How I Learned to Love the Seattle Freeze

guy overlooking city
Skrynnik Mariia/Shutterstock
Skrynnik Mariia/Shutterstock

I trudged into the dimly lit pub on Capitol Hill and peered around anxiously, hoping to find a few smiling faces. The long, wooden tables were packed with a mélange of people. Most of them were millennials, but a few older people were peppered in amongst the sea of flannel shirts and spring beer. I was about to play trivia with members of the Seattle Anti-Freezers, a 9,000-person group that hosts events for those trying to beat the fabled Seattle Freeze. And although I came to play trivia, I had an ulterior motive. I needed to find out a couple of things.

1. What exactly is the Seattle Freeze?
2. Is it really that bad?

The Seattle Freeze is a complicated subject, and one that brings up a cascade of emotions from new residents and diehard Seattleites alike. The idea behind the term is that newcomers to the city often experience difficulty making friends and maintaining relationships because of a general lack of interest from others. People are cold, standoffish, and flaky. And if you’ve been in Seattle for more than a week, you’ve heard the term thrown around at the office or a corner bar more than once. There’s no denying it, the Seattle Freeze is at least perceived to be a tangible thing. So why is Seattle different than New York City or Los Angeles when it comes to creating new relationships, you ask? Is every stranger just a disinterested human, frozen solid in their Patagonia jackets and messenger bags?

What we didn’t share in experiences was made up for by one thing: we all agreed that the Seattle Freeze is incontrovertibly real.

The first table I approached was full. Was I being frozen out of this anti-freeze event? I eventually ended up at a table with five other strangers, and we quickly named our team “Quiz in my Pants.” Good, right? We were a diverse group of individuals -- one guy worked at Amazon, there was a student, a freelance videographer, and a consultant, and each of us had lived in Seattle for different lengths of time. What we didn’t share in experiences was made up for by one thing: we all agreed that the Seattle Freeze is incontrovertibly real.

I asked each person what they thought about the phenomenon. A man named Rick shared a story about how his across-the-hall neighbor moved out without saying a word even though they’d casually known each other for a year. Another one of my teammates said he’s been going to the same yoga class for eight years and he’s never interacted with anyone other than with an occasional “Have a nice day.” Around the table I went, person after person, and everyone had a similar story of feeling the chill.

Interestingly enough, there's data to back up the idea that Seattle isn’t the friendliest city. A 2014 report from the Seattle CityClub showed that Seattle ranked 48 out of 50 similarly sized cities for “talking with neighbors frequently,” and 37 in “giving or receiving favors with neighbors frequently.” The oldest reference that I could find online about the Seattle Freeze came from a 2005 Seattle Times article. But as KUOW points out, a piece from 1946 in the Seattle Daily Times spoke of the ice cold reception newcomers receive:

“It was revealed what we had indeed suspected – that newcomers do not always find us altogether perfect; that we sometimes are neglectful of the stranger in our midst; that we seem unduly preoccupied with our own local concerns.”

So there you have it. The Seattle Freeze, circa 1946.

Being nice (or at least acting nice) is an expectation when you grow up in Texas like I did. There’s a bless-your-heart mentality that you simply can’t escape. People open doors, invite you to the local potluck dinner, and you can’t make it a few feet at the high school football game without bumping into someone you know. And while this sense of community is refreshing at times, it can be downright exhausting for anyone remotely introverted. I had heard of the Seattle Freeze during my research before moving here a couple years ago, and I was wary of what I might find. But when I got here -- if I’m being completely honest -- I loved it.

The pressure to make small talk on the bus or respond to that Facebook event was completely gone. I could pop in my headphones, go to work, come home, and not feel guilty about not grabbing drinks with my coworkers at the end of the day. They had their busy lives and I had mine, so there was an understanding. We weren’t being rude to each other; we were just being selective about our social interactions. You can be sure that if you make a friend in Seattle, they are a true friend. The fake niceties are gone, and if they’re hanging out with you, it is because they actually want to.

And isn’t that the great thing about the Seattle Freeze? After a few months, I was able to form a close Seattle family -- a friend group that I know values me for who I am, and not because of a social code. They had the opportunity to freeze me, but they didn't. And that's just the way it is.

As for my new trivia friends? They asked me, as I left for my walk home, if I’d ever be back. I thought about it for a second and joked that it would be a good way to end this adventure by never seeing them again.

So that’s exactly what I did. They’ll understand.