Joe Gautier III likens the effect of the Seattle Freeze to the Heisman Trophy: A figure clutching a football to its chest, postured to evade, proffering a stiff arm to all who dare approach.
That’s how Gautier, who grew up in the South and moved here with his wife and kids about five years ago, imagines the internal stance of longtime Washingtonians when he tries to have a casual, friendly chat.
“First, you get ‘the mild'” — his term for people passive-aggressively avoiding authentic interaction — “then you get ‘the pleasant.'”
“The pleasant,” he says, is worse.
“It’s what happens when you push and someone says, ‘Nice seeing you. I gotta go.'”
Gautier’s description echoes many of the sentiments that pour in from transplants each time this publication mentions the Seattle Freeze. But another contingent always pipes in with the opposite perspective: In short, if you think we’re chilly, the problem is you.
That was the message from some online commenters after writer, teacher and former attorney Phyllis Coletta wrote a pair of columns for The Seattle Times’ opinion section.
Coletta wrote in September that a “stunning lack of human contact” has her plotting an escape from Seattle just a year after her arrival. “Billboards should mark the city limits: ‘Welcome to Seattle, Home of God’s Frozen People. Expect to be isolated, disconnected and judged. Enjoy!'”
In a follow-up piece this week, she said she received more than 30 invitations to social events — including one to a deeper conversation about the Freeze — but, overwhelmingly, the response was the “digital equivalent of a biblical stoning.”
“The intention of writing about the Freeze was not to get invited to parties,” she wrote. “It was about asking Seattleites to understand the effect of this disconnected culture on the social fabric of this beautiful place, to be willing to do some soul-searching about a closed-down emotional climate. In addition to conscious isolation, Seattle’s swift and harsh social judgments reinforce the illusion of a progressive culture, a nonexistent mantle Seattleites wear with pride. Newcomers learn quickly what not to say because appropriateness, not authenticity, is rewarded.”
Coletta’s pieces garnered more than 500 comments, one indication of how the topic resonates with newcomers and old-timers alike, even if they disagree with the premise that the Freeze is a problem.
“It doesn’t seem from your writings that you are a nice person,” wrote one commenter. “That might be it.”
Aeva Wilkes, who was born in Seattle and grew up in Renton and Issaquah, also puts the blame on the complainers. Most of those she’s encountered are from the South, where “they’re used to talking to everyone all the time,” or “from Minnesota where they are so open, oh my God, I have to prepare myself for constant chatter.”
Wilkes, 24, said she doesn’t mean to be rude. She just values quiet alone time.
“I’ve never heard an introvert complain about it,” she said.
Another native Seattleite, activist and organizer Mohawk Kuzma, said his travels to 23 other states have convinced him the Freeze is real.
The friendliest cites, in his experience, were New Orleans; Dallas; Salt Lake City; and West Palm Beach, Florida.
“Everyone says hello or tries to interact with you if they walk past you, and at times, I found it kind of annoying, because I just wanna explore and stay to myself as my Seattle nature tells me,” he said in a recent email.
Indeed, Seattle outranks all those places on Travel + Leisure’s annual list of America’s “rudest” cities. But we’re only 17th overall, with New York, Miami, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and Boston taking the top spots. “The bigger the city, the bigger the attitude,” according to the magazine, “or at least its perceived attitude.”
Gautier explained that in other places he’s lived — mostly Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas — all the emotional messiness that Seattleites try so hard to avoid is savored.
“In the South, the messiness is the fun,” he said. “It’s the soup. It’s where gumbo comes from.”
He thinks Southerners who come to Seattle might feel the chill a little more than transplants from other areas.
“It’s like, people here think that if you have a thick accent, you’re probably a racist redneck who’s not too smart,” he said.
That’s not to say Gautier doesn’t enjoy the region’s charms: the scenic beauty and the mild weather, not to mention the lack of gnats, mosquitoes and poisonous snakes.
But still, he’s planning to move back to Texas soon for the air conditioning, Tex-Mex food, gumbo — and, yes, the friendliness.