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Archive Photos/Moviepix/Getty Images

Midwestern Nice: A Tribute to a Sincere and Suffocating Way of Life

There’s a moment I keep returning to, from the first episode of the new season of Fargo. There’s a triple homicide at a 24-hour diner, and Minnesota state trooper Lou Solverson responds to the crime. A truck driver meets him in the parking lot, and they walk toward one of the victims: a waitress who tried to flee the scene only to be gunned down in the cold expanse of a Minnesota night.

“I left my rig there, I hope that’s OK,” the truck driver says, motioning to the 18-wheeler behind him, at the edge of the lot.

Solverson says nothing, but keeps eyeing the victim in the snow.

“I’m the one that called it in, see?” the driver continues. “Stopped for waffles. With the blueberries -- they come frozen this time of year, I know, but…”

Solverson pinches the corner of a large jacket draped over the waitress, picks it up and peeks underneath.

“I put my coat on her. It seemed only right.”

I love this scene because even though it’s meant to drive the narrative ahead, its obsessive attention to the just-right details also works outside the episode, revealing, in just a few words, the very essence of my people: the corn-eating flatlanders of The Great Middle. There’s the deferential greeting (“I left my rig there, I hope that’s OK.”); the need to fill all moments, even grisly ones, with small talk (“Stopped for waffles...”); and at last the embarrassment and shame over anything unseemly and the compulsion to cloak it (“I put my coat on her. It seemed only right.”).

What Fargo nails, in other words, is Midwestern Nice, the idiosyncrasies of a steadfast populace that appear banal and maybe even bovine to the uninitiated, but in truth constitute the most sincere, malicious, enriching, and suffocating set of behaviors found in the English-speaking world. As a good son of the Upper Plains, I’ll tell you what I mean.

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What is Midwestern Nice?

We should start with what it isn’t. It isn’t the feigned kindness of the South, where people sipping bourbons at cocktail hour reserve the right to boot-heel you when you turn your back. It’s not the abrasive honesty of the Northeast, where everyone speaks, as Don DeLillo once put it, in the same nasally, knowing cynicism. It is genuine, Midwestern Nice.

I grew up in Iowa but I’ve heard the same line repeated of people from Minnesota or Wisconsin or Nebraska, and always with the unfussy grammar of the plain-spoken: “The Midwest is a great place to be from.” It is nurturing and civic-minded, maybe due to the Scandinavian and German Protestants who settled the land, living by the Golden Rule, and its history is a continuity of compassion: the territory of Iowa in the Antebellum Era refusing to segregate schools, an idea that even Ulysses S. Grant called radical; a president from Illinois who ended slavery; Wisconsin laborers, in the early 20th century, receiving workers' compensation and unemployment insurance decades ahead of the New Deal; Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois, in the modern age, allowing gay marriage years before the progressive movements in New York and California could do the same. The Midwest takes pride in all this; it would just rather not talk about it, you see, because that would be boasting, and boasting is not nice.  

That humility permeates everything, helping to create the most remarkable facet of Midwestern Nice: the restraint from speaking ill of others, even if others should probably be ill-spoken of. I remember sitting at my grandmother’s table, in the hour before supper on a summer afternoon, watching her read the newspaper. I must have been 10 or so, in the last years before I learned to fully appreciate her -- a woman who grew up in the Depression, survived TB, raised six daughters alongside her farming husband, collected eggs from the chicken coop every morning, and read voraciously each night. She was always cheerful, which isn’t remarkable in the Midwest, but it is worth mentioning because reading one article that afternoon, I remember her eyes narrowing and her lips pursing themselves into an ugly knot that I never saw. She was upset, so upset that she soon read aloud that there had been, if memory serves, a murder in a nearby town. Police had arrested a suspect. She walked over to a dining room window and seemed to almost shake; she occasionally shopped in the town. Staring out at the bright afternoon, she looked in a trance, and even I could see the thoughts racing through her mind. But she just turned back to the dining room, and the one thing she said she half-muttered to the floor, in that flattened-vowel lilt of hers:

“And on a day like this.”

I scoffed, and for a while the afternoon stayed with me, as one more example of Grandma’s earnest, almost Old World simplicity. But as I got older I began to see it differently. Her reaction was about mastering fear, about stoicism and restraint, about not saying something caustic simply because you can, even if it’s about a person who has literally just murdered someone. Grandma’s six words, I discovered, were an anthem of sorts for Midwestern Nice.

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And yet...

Of course, the duty to be nice and consider the feelings of others has a downside: the whole universe of things we have to repress. As a kid, there was an almost tactile pressure hovering around the Christmases, Thanksgivings, and birthday parties at Grandma’s house -- so much stuff we maybe wanted to say but couldn’t, even though we were family. The tension beneath the vanilla chitchat exhausted me, and I often left her home relieved that I could relax and be myself.

Here again, though, I was wrong, or at least only half right, and as an adult I discovered the fun of old-fashioned Midwestern innuendo: the way my aunts, say, could achieve the perfect degree of half-smile when extending their barely dead-toned goodbyes to my sister’s boyfriend, which told her how very much they disliked him. In fact, people from outside the Plains think they can mimic us by elongating some O's, but in truth we communicate far more in what we half-say, or fail to say entirely. To live in the Midwest is to experience two realities: the first, all sunshine and bland pleasantries among other potluck-suppering churchgoers; the other, a red-lit underworld where people relay vulgarities through the learned second language of euphemism, eye rolls and loaded silence.

