On Being Midwestern: Nice

Midwest TattooWhile I’m traveling around Canada and New England, I’ve put together some thoughts on HOME.

Here’s today’s installment, ON BEING MIDWESTERN, Part 1.


In my scan for ideas, I stumbled across this Columbus, Ohio message board, where a fair number of Midwesterners in that area of the country give their thoughts on what happens when you cross “Midwestern” with “Nice.”

There’s a fairly deep rhetorical and ideological conversation here. Ask any American and they are sure to tell you that Midwesterners are “known for their niceness”, sure, but what does that mean?

The first time I left Iowa — really left — was when I was 19. I went to Long Island with the intent of being a nanny for a year and to earn money to go back to college. I worked for a family whose religion was different than mine.  I lived in their house and took care of their two children and they treated me exactly like a step stool.

Curiously, there was very little different about them as from my own family. The mom and dad both worked, neither in jobs that were particularly prestigious. They had a house that was about the same size as the one I grew up in, and two cars, both used Hondas. They were never unkind to me. But neither were they ever nice, either. At family parties, they did not introduce me to their friends as the nanny. They rarely spoke my name. I seemed to be little more to them than the washing machine.

I left that family after two months. They weren’t cruel. They were just cold.

Being back on the East Coast has brought back to me that chilly feeling. To me, it seems as though the prevalent attitude here is that it is easier to stay closed off and protect your time investment on the people who “matter” — to pre-judge neighbors on the way their yard looks, the car they drive, the political signs in their yard.

Then “niceness” — such as it is– is reserved for closed circles, where you have already gained access. If you ever enter in.

Perhaps this is the reason why East Coasters find “Midwest Nice” so disconcerting. The opposite is true at home. “Welcome” and “friendly” are the default. Default:  just be myself, tell you what I think, and no fear of repercussions. Except those repercussions brought on by being genuine, honest, and forthright.

Maybe in the Midwest, people aren’t too interested in the rest of the world and what it thinks. They are satisfied with “nice” as the best result for a successful party, good Scrabble game, or a night on the town. And they don’t mind sharing it.

What do you think?

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