Why is the 'Seattle Freeze' so hard to melt?

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By Jennifer Wing

Is Seattle a great but lonely place to live?

The city often ranks pretty high on those lists of the best places to move to – There’s the food, the water, the mountains, the music. But once people get here, they find it’s pretty tough to make friends. There’s even a name for it: The Seattle Freeze.

We wondered: When did the freeze set in? And, how can a newcomer ever break through it?

 

The freeze defined

The Seattle Freeze can play out in many different ways.

You say hello to someone walking past on the sidewalk, and they look straight ahead as if you’re invisible. Or, you’re at the grocery store in the checkout line, and the person waiting behind you keeps a distance of at least 10 feet and never makes eye contact.

The Urban Dictionary defines The Urban Dictionary defines ‘Seattle Freeze’ this way:

“A phrase that describes a local public consensus that states the city of Seattle and/ or its outlying suburbs are generally not friendly, asexual, introverted, socially aloof, clickish or strictly divided through its social classes, thus making the city/ area difficult to make social connections on all levels.”

 

Would you lean out and say hello?

At a speed dating event in downtown Seattle, Laura and Kelly said they were having a hard time cracking the ‘reserve’ of the city.

“I think Seattle people are polite, but they don’t make an effort to get to know you. You won’t get invited over for dinner,” Kelly said.

Sandra Wolf, who hosts these speed dating events as a side job, knows there is something off about this place when she compares it to where she went to college in Louisiana.

“In the South, people want to talk to you in the grocery store,” she said. “People will lean out their car windows to talk to you. In Seattle that will never happen. ‘I’ve got my space you’ve got yours.’ I’m not sure why that is, but I definitely notice a difference.”

 

Is it the weather or heritage?

Courtesy of MOHAIWell, the weather might have something to do with it. Rain and gray skies make people want to hunker down.

Then, there is the Scandinavian factor.

At one time, around the year 1910, most of Seattle’s immigrants were from places like Finland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Not only did they bring yummy pancakes, they also helped shape the city’s reserved personality.

Stina Cowan works at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard and says where she comes from, friendships don’t happen overnight.

“It takes longer to open up and friendship has to grow slowly. That can be interpreted as invasion of privacy almost. Too much too soon,” she said.

Cowan suspects this is because in Nordic countries, people live in the same place for a long time and often go to school with the same group from Kindergarten through high school. And when you do see a very outgoing person, they are to be avoided.

“It’s usually alcohol involved.”

Here's Mr. Rodgers singing his famous song, as a hint for those needing encouragement
and direction for thawing the freeze:

 

Is it technology?

Aside from the weather and the Scandinavian aloofness, there is the tech factor.

People who are attracted to jobs at places like Microsoft, Amazon and Google already have a reputation for keeping to themselves, which makes the freeze that much colder.

Corey, 37, works in the tech industry and said he and his few friends are too focused on work to make enough time for socializing.

Kevin_H. / Flickr“A lot of tech people who are focused in accumulating possessions, cars and things – I’m in IT and I know – they are good looking guys. They just don’t dress so well. I don’t get out that much. I work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.”

A 2008 Wall Street Journal article clearly shows that while people here are “open” to new ideas, we’re just near the bottom of the states for being extroverted. Sociologist Jodi O’Brien at Seattle University added that this group relies heavily on digital devices to communicate which means they are losing the ability to simply hang out and talk.

“If you email something I don’t like, I can scream at the computer, but I don’t have to interact with you.  The more we can do that, the less inclined we are to engage in the messy social world.”

Meanwhile, back at the speed dating event Nick, who grew up here and admits to propagating the Seattle Freeze, was working on loosening up a bit. He said he is trying to be more outgoing.

“I have the perfect pick up line. ‘Hi, how are you? Hi, how are you doing?’”

While Nick was working to thaw out a bit, Kelly, who has been in Seattle for five years, was a little worried she’s becoming like one of the locals.

“I’m changing a bit. I’m becoming exclusive,” she said. “I don’t want people to look at me or talk to me. I’m part of the problem now!”

 

So is it inevitable?

Try this: Next time you go to a coffee shop, leave your computer at home. Put your phone away. Test out one of Nick's pick up lines. Who knows? The Seattle freeze may just start to melt away. 

 

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