Heartbeat: Defrosting Seattle. It’s time to become more friendly.

The Seattle Freeze versus the Nashville Warm

By Pepper Schwartz October 27, 2022

Pepper Schwarz
Illustration by Arthur Mount

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Seattle Magazine.

So, this column is not so much about the Seattle Freeze, but the Nashville Warm. And how I came to be frozen and how I hope to melt.

When I first came to Seattle, I realized that I had to cool down. I grew up in Chicago and went to school in the Midwest and the East Coast. I was used to lively discourse, which included interruptions and disruptions. (It was the early 1970s and fired by feminism, I had some intense convictions that I aired freely).  But I soon discovered that if I wanted to get along with the natives, I had to tone it down. Not change my opinions but change my delivery. 

I picked up some clues from people way more Scandinavian than I am. Don’t over emote. Don’t inquire unless invited to. Don’t assume everyone wants to be your friend. Don’t annoy people with too much conversation. Tone down the intensity. Leave people alone unless they indicate they don’t want privacy.

Over the years, I got used to other customs. But I never truly experienced the Seattle Freeze because I was part of a migratory flock of young people who were “discovering” Seattle in the early 1970s. A lot of us 20-something professionals invaded the Northwest at that time and became each other’s community. So, when first informed of the idea of a Seattle Freeze, it didn’t really resonate with me. I fit in. I skied with my new colleagues at Snoqualmie, met my tribe at the T Dock in Madrona and made friends with other young mothers at my kids’ schools. I would never have thought of myself as closed off from anyone.

But after some days in the South, I realize how unfriendly I have become. My data of difference:

Just about everyone you meet smiles at you when you pass them on the street. I mean really smile, not just nod politely.

Just about everyone wishes you good morning and says some additional pleasantries. The guy cleaning the sidewalk and the lady at the CVS all wish you the best for your day.

Furthermore, they might just tell you a little story about themselves, such as how they tried those shoes you are wearing for their cousin’s wedding or how they used blackberries instead of blueberries for a pie and how much their grandmother loved the new dish. And would you like the recipe?

Younger people rush to open a door, and when you ask them a question, they say “yes, ma’am” or “no, ma’am” without the slightest cynical or reluctant note in their voice. You are older than they are and therefore worthy of and requiring terms of respect. 

People are prone to storytelling about their lives, or others’ lives. They don’t need to know you well to tell you about their own history or someone else’s. They assume you would be interested.

People are unfailingly friendly when you ask them for a direction or a recommendation. They don’t act like they are doing you a big favor. They act delighted. 

So, to put this in perspective: The last time I felt this welcome everywhere, I was in Thailand, a country renowned for its hospitality.

Now, granted there may be some gender and not just geographical differences here. When I was a younger woman, and friendlier, I would sometimes suppress a smile at a man because I not only thought he might take it as flirtation, I knew he would. Sociological research shows that when young women are friendly, men are likely to see it as a come-on. Women are often just trying to be pleasant, but after finding out that a sparkling smile was often misinterpreted, they learn to stifle themselves with strangers or in mating environments like bars. Men don’t have the same inhibition; and men have to be very friendly for a woman to assume they are flirting.  

I know that the South and I have some major differences. I am not going to get into politics in this essay. But I admit that I don’t want to live in that Red a state. 

Still, I will say this: My experience in Tennessee has shown me that I have become a less friendly person than I want to be.  

So here are my own resolutions to warm up Seattle more: 

I am going to smile at people on the street even if they ignore me or scowl back. This is a bit hard right now because I still wear a mask most places, but I am going to smile with my eyes when I can’t show my whole face.

I am going to engage in small talk with the people who help me when I go to the grocery or a department store. I am going to have a human moment whenever I interact with someone and not act as if I am in too big a hurry to know them.

I am going to ask people a few questions about themselves (even people I sit next to on planes). I will back off if they show distress signals, but I will give it a try.

I am going to make sure people know I respect them just for being humans.

Well, I am going to try. Old habits die hard.

My wife and I have had very different reactions to being locked up during Covid. I really liked all the time we had together. We learned board games; we cooked together. We Zoomed together with friends and family and we were one of those people who adopted a dog. I thought we really got a lot closer. But it seems she didn’t see it the same way. Now that things are opening up, and we have gone back to our offices, there is less time together. But that’s not just because we are back at work. Now she wants a lot of time with her friends, and she doesn’t want to include me. I don’t think it’s because we have problems, but she says she needs her “own space.” I don’t like it. I miss her. But she gets upset when I say that. What can I do?

Let go and figure out some good things to do with friends of your own. I know you really loved a lot of time with your wife and that’s terrific! But you can’t keep life static and trying to mimic and enforce an unusual, cloistered period. If you complain each time your wife chooses an outside activity or a meet-up with a close friend, she might feel like you don’t trust or respect her. True, some partners can’t get enough of each other, but many spouses need variety: time on their own, time with a hobby, conversations one-on-one with friends. In other words, they need “space” on their own terms.

I think you are perceiving that as rejection, but it’s not. The two of you created a reality of complete togetherness because of a pandemic and it sounds like you did it marvelously. But once the imposed cocooning was over, your wife obviously missed more of her previous routines than you did. 

That’s not unusual. Women tend to be more social than men. More women than men have book groups, more women than men have more than one or two close friends they meet for coffee, and many women, especially women who are the primary parent for their kids, need alone time just to think and recharge.

Maybe you have your own friends from school or work that you would enjoy seeing more often. Or, If you don’t have enough close friends to fill some of your time, you might want to re-up on some new or favorite sports or hobbies. Your wife’s “job” is not to devote herself to your entertainment anymore that it is your “job” to do that for her. One of life’s challenges, even when married, is to develop your life in a way that makes you happy and not expect that your spouse will be your everything.

That said, let me also be clear: I don’t believe you have to settle for daily absences or a parallel emotional life. Or that it’s unfair to expect your partner to give you a lot of time. Not at all. You need to have enough time together or the marriage could get cool and just functional rather than romantic. 

The two of you need to figure out how much time the marriage really needs. Talk it all out. Let your wife know which specific times you’d like to reclaim. Talk until you agree which times have to be set aside for the two of you and considered sacred. Then, put some effort into making those times fun. Reinforce her desire to be with you by suggesting new activities, getaways or double dates with other couples. 

My guess is that if you are less needy, and don’t make her feel guilty, she will not only look forward to those together times. There will start to be more of them.

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