Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Seattle Freeze

This is a touchy subject for a lot of folks and I can understand why. After living in Seattle for three years though, I feel I'm qualified to write about it. Before I get into my perspective on the Seattle Freeze, the perceived phenomena of a polite but chilly social atmosphere in the Emerald City, let me explain my own personal background briefly.

I grew up in Southern California moving around a lot. I have no siblings and was raised almost entirely by my mother with a dash of great help from my grandmother. When I say I moved around a lot, I attended four elementary schools, three junior highs and two high schools. After that I was in the military. I also lived in Minneapolis for two years and then New Orleans for 10. After hurricane Katrina I lived in L.A. for four years before coming to Seattle.

So, I've lived in a few places (I believe I once added up that I have had 38 mailing addresses in my life, going back to infancy.) and I've had to make new friends over and over again. It's old hat to me. While moving was often hard, as an adult, I've learned to be a bit of a social chameleon because of that moving around. I'm proud to say that I still have friends that date back to junior high and that I keep in touch with friends from all over the world.

When I heard about the Seattle Freeze, I instantly thought of Minneapolis which has a lot of similarities to Seattle. It was settled by a lot of Northern European types, it's about the same age, has a thriving LGBT population, has very progressive politics, etc. So, since I made quite a few good friends there once I broke through the proverbial ice, I thought that Seattle might be similar.

Right away I noticed that Seattle folks are very 'friendly' and polite. They're good people, smart, educated, progressive, with big hearts. But I put those marks around friendly for a reason. Friendly is not the same as being welcoming.

Upon moving here, I began to quickly make friends with my co-workers at my new job. I also had a couple of legacy friends, transplants from New Orleans, who helped me make adjustments to my new city. But it didn't take long to learn that Seattlites, while polite to strangers, have no interest in knowing them.

I'm sure right now, most Seattlites that are reading this are fuming and pounding their keyboards. But let me illustrate with an example. Shortly after I  moved to New Orleans in 1996, I went to a show at a great venue called Jimmy's. I went alone and didn't know anyone. I saw a girl, sitting by herself on some steps smoking a cigarette. I sat down beside her, struck up a conversation (her name was Sharon) and within a few minutes she said, 'I think I know a couple of guys you should meet'. She introduced me to Harry, Mark and Ryan at that same show. They in turn invited me to join them at a club after the show in a different part of the town, which I did. It snowballed. Within a month, I knew dozens of new people, had more phone numbers than I could keep track of, and had something to do almost every night of the week.

I'd been in New Orleans for *maybe* two months at that point. Today, most of those folks are still my friends and I continued to make new friends all the way up until Katrina.

I can't imagine anything like that here in Seattle. Where in other places, I've walked into a room and seen a sea of faces turn toward me as if to say 'who's the new person?', here in Seattle, I walk into a place and see circles of people all facing inward. They don't know you've walked in and they don't notice when you leave.

I believe in giving a place a chance. My general standard is a year. It's hard to know a place before a year. Sometimes you just haven't found your niche, your groove. Well, I've been here three years now and I know *fewer* people than I did two years ago. Once I was laid off, I quickly realized that many of my work friends were just co-workers and they just drifted away. Leaving my apartment behind to move in with my girlfriend has exacerbated the situation even further. I'm cognizant of the fact that being unemployed limits some of what I can do. I really do get that. I also realize that West Seattle is a trek for some people.

Nevertheless, I've never felt as alone and isolated as I have since I moved up here to the PNW. I don't blame any one person. Everyone has busy lives, doing their Seattle thing. They have kids and jobs and hobbies and classes and sports and clubs. But I guess that's kind of my point. In the other places I've lived, especially New Orleans, I've always gotten the vibe of 'Hey we're all doing this great thing, would you like to join us?' while here in Seattle I've gotten 'Hey, I'd love to get together with you but I'm busy with this group doing this great thing'. Instead of 'Hey, let's go grab a drink together and get to know each other a little more,' you get 'Hey, I'm having a party and you're welcome to come'. Which again, is all polite and friendly. But where making friends, to me, has always been a back and forth 50/50 proposition (Hey, I like Battlestar Galactica and you like Buffy, let's watch an episode of both), in Seattle, the lay of the land seems to be 'I'm very busy so if you want to do something with me, either join me in a group setting where I don't have to make additional plans or prove to me why I should fit you into my busy schedule.'

Again, I want to say that there is a lot to love here in Seattle. I also truly think the people here are nice. But they're very insular as well. The Seattle Freeze is a very real thing (and from what I've heard from some others, extends through much of the Pacific Northwest) and for me personally, it's won. I've tried for three years and I just don't have the energy to keep trying any longer. Seattle Freeze, you win.


Shonn Gilson said...

I agree completely. I moved here in 1999 from Dallas. When you met someone in Dallas they introduced you to their friends and you now had 10 friends. When I meet people in Seattle, even if they introduce you to their friends, you just have one friend, and even that takes a lot of effort to keep going. I think it may be time for me to move on.

Unknown said...

I agree too, Connor. Your descriptions of the Seattle Freeze are exactly what I experienced in Portland, OR. People were polite and friendly, yes. But no one seemed interested in forming new friendships. My experience in New Orleans was like yours, and almost all of my current friends are people I met and formed friendships with during my nine years there. You, of course, are one of them. I miss that huge social circle we all had!

Leia said...

The above comment was left by me, Leia. By signing in to Google, I thought it would register my name. Sorry!