Is SF Friendlier than the Midwest?

May 13, 2013 at 6am

When I tell people I moved to San Francisco from Chicago, the first reaction I usually get is something about Midwest weather. Yeah, I get it; it’s cold there. As a midwesterner (Minnesotan, more precisely), I grew up in a place with distinct seasons, snow (the only precipitation that can be fingerprinted), and demanding, demoralizing cold. Here people describe the weather only as either “nice” or “freezing.” Upon moving to San Francisco, I expected the temperatures to be different, but seasons in the Bay Area have an invisible internal clock that confuses my midwestern foundation.

When people here say, “It’s so cold,” I keep quiet. It might be coldish, but it isn’t freezing. Where I grew up, school was canceled when it was -35 degrees, and we loved it because it meant we could play shinny all day. The wintery nights in SF can be unpleasant, but they’re really nothing. 

But everyone knows that the Midwest is actually cold and that San Francisco weather is an easy target. What’s really different about the two regions is the way midwesterners and San Franciscans socialize. The Bay Area is much more casual, for better or worse, with relationships. Understanding that has been the biggest adjustment I’ve made since living here. 

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I moved knowing some San Franciscans in varying degrees. I used my connections to meet others, of course. But I didn’t expect that meeting new people on my own would be so straightforward and immediate. I lived in Chicago for seven years and made seven close friends there. After a month of living here, I felt like I had 30 new friends. I met them while day-drinking, while night-drinking, at shows, in parks, at cafés, in lines (I know, right?), and while reading books at bars. It’s always been easy to find someone to do something with here because everyone is so genuinely inviting. No one here is bashful about calling someone a friend; it’s as easy as clicking a button.

But there is an impetuous side to these rapid friendships: people here make friends perpetually. No one ever has enough of them, and the hustle is never-ending. There is always someone new to meet and call a buddy. When this happened the first 30 times, I liked it. As it keeps happening, however, I find it difficult to feel close to all my new friends. In the Midwest, you work to earn someone’s trust and keep it; here people trust you from the outset. It’s easy to get invited out in San Francisco, but it’s difficult to maintain meaningful relationships. However, friendships here are terrifically buoyant, with very little maintenance required. I will go weeks or months without seeing friends, yet I always get treated as a pal when we cross paths again. It reminds me that not feeling close is not the same as not being close. It was unsettling at first, but it’s a difference I now greatly appreciate.

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Midwesterners respond differently to new people, with mild hesitation. In fact, you’ll often hear them say about unknown folks, “He’s different,” which could mean 100 different things. Its most basic translation is “As a stranger, you are suspicious,” which leads to a heap of questions. Maybe we were oversaturated with after-school specials and PSAs (or because our parents promised us that Lutefisk is delicious), but the Midwest is fundamentally paranoid – loosely paranoid, not edibles-in-Dolores-Park paranoid – so building a friendship from that starting point is an uphill run. Once established, however, the relationship lasts in a profound way. It is as qualitatively fulfilling as the quantitative fulfillment I get from my new San Francisco friends.

I love meeting new people, but my expectations are different. Encountering someone for the first time in Minnesota means you cordially talk, find common interests, and then tacitly consider whether to a) hang out again or b) cordially ignore one another the next time you meet. Most of the time you would not hang out again.

The Midwest is also a region of “smiling talkers,” in that people couch everything they say in a smile. I like to call it grin-whispering. They’re friendly to your face, but the authenticity of that kindness is always provisional. This behavior has become so much more apparent to me after living in San Francisco that it amuses me to see it whenever I’m in Minnesota. A plethora of websites variously describe the strangling expression “Minnesota Nice,” including a Tumblr. (Yay, we made it! Or, in Minnesota speak, “Oh, good, hey.”) This is not to suggest that we aren’t genuine; we’re just naturally leery when it comes to socializing. It’s a pesky legacy.

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For example, when I’m at parties back home, everyone wants to be the second person to leave. The first person to leave gets silently scolded (usually with arched eyebrows) as rude. However, any time after that initial person takes off, it’s socially acceptable for everyone else to leave. That first person is the social-manners scapegoat, the sacrificial barbarian. And if that doesn’t make leaving hard enough, Minnesota goodbyes take forever (I still sometimes fall prey to this habit when leaving social gatherings in San Francisco). This would never happen in San Francisco, where people often slip away without even saying goodbye, and where there is always some place better to go right now.

Changing plans is built into the making of plans here. Last-minute revisions are regular, expected, and understood, and those changes often involve turning a small group outing into a huge group event. You have to specify from the outset whether you want one-on-one time or if it’s an open invitation. The fear of missing out always trumps commitments, and that seems to be OK with mostly everyone (it would almost be rude here to expect people you make plans with to keep them in place). Not in the Midwest, where a changed plan can be an egregious social offense that whips up the whisper-grins and takes time to forgive.

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But after two years here, I’ve never understood the Midwest and myself better, and I’ve found ways to appreciate what I love about both places in my life here in SF. I get my fix for the Midwest’s freezing weather on the ice rink at hockey games (I was surprised by how many of my new friends are into hockey), and I have easy encounters with people who are open to new experiences. It’s been an adjustment of expectations, but I’m happy to leave the slow apprehensiveness of meeting people behind in the Midwest. And as I adapt socially, there’s one thing I realize San Francisco will never replace: Lutefisk. And that’s fine.

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