Seattle is renowned for many things, including its rainy weather, its natural beauty and its progressive politics. All of that is true, but as I spend my first Thanksgiving here, my mind is on two other things the city is known for: the “Nice” and the “Freeze.”
For me, the Freeze — where Seattleites are polite but keep their distance — has proven to be a myth.
Dozens of readers responded to my previous column, which extolled the importance of conversation and the need to listen to different points of view. Sure, there were some misconnections — “Read your column today and it was all I could do to not throw up on my shoes,” said one reader — but overall, people were extremely welcoming.
I received more than 160 emails, from natives to recent arrivals, who wanted to share a little about themselves as well as impart some wisdom to a newcomer. Most of the practical advice can be summed up by the words of Joan Peterson, who told me to learn to love coffee, get some Gore-Tex gear and always wait at the light to cross the street. So far, I’m two out of three.
Since I’m coming from Texas, I was also warned there is no good barbecue in Seattle (or Tex-Mex), but Hélène Jaillet offered up some ribs from her husband’s smoker next spring. I don’t like to plan that far ahead, but the things we do for love.
Several readers invited me to meet in person, and I gladly took their offers. More than one person I spoke with said their friends or family had been leery of them meeting “a total stranger.” Meanwhile, I was jokingly warned of the region’s propensity for serial killers. Regardless, we threw caution to the wind, and I spent time with some fine folks over coffee, tea and tacos.
Patsy Carmichael took me to Snoqualmie Falls, the Ballard Locks and the Leif Erikson statue; Libby Ryan Goldstein showed me her Day of the Dead altar for her Irish, Jewish and Mexican family; Tom and Annette Stephenson talked about living abroad and opening their home to exchange students; and Joe and Cynthia Adcock shared stories about their life and his years as a theater critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
If there’s a freeze in Seattle, a lot of people have chosen to hit defrost. Maybe it’s the pandemic, but many of us seem more willing to connect. We’ve been separated by COVID-19 for too long. Now, if only we could do something about being kept apart by politics.
That brings me to the kind of Seattle Nice we all tend to practice around the holidays.
After all, it’s easier to give Uncle Joe a tight smile and keep the conversation moving, than it is to engage him on the “myth of structural racism.” Better to pretend your mouth is full than to challenge Cousin Mary on her belief that Compassion Seattle was “just code for rampant sweeps.”
Unless you’re helping with dinner, I’m not going to insist you stir the pot this Thanksgiving. You know your family better than I do. However, when else can you break free of superficial politeness and engage with others?
We all tend to live in a bubble, surrounding ourselves with like-minded friends and neighbors. The only time most of us are confronted by someone who disagrees is when we’re stuck sitting next to them and passing the yams.
Of course, if you don’t want to start a shouting match, there have to be willing participants and some ground rules. As I’ve learned from facilitators guiding structured conversations between people who differ politically, you need a talking piece — a symbol that indicates whose turn it is to speak — and a willingness to listen without interrupting.
The talking piece (maybe choose a wooden spoon and not the carving knife), goes around the table. You can talk, you can pass, but no one gets skipped and no one gets to speak unless it’s their turn. It’s surprisingly effective.
It’s also important to stick to the issues. Most people with different points of view can have a civil discussion, but it’s a mug’s game once our nuanced thoughts are funneled into picking a side between political parties. Don’t.
Instead, find the commonalities. Discover the concerns you share and what keeps you up at night. Whether it’s your kids’ education or what to do about climate change, how to pay for health care or how to help people who are homeless.
You don’t have to agree, and no minds are likely to change, but simply understanding we share common ground can broaden our perspective. Ideally, we can slowly realize it’s needless division that keeps us from solving our shared challenges.
This holiday season, skip the freeze, drop the nice and take a risk. We’ll never fix anything with a cold smile.