by Jennifer Pruiett-Selby
For some reason, I’ve heard a lot of discussion of “Midwestern nice” as of late. About a month ago, Paul Kix wrote an article for Thrillist.com, titled “Midwestern Nice: A Tribute to a Sincere and Suffocating Way of Life.” He claimed he grew up in Iowa, but I questioned the validity of that assertion when he stated “the most remarkable facet of Midwestern Nice [is] the restraint from speaking ill of others, even if others should probably be ill-spoken of.”
I currently live in a town that holds around 1,500 people. Chariton, where I grew up, has a population around 4,300. When I left for college, I lived in Ottumwa with nearly 25,000 other people. Afterwards, I moved to Urbandale, a suburb of Des Moines with just under 42,000 people—Des Moines having close to a quarter of a million. Then, I moved due south of the capitol to Indianola (15,000), and back up to Ames (62,000).
Sure, I’ll admit I’ve lived mostly in the central column of the state, but I’ve travelled Iowa extensively, gaining experience with all kinds of residents. If there’s one thing I can say about people here, it’s that few will resist the urge to speak ill of others. Not only do people here spread rumors, they do it openly and with great joy. I’ve only met a handful of angelic creatures who swear they never gossip.
As much as I try to avoid it myself, I sometimes get sucked in by a particularly juicy nugget of information. For instance, I overheard a neighbor was getting a divorce because of infidelity—followed by some hard-core speculation on who the offending party could possibly be—I couldn’t resist wondering right along with them.
It’s human nature, I suppose, to be curious about other peoples’ lives. And the cultivation of rumors creates a sort of community, albeit a sick one. Some change what they hear into something worse. They plant seeds of hatred and fear in the minds of the hungry and bored. They feed them with malice and gather others to join in on the storytelling. Then, they stand back while those weeds spread like dandelion fluff in the wind. It’s dangerous, the games some play with others’ lives.
Paul Kix says, “we are the alpha and omega of passive-aggressiveness. It is, like the corn we plant, our contribution to society.” Sorry, but I beg to differ. Especially with Facebook as a vehicle. I recently posted a meme I procured from a friend. The picture showed a group of people laughing together. The text read: “A Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, a Buddhist, and an Atheist all walk into a coffee shop … and they talk, laugh, drink coffee, and become good friends. It’s not a joke. It’s what happens when you’re not an asshole.” It received a spattering of likes, but then the backlash began with one brief comment: “Until the Muslim blew everyone up.” The conversation quickly devolved with variations of “kill ‘em all, let God sort ‘em out.”
Of course, I began a campaign in defense of my original post—with a message of love and acceptance. But I had broken the cardinal rule of social media: no religious or political statements. Stick to cute kid pics and funny cat videos.
The simple fact is, as often as we try to shine a little reason onto others, most will not be receptive. Kix talks about repressed anger, but I can testify that, if you present a release valve—in whatever form—you will unleash the wrath of hell from most anyone here.
A short while ago, I read in The Des Moines Register that our governor had passed legislation making the first week of November “Farmer Wave Week,” whereby a person should lift one finger from the steering wheel in salutation to the on-coming driver. This “encourages all Iowans to display their Midwestern hospitality and extend this simple, friendly gesture to all that they might meet.”
To understand the unfortunate irony here, you must also know this same governor vetoed $55.7 million in school funding this summer, leaving our schools to struggle even more than usual. He said our “schools need to try harder.” (Yes. Go back. Read it again, and let it sink in.) In addition he also cut funding for mental health facilities, forcing most to close without any in-state alternatives for the patients who need those services.
I believe many Iowans would love to give a simple one-finger salute to our governor. Just not the friendly one.
Caribou Coffee, Steak ‘n’ Shake, puppy chow, ranch dressing (but also honey mustard), and—to avoid sounding overly hungry—fireflies, interstate competition, and getting lost, “really lost.”
Iowa’s governor, Kix, and the Thrillest aren’t the only ones who misunderstand the midwest mindset. I should address a recent Buzzfeed post: “29 Things Only People From The Midwest Understand,” and clear up a little confusion on that one, as well.
1) I’ve neither heard of, nor played, cornhole. Buzzfeed shows it as a game similar to bean-bag toss, but it sounds like something much more—shall we say—disgusting.
2) Driving in blizzard-like conditions is not, in fact, a “piece of cake.” The so-called farmer wave is non-existent on roads where people drive as if they’ve never seen snow before, each and every year without fail.
3) Not all Midwesterners believe lakes are the “absolute best thing to swim in.” Some of us actually read advisories on bacterial levels. Some of us also know about the creatures that lurk just below the surface. Some of us know this.
4) The state fair is not the best time of my life. Here in Iowa, the fair takes place in the middle of tropical rainforest-like August. I don’t particularly enjoy sweating in line with other sweaty people for a ride where I’ll have to sit in a puddle of someone else’s sweat.
5) I have never heard of Cedar Point. I know about Adventureland, and of course Worlds of Fun and the Wisconsin Dells. All other amusement parks have Disney in the name.
6) I once ate too many fried cheese curds. They are not a “beautiful food” in reverse.
7) 40 degrees is NOT “shorts weather.” I refuse to switch to Capri yoga pants until it is at least 55 degrees out.
Here are the things Buzzfeed got right: Caribou Coffee, Steak ‘n’ Shake, puppy chow, ranch dressing (but also honey mustard), and—to avoid sounding overly hungry—fireflies, interstate competition, and getting lost, “really lost.”
And yes, we can be nice without wanting something in return. At least, some of us can. Sometimes.