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Sunday, February 13, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine / Cover Story

Our Social Dis-ease: Beyond the smiles, the Seattle Freeze is on

SOON AFTER SETTLING in Seattle, nearly everyone acquires a version of the people-here-are-sooo-nice story. There's the comic after-you-no-please-after-you traffic merge. And the fellow who held the elevator door when you were still 20 feet away. Then that time some lady offered you change for the meter. And, of course, the classic jaywalker's tale:

You're perched on the edge of the sidewalk, gazing across the street, when suddenly a car stops in the middle of the road. The man behind the steering wheel smiles and gestures for you to cross in front of him.

Is this a trick? Like when your older brother would act like he was slowing down to let you in the car and then just as you reached for the handle, he'd lurch forward and send you sprawling?

No, the nice man in the sedan seems sincere and shows no sign of lurching. Four other cars are now stopped behind him, all waiting for you to cross. And not a one honks.

Those who move to Seattle also have another kind of story. But you don't broadcast this one. You keep it to yourself or whisper it to other transplants. It goes something like this:

You're talking to a co-worker/someone at a party/fill in the blank. In any other town, this person looks like someone with whom you might be friends. Potential friend asks, "So what are you up to this weekend?"

"Oh, I don't have any plans yet. I just moved to Seattle and don't really know anybody . . ."

You try not to look desperate.

Friend-to-be smiles and, for a brief, shining moment you think to yourself: Finally, someone is going to ask me to do something. Invite me to a party. Happy hour. Brunch with the girls. It'll be just like "Sex and the City." She'll be Charlotte; you'll be Carrie!

You feel a chill coming on. Still smiling, Friend-Not-On-Your-Life politely excuses herself, "Well, have a nice weekend then."

Ouch.

You've just experienced the infamous Seattle Freeze. It's the flip side of Seattle Nice. Welcome to Seattle . . . Now please go away.

Seattle's long been described in contradictory terms. The weather: Is it mild or dreary or mildly dreary? The politics: Progressive yet torpid. Progressing toward torpor? The attitude: Tolerant — of all like-minded people.

But the dichotomy most fundamental to our collective civic character is this: Polite but distant. Have a nice day. Somewhere else.

We're the ideal seatmate on an airplane. We slide in, exchange a smile and a succinct pleasantry, then leave you be for the rest of the flight. Alaska Airlines should capitalize on this with ads that promise: "Uninterrupted service from Seattle — and we mean it."

Seattle is like that popular girl in high school. The one who gets your vote for homecoming queen because she always smiles and says hello. But she doesn't know your name and doesn't care to. She doesn't want to be your friend. She's just being nice.

Eli Katz, a native of Cherry Hill, N.J., met that girl when she moved to Seattle almost three years ago. At first, she thought, that Seattle, she's sooo nice. She smiles nicely at me on the street. She's always telling me to have a nice day.

Katz, 27, is an aspiring actress who's never had trouble making friends in the other cities where she's lived — not in London, New York or Philadelphia. She has a boisterous, throaty laugh that sounds like an invitation. On a sit-com, she'd play the wacky gal pal.

But in Seattle, it was cold shoulder after cold shoulder. She was working as a waitress with dozens of people her age, but it took six months before one of them invited her along when they went out after work.

"It seems nobody really wants to let you in," she says. "They'll say, 'Oh yeah, yeah, I'll get your number' — but you know that's going nowhere."

Now, after penetrating a circle of friends made up mostly of fellow transplants, Katz observes that Seattle's rules of engagement are opposite those of her suburban Jersey hometown. In fact, they're opposite those of any place she's ever heard of, where the freeze generally applies in passing situations, like on buses or elevators, but familiarity breeds intimacy.

"Here, it's so weird, people are so nice in these passing situations, but beyond that there's a wall," she says.

Sociology professor Jodi O'Brien has a name for it: "the phenomenon of the plastic smile."

Raised in Salt Lake City and Zurich, O'Brien came to Seattle 20 years ago for graduate school and is now chairwoman of the sociology department at Seattle University.

"At the university, where people are hired from all over, this is a pretty standard conversation," O'Brien says. "Seattleites are often seen as having this veneer of pleasantness but being hard to come to know."

It can even be a faculty-retention problem, she says. When new faculty arrive — especially if they're young and single — they imagine they'll soon be part of some urban tribe. They've been duped by the movie "Singles." Instead, the Seattle Freeze sends them packing.

SO WHY DOES Seattle seem to have what self-help books would call a fear of intimacy?

Or, as O'Brien more kindly puts it, a tendency to "cocoon."

One theory points to the cloistering effect of cloudy skies. Another has it that the Seattle Nice/Ice phenomenon is rooted in a historic intersection of Nordic-Asian reserve. It may be the influence of weekend mountain men or the influx of socially disinclined tech workers. It could be a trapping of mid-sized citydom — small enough to manage on your own but too big to care about your neighbors.

