The Seattle Freeze — that unwelcoming sensation experienced by newcomers to this city — has practically become an institution. Google it and you’ll see what I mean: countless articles, blog posts, and discussion threads exist on the subject. It has its own entry on Wikipedia, and there is even a meet-up group working to defeat it, the Seattle Anti-Freeze.
If it seems like the Freeze has been around forever, you might be surprised to learn that it only dates back to around 2005. That’s the year that a Seattle Times reporter, Julia Sommerfeld, popularized the term with her pioneering article on the subject. Sommerfeld also identified some of the likely culprits for its existence which, to this day, are trotted out in any discussion of the Freeze: the gloomy weather; the socially-awkward tech workers; and — of course — the Scandinavians.
The Scandinavians? Why would anybody blame the Scandinavians for the Seattle Freeze?
Here it is in a nutshell. In the late-19th Century, people from the Nordic countries flocked to Seattle, becoming the city’s largest immigrant group of that era. Their typically Scandinavian personality traits — reserve, reticence, and perhaps a slight guardedness of strangers — passed down through the generations, and manifest themselves as the present-day Seattle Freeze. That’s the theory, anyway.
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It was dubbed “the Scandinavian factor” in a recent program about the Seattle Freeze on KPLU radio. Stina Cowen, who is Swedish and works at the Nordic Heritage Museum, was interviewed for that program; I spoke with her, and with Kristine Leander, Executive Director of the Swedish Cultural Center, about the Freeze. Both women insist that Scandinavians are warm people who do embrace new friendships … eventually. Leander is quick to point out the many positive contributions Scandinavians have made to this city. On balance, she says, the Scandinavians come out way ahead.
Hmm. Does it sound like even the Scandinavians themselves aren’t entirely convinced that this whole Seattle Freeze business isn’t partly their fault?
But here’s the thing — there is a glaring flaw in this theory that the introverted descendants of 19th Century Nordic immigrants are behind the Seattle Freeze. Because the fact is, hardly any of those introverted descendants actually live here. Even though the Nordic traditions and institutions still thrive in Seattle, the Nordics themselves are few and far between. According to Census data, a mere 7.4 percent of Seattleites claim their primary ancestry is Scandinavian. Even just among people of European heritage, Nordic-Americans only rank as the fourth largest group in the city.
Compare Seattle with Minneapolis, the other major U.S. city famous for its Scandinavian immigrants. It has double Seattle’s percentage of Nordic-Americans in its population, according to the most recent Census Bureau estimates.
The map on the right is color-coded to illustrate where people of Scandinavian extraction live in Seattle. As you can see, there are only a few pockets of the city where the concentration of Nordic-Americans hits 16 percent. Throughout much of the southern half of Seattle, it’s less than four percent.
And then there’s this sobering fact. Despite all of Ballard’s Norse pride — the Syttende Mai parade, the lutefisk-eating contest, that big Leif Erikson statue — despite all these things, Census data do not lie: There are 25 percent more Irish-Americans than Norwegian-Americans in Ballard these days. Clearly, salmon aren’t the only endangered population around here.
Who or what is causing the Seattle Freeze? Your guess is as good as mine, but one thing is for sure: It’s not the Nordics. Think about it. The Seattle Freeze didn’t even enter our local vocabulary until 2005 or so. By that time, there were barely enough Scandinavians around to work the buffet tables at the Swedish Center’s pancake breakfasts, let alone cast a chill over the entire city’s social scene. No, whatever misery newcomers to Seattle might feel, it has nothing to do with Scandinavians.
Now the weather? That’s another story.