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Fresh Eye - Speaking Minnesotan... or NOT

Let me say, "then", that I have been coming to Minnesota for over 13 years...doing the in-law thing, feeling a fit with some crazy, fun friends met through my baby-boomer spouse and, of course, relishing in the beautious Big Sky Northwoods and water. I was always made to feel comfortable on these 2 week vacations, and looked forward to relocating to Minnesota with great delight. The hope was high, for this air-force brat, that I too could be a Minnesotan.

And, I was never once dissuaded by that dare-we-mention-it movie, Fargo. In fact, like other Minnesotans, it elicited no more than an evening, joking about the extremes with my husband and New York neighbor from Wisconsin.

Let me take this particular moment to remind you that I am a transplant from New York State, and also well traveled (the South, Europe etc.) If you can't see what that means for my inclusion in Minnesota society, let me assure you that by the time you are done reading this, you will.

Anyway, shortly after my arrival when my mother-in-law, with jokes and jest, handed me a book called "How To Talk Minnesotan" by Howard Mohr, I was more than curiously amused. I read it in short order, smiled a bit and then put it away. Nine months later, I have to confess, I have thought much more than twice about it. And my reactions are two-fold.

For some references I still laugh and smile and say to myself, when I overhear a classic Minnesota conversation, "Yep, there'd iz!". But frankly some of it challenges the roots of who I am and the struggle to be true to myself. That said, a lighter look at some of the basics of Minnesotan conversations, phrases and speech directives, as set forth in "How To Talk Minnesotan"... and, from my perspective, separating Fact from Myth.

PHRASES
" You Betcha "
" You Bet "
" Ya, Ya "
Weather
Cars

DIRECTIVES
Monotone
Indirectness
If You Don't Have Something to Say, Keep Your Mouth Shut

PHRASES
"You Betcha" - Folks in Minnesota say "You Betcha" just like in "that movie, Fargo". FACT
      Sorry, folks, it's true. This phrase seems to have been primarily "metroed" out of the Cities, but is highly prevalent in outlying areas (like Brainerd) and spoken in full form amongst seniors and retailers (a large majority in this tourism-heavy area). I personally guarantee that you can, "for sure" count on hearing "You betcha" at least ten times a day if you venture out into the public arena. (Back to Phrases )

"You Bet" is an abbreviated form of "You betcha" and seems to be primarily generated by the younger set. Of course, a shortening of phrases is completely acceptable because it means that the younger generation has learned the required Minnesota art of limited conversation (more on this later in the Keep Your Mouth Shut section).
      But, ya know what sort of set me back? The book says these two phrases are popular because "it is pleasantly agreeable, but doesn't obligate the speaker to a strong position" (which fits right in with the Minnesota monotone and balance thing). Now every time I hear it, though, I can't help but wonder, "What do they REALLY think?" (Back to Phrases )

"Ya, Ya" - So you want to know about that heavy Swede affirmative response?
      MYTH, for the most part.
      Now maybe there are some isolated farm communities and polka fests where you find this phrase to be common, but I don't see it much. That is unless one stumbles upon a group of wild women or a comedic mob that start cutting up in deliberately campy fashion. Moments ago, though, I think I heard my kids doing it... uh-oh! (Back to Phrases )

Weather - is always the first topic of conversation. FACT
      I have never been roped into talking about the weather so much in my life. "Yeah, but" this little dilemna I can live with. It does break the ice and obviously helps the average Minnesotan feel more comfortable, like they belong here. And I suppose it would not be taken lightly if, upon initiating a conversation, I blurted out, "Can we PLEASE not talk about the weather! Don't you think body piercing is an interesting form of artistic expression?" I'm not sure a true Minnesotan could even muster a "You betcha!" at that. Would I be a social outcast or what? (Back to Phrases )

Cars - are always the second topic of conversation. FACT
      "You bet", it's true. And it never fails to make me giggle. This conversational pattern must be repeated hundreds of times a day in Walmarts, grocery stores, schools and medical clinics around Minnesota, specifically between Minnesota men. First two topics, just about every time.
      Women, at least, seem a bit more variable. They frequently talk about the weather, and their men. And the men's interest in cars. That is if they are not talking about men and hunting or men and fishing. I find myself at an extreme disadvantage here since my man NEVER talks about cars, hunting or fishing. On the up side, at least I know what to ask other women about their life, once we get past the weather. However, I am more than a little concerned that my children are crazy to learn to fish. I cannot deal with being left out of conversations in my own family. (Back to Phrases )

