Seattle’s Little Intimacy Problem

A native deconstructs our city’s little intimacy problem.

By Kathryn Robinson January 25, 2012 Published in the February 2012 issue of Seattle Met

THE MOST FAMOUS SEATTLEITE isn’t the second-richest man in the world or a rock-star suicide.

It’s that guy you met when you were new to town: The guy with the pleasant demeanor who enthusiastically responded to proposals for coffee or a Saturday bike ride without the slightest intention of following through.

The guy is infamous—Google “Seattle Freeze” and your eyeballs will bleed—and he’s lent our city as much of its reputation as that game-changer of a World’s Fair. Insofar as he’s friendly but never becomes a friend, he’s utterly alien to the what-do-you-do, let’s-have-brunch wide-openness of New Yorkers, or the let’s-while-away-the-afternoon-sipping-sweet-tea gentility of Southerners.

That guy is reviled.

I’m that guy.

Honestly, this just dawned on me. Being that guy isn’t something Seattle natives do any more intentionally than Minneapolitans round their Os or Berkeleyites vote Democrat; it’s a regional tic, like a pidgin dialect newcomers have to learn. Years ago I had to translate a friend’s “invitation” to my Oregonian husband: When she said “Sure, we can get together!” what she really meant was, “I have no intention of inviting you anywhere! That’s just my way of telling you I like you!”

Indeed, the reason the Seattle Freeze draws notice in the first place is that we’re so famously nice. Expectations are formed. Like the school virgin who wants to make out, we’re expected to engage in friendship’s version of putting out. We just seem like…the type.

Please don’t now ask me to deconstruct Seattle Nice—that remains for me a sociological puzzlement, defying explanations like our polite Scandinavian heritage or the psychic effect of mild weather. I have no idea why we’re so damned pleasant. This I do know: Pleasant society isn’t itself a bad thing. Who doesn’t appreciate a culture of easy, affable social transactions?

To the extent that it raises expectations of intimacy to come, however, Seattle Nice represents a rather massive PR failure. I’ve lived in Seattle all my life, so I have lived in a few Seattles—the Company Town of the ’70s, the Hipster Nirvana of the ’80s and ’90s, the millennium Tech Magnet. All of these Seattles lured newcomers. All of these newcomers needed friends. Most times when I accepted their coffee or bike invitations, I found them interesting and smart: worthy of anyone’s friendship.

But none of these relationships took; a mystery which led me to look closer at the friends I have kept. I have great enduring friendships—many of them even Seattle imports. There’s my best friend from when I was new in fourth grade. My science lab partner from the dawn of junior high. My podmates from my first job, my latest crop of besties from my rookie season as a mom. What made these friendships last?

I was in the trenches with all of them. Bonds were forged at levels deeper than mere affection or common interest; together we inhabited the uniting fear of being new, the rigors of creativity-on-deadline, the harrowing distress of reflux and colic.

Yes, Seattle lattes can be transporting—but in truth there’s not a lot of emotional bonding to be had on a coffee date. In my experience around here, deeper connection is the requisite gateway to authentic friendship. In other civic cultures, one hears, pleasantness is enough, or similar interests. Not here.

There’s some irony, huh? We who all but patented niceness are incapable of forming meaningful friendships based on niceness alone? Then again, maybe that makes sense. As anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of Seattle Nice will tell you, it can chill the blood. Maybe Seattleites deploy mild affability as the distancer they need to reserve emotional energies for the friends they’re in the trenches with. Sure it’s passive-aggressive. But as social distancers go, it’s a whole lot more respectful of the social contract than aggressive-aggression.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, in this land of towering evergreens that rootedness matters here. Culturally, we are a tribe that values authenticity, averse to signing on to anything from organized religion to designer clothing for appearance’s sake alone.

I wonder if geography might not just be destiny. Here at our corner of the map, Seattle isn’t on the way anywhere. For generations we’ve been the end of the rainbow; the place people arrived in, but not the place people left. Maybe we go deep because our permanence allows it. This may be changing—Seattle’s technology star having risen enough to make it a stop on the ambition tour. But at this continental dead-end, we still haven’t nurtured the social skills suited to transience.

I can think of worse things to lack than DC’s or Vegas’s gift for drive-by friendship. The Seattle Frozen are often counseled to get involved, but I think a person needs to aim deeper. Joining a cycling club will get you recreation and sweaty acquaintances. Joining the lobbying arm of a pro-cycling coalition will get you late nights with the like-minded, sweating blood over shared values.

That, my acquaintances, is Seattle friendship.

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