We are the alpha and omega of passive-aggressiveness. It is, like the corn we plant, our contribution to society, and our art. In his hilarious book, The Midwest: God’s Gift to Planet Earth!, Mike Draper, a Des Moines-based retailer who writes under his company’s pseudonym, Raygun, shows how no form of passive-aggression is as finely honed as our own:

  • "The Northeast Jewish mother takes the most direct approach to her passive aggressiveness: 'Oh, you’re going out tonight, even though you’re only home three nights from school? No, I understand, you’re Mr. Popular. So if you want to leave your poor mother, that’s fine…'"

  • "The Southern Baptist mother brings Jesus in for backup: 'Going out tonight with those boys? Do you really think that’s what an upstanding young Christian man should be seen doing?...'”
  • "A Midwestern mom plays it very passive: 'Going out? You sure?'”

Every Midwestern mother is like this. During my junior year of college I decided to grow my hair out. When I called my mom with the news, she said, simply, “Oh.” But the word carried a lot of tones, a note of surprise and then a second beat, which sustained the first while she parsed the news, followed at last by a slight dip and then a leveling out in a lower register, so the "Oh" ended in more a statement than a question: Ooouuwwaah. That one word showed how she both processed my decision and rendered her verdict on it. She was not pleased with me. And she didn’t say anything else.

Two things explain that kind of subtlety. The first is a guilt over our lame attempts at bluntness; even our passivity pains us. Midwesterners never want to be malicious, and so we swallow our great loogies of venom, until the whole viscous thing gags us and forces from our lips, like a reflex, tiny spittles of displeasure, whose trajectory we struggle to control. I saw this most recently when Jonathan Franzen, a product of St. Louis’ suburbs, was asked how Midwestern virtues shape his life and writing. Skip ahead to roughly 3:15 and watch till the end:

click to play video

The dramatic silences, false starts, and in particular the “Midwestern values” repetition: oh my God does Franzen despise these questions. But the good Missouri boy never says that -- can’t bring himself to, even 30 years after he left St. Louis. Instead he sputters through a state of near verbal paralysis until he finally lands on something that seems bland, but is actually loaded: “It’s no different than anywhere else,” he says. “And yet we all feel that there is something there.” And then, mercifully, the video ends.

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Which leads us to the terrible beauty of Midwestern Rage

The thoughts about how our thoughts will be perceived lead me to the second point about our repressed anger: the refinement of its eventual expression. Not for us, the gauche heavy-handedness of Long Island mothers. No, our patois is about saying only what is necessary, and actually even less than that. The Midwestern dialect is so subtle that people not immersed in it for decades can’t hear it. I’ve lived outside Iowa for 12 years now, and two weeks ago, though I felt guilty as I said it, I insulted one of my Connecticut neighbors. I got tired of her preening about her oh-so unique life and job, and I told her -- again, against my better judgment -- that not everyone can make it as a snowflake. She thanked me for the kind words.

This happens a lot, which is ironic because the people who miss the subtlety often consider themselves far sharper than big, dull, flown-over pig-eaters like me. In his book, Draper describes how the Midwestern phone etiquette of, “Well, I better let you go,” a euphemism for “Leave me alone now,” is consistently misread by people outside the region as a way to beg more time out of the conversation. David Letterman, a gap-toothed kid from Indiana, dined out for years on a post-modern comedy that mocked comedy itself, but only became famous when East Coasters picked up on the joke.

Hollywood, it almost goes without saying, almost always misses the duplicity built into our pleasantries and the guilt we feel over our ever-so-slight slights. The one movie that captures it all, of course, is Fargo -- and a single scene in particular, with an emotional range so full and yet so very understated that even the late, great Chicagoans Siskel and Ebert questioned why the Coen brothers included it, though they loved it anyway.

click to play video

I just never get tired of it. The nervous earnestness of “Ya, you know it's a Radisson so it's pretty good.” How Sheriff Gunderson’s brief moment of displeasure -- “Why don’t you sit over there? I'd prefer that” -- is apologized for in code: “Just so I can see ya, ya know. Don't have to turn my neck.” And then as Mike Yanagita begins to atone explicitly, her “Nooo, noo, that’s fine,” shows that it is anything but.

I could go on -- the way Gunderson reveals her shock over Linda’s death and then immediately masks it because the waitress is there; or the breakdown of Mike Yanagita itself, a gross violation of the tenets of Midwestern Nice, which makes the scene both hilarious and mortifyingly hard to watch. But the point is, with that scene, the Coen brothers, products of the Twin Cities, give away the Midwest’s secret -- something President Obama, of Kansas and Chicago, knows, too, and something that Johnny Carson, of Norfolk, Nebraska, knew every night the stage lights shone on him, and what David Foster Wallace, of Urbana, Illinois, knew in each of his “maximalist” stories, capturing all the conflicting truths of any moment, and then the infinite iterations beyond that: we may seem slow, or at least intellectually sated, but we live on a heightened plane of consciousness that few of you can comprehend. To be from here is, quite simply, to read a room better than fucking anyone.

And also, yes, to be nice.

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Paul Kix is a senior editor at ESPN the Magazine, and has also written for New York, Men’s Journal, and the Wall Street Journal. Next year, HarperCollins will publish his first book, about an aristocratic French Resistance fighter who escaped from the Nazis three times. His hobbies include being very tall, eating corn-based products (corn itself, too, but not as much as you’d suspect), and telling people to have a wonderful day. Follow him @paulkix.