Or perhaps it's all of the above: some confluence of factors that has created a perfect storm of antisociality.

Some element of our antisocial streak, at least, seems to go back to the frontier days, when the prevailing ethic was: We're in this together, but I wish you'd go away.

"There's always been this sense that every person you add diminishes the wonderfulness of this place by something," intones Bainbridge Island author Fred Moody, who explores our cultural history in his most recent book, "Seattle and the Demons of Ambition." "As soon as you get here, there's a tendency to want to pull up the drawbridges."

That instinct had its most famous voice in the late Seattle newspaper columnist Emmett Watson and his spoof society called "Lesser Seattle." For those who aren't familiar, in the 1980s and '90s, Watson responded to the flood of newcomers, especially Californians, whom he accused of bidding up housing prices and yuppifying his precious town, with cranky columns that exaggerated Seattle's shortcomings in an effort to "Keep the Bastards Out!"

The word Seattle, according to Watson, was Indian for "stay away from here." If you were to have told him that Seattleites are a bunch of cold fish, he would have urged: Spread the word!

When you ask longtime Seattleites about the Freeze, you may get blank stares (the wall of ice goes up when faced with any perceived slight on their fair city) or a little passive-aggressiveness: "Well, the people who think that must not be from Seattle." ("Not from Seattle" is the "Your mama" of Northwestern insults.) But most are, as you'd expect, quite nice about it.

Especially Wallingford's only known etiquette consultant. "No, I wouldn't say we're friendly, not exactly," admits Dawn DeGroot, who was born in Tacoma but has lived in Seattle for 17 years.

At Mrs. DeGroot's Wallingford Charm School, children learn which forks to use when, and that one must always pass the salt and pepper together. Polite she can teach: "Being polite is a social grace that doesn't need to go any farther," she says.

As for friendly, that's tougher: "Being friendly is that next step, offering an invitation, and we do fall short on that," she says. "I think not wanting to show your cards is a bit of a Northwest thing. But that doesn't mean we aren't good people . . . Just the other day I was loading my car at Costco and a nice man said to me, 'May I take your cart back for you?' "

That's just the kind of reason Seattle was named third-most-polite city in the country by Marjabelle Young Stewart, author of more than a dozen etiquette books with titles such as "White Gloves and Party Manners."

Stewart — Mrs. Stewart, if you please — puts together her list of polite cities each year based on letters and calls she gets from tourists and business travelers, who are apparently tickled to find we don't scream or honk at them. They especially appreciate our smiley wait staff and cheerful salespeople. We're not the home of Nordstrom for nothing.

"Take a bow, Seattle, you really have something to be proud of," says Mrs. Stewart.

And when the Seattle Freeze is explained, her esteem for our city, if anything, seems to rise.

"I think it's good to be polite but reserved in your emotions," she says. "It's quite lovely to say no thank you, very kindly, and be on your way. I'd like to encourage a little more of that kind of calmness."

WHILE RESERVE may come in handy when you've got on white gloves, it can make for a rather stultifying social scene, as Gabriel Tevrizian found when he moved here 15 years ago from Buenos Aires.

Now 40, Tevrizian recalls that for the first time in his life, he knew what it meant to be lonely.

"There's no such thing as that in Argentina," he says. "There are people around you constantly. They come over and hang out and then they hang out some more.

"People here don't ever just hang out — there's no time for that — but those are the times you really get to know people."

Any attempt to socialize begins to feel like too much effort, he says. "You have to try to get together 10 times before someone doesn't cancel."

Trying to develop a friendship in Seattle, you can feel a bit like Bill Murray in "Groundhog Day." Like with each encounter you have to start from scratch, back to the surface niceties.

Take the dog park. Pam Tate and her Pomeranian-Schipperke mix Jett see the same people each week at the Magnuson Park off-leash area. As the dogs sniff each other, their owners chitchat and trade compliments on each other's sniff-worthy dogs. But each time, at the end of the conversation, "I know the dog's name, but not the owners'. How sad is that?"

And as Tate, 36, quickly learned, when you actually make an effort, you risk coming off as pushy. When she arrived from Orange County, potential-friend types would say, "Hey, let's do something sometime." And she thought they meant it. She'd try to actually set something up. "People would seem shocked; I was seen as aggressive for asking people to do a specific thing at a specific time."

After a series of squirmy rebuffs, she realized that when Seattleites say, "Let's do something sometime," what they really mean is: "Let's never do anything ever."

Finally, she has "cultivated" — she uses that word to underscore that this wasn't, after all, some natural process — a circle of friends, including some she met on Craig's List, an online bulletin board. On Craig's List, it's apparent not everyone in Seattle is alone because they want to be. Dozens of electronic pleas for friends and "activity partners" are posted each day.

