Why It’s Notoriously Hard to Make Real Friends When You Move to Seattle

Drew Swantak/Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Before you arrive in Seattle, relocation check in hand and Amazon job starting next Monday, you’ll already know the civic signifiers mentioned in every human-interest story about this distant burg published in every American newspaper for the last howevermany years: the rain, the coffee, the music, the tech. These are genuine hallmarks of the Emerald City, ones Seattleites live by and for every day. But ultimately they’re useless to the newcomer because they say little about how locals actually live.

To that end, the one admonition you’ll hear is beware the Seattle Freeze.

The Seattle Freeze is not a fast-food dessert (though there’s a brand-new ice cream shop here that took the name), nor is it a hockey team or indie-rock band (though pop-punk trio Who Is She? recently released an arch anti-anthem that took the name). Rather, it’s the urban legend stating that despite their fondness for fleece vests, people here bear the cold shoulder; they are polite and kind but they are not really, actually friendly. They’ll stand by while you decipher the craft-beer menu or wave you through a four-way stop, but they won’t invite you to their apartment to, I dunno, share intimate details about their lives. The Seattle Freeze. As anachronistic as it is timeless.

Blanca Lake, Washington
Blanca Lake, Washington | Artazum/shutterstock

The Freeze existed as soon as people even cared about Seattle  

Google the term and you’ll find that since the early 2000s, the phenomenon has been written about in a slew of publications large and small -- and almost entirely Seattle-based. (An important thing to know about this place: after New York, it’s America’s second-most narcissistic city.) This very website has chronicled the Freeze. The Seattle Times wrote about it as recently as early May. There’s even a Wikipedia page.

Each muses on one single topic: Is the Seattle Freeze real? The answer to which is yes, of course it is. Like a municipal yin-yang, it’s one of the two opposing forces that drive this promising, frustrating city. And take it from someone who had to struggle through it over the years -- the Freeze is absolutely vital to Seattle as we know it.

Like a municipal yin-yang, it’s one of the two opposing forces that drive this promising, frustrating city.

You have to bear in mind, Seattle is the last city in America. The youngest city. In the popular imagination, it didn’t exist until Elvis visited the Space Needle during the 1962 World’s Fair, the first Seattle moment wielding enough cultural gravity to turn the nation’s attention to this faraway skyline containing both a futuristic phallus and an active volcano. Prior to that -- what? Seattle was a pit stop for miners on the way to the Yukon Gold Rush and a muddy port from which to extract untold riches in timber, otherwise Salish Indian territory for 4,000 years.

Since then we’ve zoomed through the latter half of the American century with everyone else, though we’ve never had the chance to sit still long enough to decisively settle into ourselves. When MTV discovered Nirvana, our definitive subculture was ripped from the womb before its time and our brightest contribution to the world shot himself to death because he wasn’t prepared for the attention. Neither was Seattle. We’ve never fully recovered from that trauma and I’m not sure we want to. We prefer our idols humble and our shoulders bechipped.

Compare us to our West Coast kin: San Francisco is the world’s Burning Man-made epicenter of frivolous extroversion, Portland is a cuddly puppy with a bird on it, Vancouver a flashy sports car with terrible gas mileage. Seattle is a moody college kid still figuring out whether to get a job or hitchhike across Europe.

Puget Sound
Puget Sound | Mint Images/ Michael Hanson/Getty Images

We embrace the clichés of grunge and Starbucks because 1990 seems like forever ago. Like some semblance of history. The Seattle of today is a different city from the Seattle of four months past and from the Seattle of four years past. In 2014 we were an Ecotopia upon a hill, leading the nation with a brand-new $15-an-hour minimum wage, the first voter-approved marriage equality bill, a socialist City Council member, a yoga-practicing, Super Bowl winning NFL franchise, and newly legalized weed. Today we’re seething factions of YIMBYs and NIMBYs, divided between sycophants currying the favor of our corporate overlords so they’ll continue to bless us with status, and social-justice extremists demanding radical rights like affordable housing. The City Council operates as issue-based activists rather than civil servants. A small, sad handful of Seahawks remain from our championship season. What do we lead the nation in now? Rising home prices. Even the Space Needle is getting a facelift! Nothing is as it was; everything has gotten worse, or at least more expensive. For now.

