Newcomers say Minnesota 'nice,' but not warm
MINNEAPOLIS - When Cathy Schaefer moved to Minneapolis more than two years ago, she didn't feel welcomed.
"People would say, 'Oh, we should get together some time,'" said Schaefer, a native New Yorker. "And I'd be like, 'Yes! That would be great because I have no friends!'"
Then she would never hear from them.
Shaefer's experience is a common one. Minnesotans may take pride in their reputation for friendliness, and the catchphrase "Minnesota Nice" has become something of a cultural motto. Newcomers, however, say it can be hard to adjust to the state.
Young transplants - whether from South Dakota or South America - say the flip side of Minnesota Nice is an insular culture that keeps newcomers at a comfortable distance. For them, making friends and finding a sense of community can be daunting.
Although the problem is hard to measure, business leaders and others who track economic growth are concerned. They say Minnesotans are not doing enough to welcome newcomers into their fold, and that can have consequences for the state's economic future.
To meet interesting and outspoken women, Schaefer, who manages a lab at the University of Minnesota, started the so-called League of Extraordinary Women. The monthly gatherings of self-described "cool ladies" are open to all, especially women who are new to town.
The tight-knit tribe of professionals in their 20s and 30s formed not through lifelong connections, but out of necessity.
Schaefer bonded with one of her first friends, Laura Hovi, through a kickball league. Hovi, it turns out, was in a similar boat.
"When I first moved here, they said, 'Minnesotans are so nice they'll give you directions to anywhere except their own house," Hovi recalled.
But Hovi is not from some faraway coast. She's from Fargo, N.D., just a few hours away. That gave her some precious insight into the social landscape in Minnesota. Hovi said her hometown has a similar keep-to-ourselves culture. Friendships from junior high seem to last forever, leaving little room for outsiders.
"The difference is when I moved here, I was on the outside," she said. "I really got to see both sides of the coin."
It's not that Minnesotans are intentionally cliquish. Schaefer said it's just that they seem comfortable with their lives.
"They've never been alone before," she said. "It's not necessarily their fault, but they don't know what it's like to be in a new place and completely alone, and not have anybody to even go to lunch with, because you just got off the plane and it's just you, and your cat, and your suitcase."
Are Minnesotans really that insular? By some measures, yes. Census figures show Minnesota has a higher share of homegrown residents than many other states. About seven of every 10 people in the state were born in-state. The national average is closer to about six in 10. But some states, among them Michigan, Louisiana and Ohio, have higher percentages of homegrown residents.
It's also true that Minnesota loses slightly more people to out-of-state migration than it receives.
Using individual tax returns, the Internal Revenue Service can track when a person moves to a different state. People who follow mobility trends rely on the data to study how many people move into an area, and how many people move out, in a given year.
The most recent numbers show the state's most-populated counties of Hennepin and Ramsey, home to Minneapolis and St. Paul, are seeing net losses in population as people move away to other states. Other mid-size metro areas, such as Portland, Seattle and Denver, saw net population gains last year.
But the migration data don't assess how warm or inviting the state is. Still, business leaders and others say there's some truth to the perception that Minnesotans can be standoffish to newcomers.
Adjusting to a new state can be challenging, and provinciality is hardly unique to Minnesota. Even in hipster-friendly Seattle, transplants gripe about a similar social malaise known as the Seattle Chill.
The difference, of course, is that Minnesotans hold themselves to a higher standard in just about everything, including their sense of neighborliness.
People who have relocated to Minnesota express frustration with trying to penetrate rigid local social circles. Some say their only friendships are with other transplants.
Feelings of isolation were even more common among professionals of color, according to the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce.
"It was a rude awakening for me, when we had a focus group several years ago and brought in several people who were new to market who told stories I was horrified at, frankly," chamber president Todd Klingel said.
A lifelong Minnesotan of German heritage, Klingel said most locals probably don't know they have a welcoming problem.
"I think there are many people who are where I was a few years ago, thinking what a great place we are, and we're all so friendly," Klingel said. "And we are friendly. But we need to take that next step of really welcoming.
Among the observations of newcomers Klingel has heard:
"Minnesotans are friendly. They just don't want any more friends."
"I've been here four years, and I've yet to be in someone's home."
Such perceptions were sobering to Klingel.
"Those of us, if we think about that, 'In the last year, who have I invited into my house that I didn't know five years ago?' I think we go, 'Ooh, that's a small number,'" he said. " 'Who cares?' Well, the people who aren't getting invited care."
It's not just a matter of being nice, Klingel said. It's about fiscal vitality. With so many Baby Boomers retiring, the state needs to look outward to fill the gaps in the aging work force.
"Where are those employees going to come from?" he asked. "They are not homegrown. There aren't enough in Minneapolis-St. Paul or in the state to provide the needs of these growing companies."
Generous but detached
Ana Gomez, an immigration attorney who moved to Minnesota 12 years ago, said many of her good friends - all transplants - have left the state because of the chilly climate for newcomers, she said. Gomez has tried to come to terms with a place on one hand so generous, yet so detached on the other. When she worked for a nonprofit that provided legal services for the poor, she witnessed Minnesota's collective good will toward the less fortunate.
"I know someone will write the check and support them," she said. "I know we're good at accepting refugees. But I don't know how good we are at making those refugees really feel Minnesotan."
Compared to the rest of the country, Minnesota is a largely homogenous state. Its most-diverse county, Ramsey County, is still whiter than the national average.
But Minnesota is changing, and more rapidly than the rest of the country. The state's foreign-born population grew by 235 percent over the past two decades. That's the 12th-fastest growth rate in the nation.
There also is strong evidence that the state is generous and accepting to newcomers and people of different cultures and faiths - among them Vietnamese, Mexicans, Ethiopians, Liberians, Russians, Indians and Tibetans. Minnesota is the first state to send a Muslim to Congress, a Hmong person to the state legislature, and elect a Somali to public office.
For a sign of Minnesota's openness, one need look no farther than Abdi Mohamed, whose Lincoln Town Car cruises through downtown Minneapolis on a Friday night. Minnesota is a place where Mohamed, after fleeing civil war, found peace, a safe home for his family, and an honest day's work. As a professional limo driver, he chauffeurs everyone from athletes to exotic dancers.
Mohamed's business card identifies him as Abdi, "Mr. Nice Guy." He intentionally leaves off the "Mohamed." He said everyone knows Mohamed is a Muslim name, and he doesn't want to invite hostility from passengers who may be fearful or angry toward Islam.
After spending two months in San Diego, Mohamed moved to Minnesota in 1998. Somali friends told him it was easy to find work on assembly lines or in other low-skill jobs.
"They say, 'Come to Minneapolis, there's a lot of jobs. It's cold! But it's fun. It's a nice city,'" he recalled. "Later I find out it's fun and a nice city."
To Mohamed, Minnesota is an accepting place.
"You come to Minnesota, you don't know the language, you have never been in this weather, you don't know the culture, you don't know the people, and people welcome you," he said. "You apply for a job, and they may not understand half of what you're saying, but they give you a job. I think I can say that's nice."