"Will & Grace chemistry sought," one recent posting reads. "I realize it is just a TV show; however, it would be fun to have someone to hang out and do something with."

"IT LOOKS LIKE a library in here," O'Brien says, scanning her neighborhood coffee shop, where at least half the customers stare into laptop screens. Others read newspapers or shuffle through paperwork. The only people talking seem to be in some sort of business meeting.

Cozy chairs are arranged for conversation, but people sit turned away from each other, likely chatting with other strangers online.

Even if that one lady who's looking around tried to strike up a conversation with the guy next to her, she'd have a hard time getting his attention. He's corked off the rest of the world with his iPod. Those telltale white earbuds announce: I've got 10,000 songs to render you mute.

"A lot of what people call socializing is really just public isolation," O'Brien says.

Here in Seattle we do a lot of things alone. We live alone: Two out of five households have a single occupant — one of the highest rates in the nation. More than three-quarters of people participate in an individual sport but only 13 percent play on a team. We ride bikes alone; go on walks alone; troll bookstores alone, then go home and read alone.

"People find their set of activities to do and they are fairly content," O'Brien says.

In fact, Seattle's seeming split personality might come from this very complacency. We don't have anything against you, but simply don't feel the need to take the risk of inviting you into the fold.

And that, Seattle, is the problem, according to O'Brien, who happens to be a member of the Society for the Study of Social Problems.

"On the one hand, it's nice to bop in and out of situations knowing people will smile and treat you well. Nice is like bubble gum — it's sugary and pleasant." But if all you ever get is nice, never flirty or risky, she says, that gum loses its flavor pretty quick, and the human experience becomes ultimately less rewarding. Even depressing.

She cites a famous sociological study of flight attendants, which found being nice all the time is an especially draining kind of work. It can cause the emotional equivalent of repetitive stress injury. At the end of the day, some flight attendants would have trouble turning the nice off. And stuck in nice gear, they became disassociated from their true emotions and had trouble expressing them.

Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like Seattle's singles scene, says Kirkland native Julie Thompson. Seattle's dating doldrums are Thompson's business. She has run a speed-dating outfit and a match-making service, and just launched a social club called Magnetic.

"People here have a real hard time telling if someone likes them," says Thompson. "When a guy asks a girl out, she can't tell, is this a date or a non-date date? And when a girl is nice back, guys say, does she like me or is she just being nice?"

THE MOST BAFFLING thing about the Seattle Freeze is that since the '90s, this city has been majority-owned by outsiders. Sixty percent of us here today are from out of state.

According to the natives, we've trampled everything wonderful about their treasured city, so why haven't we cracked the icy crust?

First, it's an enabling cultural climate for socially inept people. So if you come here and you have any germ of antisociality, it will, like moss, take hold and flourish.

And if you arrive here open and ebullient, you're bound to lose your confidence and spark after enough cold shoulders. After all, why even bother going to that party when you know it will just be more nonchalant chitchat that will never go anywhere?

"If a dog gets smacked every time he sticks his nose out of the cage, guess what happens?" Pam Tate says. "After a while of putting yourself out there and being rebuffed, you just say forget it."

Newcomers seem to acclimate to the social habits along with the weather. We soon learn to lay off our horns and grow less effusive with invitations.

Even Gabriel Tevrizian is more or less a Seattleite now. Since arriving from Argentina, he's turned down the volume on his laugh, no longer reaches out to hug friends and has even stopped wearing his favorite loud red pants. Those first lonely years in the Northwest even gave him a bit of a taste for solitude. Last time he went back to Buenos Aires, he found himself overwhelmed by his own exuberant culture. "I didn't connect that well anymore. I couldn't get any time alone. People were in my face all day long," he says.

So, is assimilation inevitable?

Meet Andrea Martin. She's the leader of the resistance.

After moving here from Los Angeles, Martin's self-esteem took a nose dive. "I always thought I had a good personality, but the reception here had me questioning how I said good morning, how I smiled at people — everything."

After discovering she wasn't alone in her aloneness, she decided Seattle needed a social director. "After all, if you aren't part of the solution . . ."

What started out as occasional cocktail parties three years ago turned into a social club called Space City Mixer. It now has 8,000 members, most of whom are transplants.

Martin hosts several events each month, things like ladies' brunches, pub mixers and rotating dinner parties. Her goal: To chip away the Seattle Freeze one friendship at a time.

"People don't come because of the actual events," she says. "They come because I'm giving them a way to meet people who want to meet people."

And at these social events, there's always a familiar-sounding conversation going on. It seems to break the ice. It bonds these strangers in a strange land. It starts like this:

So, have you been finding it's hard to get to know people in Seattle?

Julia Sommerfeld is a Seattle Times staff writer. Statistics contributed by Times researcher Gene Balk. Ken Lambert is a Times staff photographer.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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