DIRECTIVES

Monotone -
      The "How To" book illustrates Minnesotan phrase patterns as flat line, descending in tone, or with very slight infrequent peaks. Emotional outbursts, strong displays of opinion, and extreme excitement or despair will definitely raise an eyebrow or two. Suffice it to say, they have been raised in my general direction on more than one occasion. Frankly, this is a speech model in complete contrast to my upbringing. I was raised with a salesman father who designed and presented motivational training programs. My mother advocates for the rights of the disabled community. I had two best friends in high school... the "Puerto Rican Tizzy" and a Jewish American Princess drama enthusiast. I may be doomed. AT the very least I am probably destined to feel like I'm on Mars or something... "Take-me-to-your- leader".
      In conjunction with the monotone speech pattern, according to the book, there is this fixation on the "balance" thing. That is, don't go too far in one emotional direction (up OR down). Most of the time, my intuition tells me, I'm too UP there. It's a quick jerk, play to the downside. I hear it's based on some Minnesota paranoia that if things are too good, exciting etc., ya know, you better not rely on it cuz, "for sure", something is bound to happen to balance it out, so you might as well take it down yourself. Lighten up!! It's fun up here.
      Conversely, if things are really tough, which has often been the case this last year, and I make the slightest attempt to unburden the realities of my life even with those I consider close Minnesota friends, the cut-off and balancing act swings into place. "It could be worse"...."You can't complain, because..."
      Yes, Yes, I know all about the upside. I'm a card-carrying, positive-thinking optimist, count my blessings EVERYDAY kinda- gal. But, GET REAL!
      From my reality, I don't think most Minnesotans know just how GOOD it feels to BITCH a little. I know, I know. I've heard it when a Minnesotan slips..., "Oh, I'm sorry. I'm whining!" YES, PLEASE. Whine a little. It's okay. The earth will not cave in. You can count your blessings tonight. Just show me you're a real person with real troubles and heartaches and a passion for LIFE. (It really is liberating, especially as a woman.) And I know this whole thing goes hand in hand with the tough independence of the Minnesotan persona, but that's another thing... "getting by with a little help from my friends" is such a stress-reliever. Let it out ! (Back to Directives )

Indirectness
      "If it's not too much trouble..." "If you feel like it, could you maybe..." Well, I admit I too sometimes fall into the trap of being less direct than I could be. I learned to be tactful, to encourage people to come up with their own answers, instead of demanding something. But I have to say, directness is a goal I aspire to. And in Minnesota, that could mean I'm in big trouble. (Back to Directives )

If You Don't Have Something to Say, Keep Your Mouth Shut
      Short, clipped conversations ending with, or sometimes consisting of (as the book says) , "You betcha", "That's different", or "Whatever" seem to me to be the norm around here. Getting information from most Minnesotans is like pulling teeth sometimes. And then, there's the phone. Few of the women I've met in Minnesota ever learned to gab on the phone with their girlfriends. If I call somebody, I better want something, and get right to the point. Chatting is a lost (or possibly never found) art here. This is somewhat baffling to me, as much as people get together for coffee, a little lunch, or supper. With all that time spent in the company of others, you'd think chatting about a multitude of subjects would be common. Sorry, I forgot... weather, cars, hunting, fishing and, oh by the way, golf. And as you can see from my narrative on this subject of speaking Minnesotan, I ALWAYS have something to say. It's the writer, the advocate, the mother and, most likely, the Easterner in me. (Back to Directives )

With all that said, my amused attempt at finding some comedic sense in the feeling of NOT being (and possibly never being) a true Minnesotan, this is the truth I have come to... This is me, Minnesota. I still love it here, but I bet I'll make you as crazy and bewildered sometimes as ya'll make me. So if you see me hootin' and hollerin' at a PTA school performance, or if I press you for a little excitement, an opinion, or beg for a whine, or response, even, go right ahead and think it... "It's that crazy New Yorker." All I have to say is, "You betcha"!
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Previous Eye On The Northwoods Articles

The Wild Women of Minnesota

A FRESH EYE on the Northwoods

Fresh Eye Index

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