judgemental looks with a half-smile.  We know politeness in North Dakota, but we also know repression and, often, exclusion.

Among the people I’ve met in the Philippines, there is an openness that is simultaneously refreshing, puzzling, and a bit abrupt.  At 6 feet 2 inches tall and with my voluptuous frame, I expected to be an anomaly, but I didn’t expect the direct questions.  Random people will just turn to me and ask me how tall I am, how much I weigh, how old I am.  The man taking our money for the bus ride to Oslob to swim with whale sharks wanted to know my age.  The man rowing the boat out to the shark feeding area was curious about both age and weight.  When I told him I was 35 (I don’t know why I subtracted 3 years, but I was caught off guard and that was the first thing that popped in my mind), he laughed and said, ‘Ahh, me too!” and then showed me how to adjust the strap on my goggles.  One of the people at the call center asked me how tall I was; when I told her I was 6’2″, she said that her brother was the same height I was and that people often stared at him.  And then she added, “But he’s very, very thin.”

In North Dakota, those kinds of questions and statements go against the grain of our politeness.  Better to maintain some sense of social order than to ask things that might make someone uncomfortable.  But uncomfortable why?  It’s not like I wake up in the morning unaware of my height or my weight, my age.  The directness here is just about talking in a language of facts of which everyone is already aware, without pretense.  And unlike so many of the dark undercurrents that swirl beneath North Dakota Nice, there is no judgement, no arched eyebrow, no putting-you-in-your-place-with-a-smile-on-my-face.  When the woman on the elevator remarked that her brother was very, very thin, she was simply setting up the details of the situation: her brother and I were both very tall, both received a great deal of attention, but had different body types.  Even if they do tie the observation to some sort of action (“You should lose weight!”), they just state their thoughts, and move on.  There is no implication that what they have said about how they view or interpret your body in any way affects how they value you as a person.

Nice 09In the world of North Dakota Nice, the older generation would be raising a silent eyebrow, the Gen Xers would just stand there gobsmacked, and the millenials would start yowling about microaggressions.  But there was an honesty in that moment that wasn’t about causing harm or about excluding anyone; in fact, this sort of open discussion actually serves to bring people into a richer connection than the austere detachment of North Dakota Nice.  It can be awkward to have someone make those sorts of comparisons, and I was certainly taken aback for a moment, but there was no malice in it.  Just directness.

Nice 05This directness and the musicality of the culture are, I think, related.  To sing out loud where others can hear you is to invite judgment.  You have to accept a certain amount of vulnerability.  To burst into song is to challenge that social order where we are all just going on about our business, making small talk and obeying the rules.  If we sing, we are drawing attention to ourselves, standing out, because of how we violate the social contract.

But here, singing happens all the time; it’s a different kind of social contract.  It’s a way to let others in, to be welcoming.  You don’t have to love every song that’s being sung, and people here laugh and joke and point out each other’s flaws.  And they accept them anyway.  Instead of just being nice, they are being friendly, forging real connections even in the smallest of interactions.

As I was walking through the SM Store after yet another shopping trip (it’s an obsession; don’t judge me!), Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” was playing on the overhead radio.  Maybe it was my awareness of my self and my body that has come from almost 2 weeks around people who directly confront and describe and question bodies; maybe it was just because I think it’s a fun, kicky little number about body positivity that that has some clever lyrics.  Whatever it was, before I thought much about it, I found myself singing along to the second verse as I was walking through the men’s accessories.

I froze and almost stopped when I made eye contact with a middle-aged woman browsing a rack of neckties.  All of my polite, repressed, definitely-NOT-singing-in-public upbringing started to bubble up as I wondered what she thought about my little impromptu concert in the middle of a busy store.  Turns out, she thought I needed backup: she harmonized along with me, gave her shoulders a little shimmy, and threw me a saucy wink before turning her attention to a bin of 20% off belts.  Neither of us cared whether or not we might be making a scene.

The moment was brief, but it was full of connection and intimacy; it had a realness to it that I find missing from so much of my life.  Certainly there are times when “less is more” in terms of directness and there is something to be said for maintaining a certain sense of decorum in uncomfortable situations, but when avoiding discomfort becomes a way of life and even an expectation for all social interactions, we need to recognize that we are losing the potential for different kinds of experiences, different kinds of intimacies.  And even if it has been puzzling and sometimes uncomfortable to be in a place with so much open and frank talk about personal things, it has also been filled with more personal freedom, deeper connections with the people I meet, and a lot more music.

And that, to me, feels really, really nice.

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Readers Comments (1)
  1. Nikki Q says:

    Love this.

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