Forget about trying to make friends here. Almost half of Pacific Northwest residents don’t even want to talk briefly to people they don’t already know.
That’s among the results of a recent survey by Seattle-based Pemco Insurance that seems to give credence to the phenomenon known as the Seattle Freeze: Northwesterners’ reputation for making it hard to form new friendships.
About 40% of the poll’s 1,200 respondents in Washington and Oregon said it’s not important for them to make new friends.
“That’s almost double the number of people on the other side, who say it’s important, or very important, to make new friends,” said Derek Wing, a spokesman for Pemco, which released the results of the poll last month.
“You’ve heard of FOMO (fear of missing out), right? Well, here, we see a lot of JOMO: joy of missing out,” Wing said. “People here say, ‘There’s a party I’m not going to, and I’m glad I’m not going to it.'”
A whopping 49 percent said they don’t even want to interact with people they don’t know.
Art Converse, 66, grew up in Wedgwood and spent more than three decades as a Seattle firefighter, meeting people from all over the country and all walks of life. He’s now a counselor for veterans.
The Freeze comes up all the time, he said.
“It’s real, and people move away because of it. I was reluctant to admit it, but too many people have said, ‘We don’t like it here, we’re moving away’ to deny it.”
Converse said his daughter, now settled in New York City, says she “can’t stand the people here” when she comes back for a visit.
“You know how it is in New York. You can go into a pub on Friday as a total stranger and be playing ball with them on Saturday,” he said. “That would never happen in Seattle.”
Some of the younger people he’s counseled have theorized that the Freeze is somehow connected to technological changes, that “life has been consumed by what is on the computer screen.” While an argument could be made that technology doesn’t encourage personal interaction, this region’s cool reserve predates the tech boom, Converse said.
What strikes Converse when he travels is how much less territorial, private and reclusive people elsewhere are compared to those in the Seattle area.
In some parts of California and Oregon, for example, he said, there is an understanding that access to beaches and water views should be open to all. It’s surprising, he said, that in socialist-leaning Seattle, there is a strange tendency to “almost hoard” the beauty.
“All around Seattle, there are these homes with 8-foot-tall walls, as if the owner is saying, ‘This is my property. Don’t come in. You can’t even look.’ It feels like there’s something in the culture that promotes that kind of reclusiveness,” he said.
It’s possible the Freeze exists in part due to the region’s weather, which can somewhat train people to “become hermits in the winter,” Converse mused.
But there may be more to it than rain. The phenomenon could also be tied to the Scandinavian origins of what was once the region’s largest share of immigrants.
It’s not far-fetched to say Nordic culture has influenced Seattle culture, said Andrew Nestingen, chair of the University of Washington’s Department of Scandinavian Studies, which was established by the state Legislature in 1909.
The American social norm is to engage in small talk about weather, sports and other noncontroversial events, while in Nordic countries the polite thing is “not to talk to people,” Nestingen said.
“It is considered intrusive,” he said, “and the default interaction is silence. That is a sign of respect.”
Converse, whose wife immigrated from Sweden, has observed this as well. He said people in her native country are “real cordial and welcoming to their friends but otherwise aloof.”
“The in-laws will talk about the long, dark winters in small Viking villages where you couldn’t call police, you didn’t know if someone walking up was going to annihilate you or say ‘hello.’ People had an attack dog and kept to themselves until they got to know someone,” he said.
Guesses at why the Seattle Freeze developed end up being just that, said Doug Wear, a member of the Washington State Psychological Association and director of the Antioch University Community Counseling and Psychology Clinic.
“This is not an area where we have good, hard research to talk about,” he said. “But certainly, the Seattle Freeze is a great conversation starter.”
Wear said he understands it better when he thinks of Seattle more as a big small town than as a small city.
“Small towns can be insular and provincial,” he said. “People know each other; they have their friends and their network and they feel complete. They might even resent outsiders.”
Plenty of long-timers here are content with their introverted tendencies and small social circles.
“Everybody wants to figure out how to melt the Freeze, and I applaud efforts to bring people together,” Wear said. “One thing to keep in mind is that there is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely, and not everyone wants to be melted.”
He described a conversation he’d had with a woman born and raised in Seattle who told him the Freeze is good: “We don’t need those people. We have our lives. It’s fine. We like it, and if they don’t, that’s not our problem.”
But it may in fact be a problem. Loneliness and social isolation have been declared a public health risk in numerous countries, and have been described in scientific journals as more dangerous than diabetes or obesity and as much of a health risk as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Not long ago, most people claimed they had five people in their lives they could count on; that number is now down to one and, in some cases, zero, Wear said.
About half of Americans report deep loneliness, with even higher numbers among young people, according to a 2018 nationwide survey.
“Kids, teens, people in their 20s and also young moms at home with their children are experiencing epidemic levels of stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms,” said Tacoma-based psychologist Ana Maria Sierra.
For people feeling the Freeze, connecting and interacting with other people can be an important protective measure for health and well-being. And there’s hope that it’s possible. After all, almost half the respondents to the Pemco survey said they would rather spend their free time with others than alone.
“It’s about finding your people, and that can take a while,” Wear said. “And you’ve got to go out there and do it. It’s not going to happen in your house. And don’t go do something once and give up and stop.”
If you keep going to a coffee shop or shared space where people gather, even if no one is talking at first, everyone is becoming familiar to each other. Pretty soon, people start noticing when someone’s not there and starting to care.
“Research shows that the more you spend time with people and get to know them a little, the more you get to like them,” he said.
For newcomers, it may be heartening to remember how much the city is still growing, Wear said.
“The more new people who move here, the more people there are in the same boat. You’re not just going to be running into the people who have been here, you’ll be running into other people who are new and looking to connect and make friends.”