Change is the only constant. Except for the other constant: the Freeze, Seattle's last remaining agent of the status quo. This place grew up off the radar and stayed that way for a long time. The Freeze is a kind of social programming aimed at keeping it that way. It has precedent: Fifty-some years ago, Emmett Watson, a Seattle-native newspaper columnist/oyster-bar owner, coined the motto “Keep the bastards out.” Watson was a true Northwesterner -- the kind that rallied for civil rights and against Vietnam but also endeavored to establish a collective bulwark against the inexorable tide of modernization that threatened to remake his city. He called it Lesser Seattle back then. Today it’s the Seattle Freeze. Without the Freeze, the boom we’ve seen in the past 20 years would’ve begun a generation earlier. This place would be Houston -- a city of almost equal size in 1940 -- minus a professional basketball team.

Cascade Mountains | Mint Images - Michael Hanson/Mint Images RF/Getty Images

How the Freeze grows on you

About a year after I moved here I was struck by a lightning-bolt realization: I’m too happy for Seattle. My colleagues at the alt-weekly newspaper I worked at were cynical, insular, former self-loathers and newly christened cool kids who delighted in nose-thumbing the Seattle establishment, such as it is. This was their form of the Freeze. I was too naïve, too amiable to get it. New-to-town me fought the Freeze, believing it to be a barrier to connection, detrimental to good times. Turns out, I was fighting against nature. I didn’t exactly lose -- I’m still here, dammit -- but I put aside the fight. I came to understand that the Freeze is, not surprisingly, the homegrown equivalent of cool. It’s Seattle’s cultural currency, its community standard.

If Seattleites are not especially welcoming, it’s for good reason. This place is hemmed in by towering mountains and imposing bodies of water, and blanketed by climatic gloom nine months of the year. Sublime as it is, the environment can punish the human spirit. Only the hardy survive, and the ones who put down roots are rightfully wary of those who haven’t put in the time yet. There isn’t a lot of room. We’re fighting for limited resources. Keep the bastards out. Give ‘em the Freeze. If you make it through, maybe you, too, deserve to stay.

The Freeze strives to preserve in an age of gratuitous consumption. You can call it good or bad but that misses the point. It simply is. Respect it or go back to California. It took me years after arriving to reach a détente with the fundamental, dour flavor of this place. I’ll never be considered a local -- “I grew here, you flew here” are words someone actually said to me once -- nor am I the true Northwesterner who’s only happy when he’s miserable. Still, this place is home.

Seattle is a moody college kid still figuring out whether to get a job or hitchhike across Europe.

I have succumbed to the petty, particular virtue of this place and now I’m OK with it, which is possibly the most Seattle thing I’ve ever written.

My mom tells this story about before I was born, when she and my dad migrated to podunk West Palm Beach from hip, happening Brooklyn. She hated it -- the monotonous weather, the peroxide vapidity. Gradually, as she persisted, the place grew on her year by sunshiny year, until one day she woke up and realized the good life she had, surrounded by family and friends in a state of permanent vacation. In that moment it hit her: She’d been Flobotomized. She’s been happy there ever since.

I’ve been in Seattle for ten years, and these days I see the landscape’s magnificence and its menace, the climate’s beauty and drear, the people’s potential for righteousness and regression, and I appreciate these powerful, opposing forces. They make Seattle home for Seattleites. The city’s youth leaves its future wide open to self-determination. We want so badly to meet our destiny, if only we can figure out what that destiny is. I’m here for the struggle, because damn, what an opportunity! To shape something that’s still new and still beautiful and still humane, pushed by progress and pulled by the Freeze. A city teetering on perfectly imperfect balance. I’ve Seattrophied. And wherever we may go, I’m staying here.

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Jonathan Zwickel lives and writes in Seattle. He's senior editor at City Arts magazine and contributes to Pitchfork, Stereogum and The Believer and is the author of Beastie Boys: A Musical Biography, published by Greenwood Press. Holler@zwickelicious.