Editor's Note: This story, which first appeared on Feb. 2, 2009, is reprinted here as part of our "Best Crosscuts of 2009" series.
Seattle is obsessed with itself. Perhaps due to its relative geographic isolation, this city navel-gazes better than any other. Most towns and cities have as point of reference some other place: Miami looks to Latin America, Chicago looks to New York, lowly St. Louis looks to Chicago. Seattle compares itself only to Seattle, either the Seattle of the past or the perfect Seattle its denizens believe they can create through bike lanes or density or recycling.
What this can mean for the outsider is a stultifying claustrophobia, as no one in Seattle seems to know that solutions to a problem thought unique to Seattle might come from somewhere beyond the mountain range.
I've been thinking about Seattle's nature a lot these days, goaded by a friend's questions as she considers relocating here. It's grown into a sprawling inventory of quirks and strengths on my blog.
I started by telling her of the decided lack of curiosity here about newcomers' origins. No one will ask you about your home town because either a) they're natives, and don't believe that other places exist or b) they're also from somewhere else and want to forget it. They're here now, busy re-inventing themselves, so don't remind them of Tulsa or Tacoma or Toledo. They buy the alt footwear of the moment (Doc Martens in the 90s, Birkenstocks before that) and never look back.
It's also a small town in the guise of a big city. You can't complain loudly in a coffee shop about your boss because his best friend from high school might be sitting behind you. Seattle's six degrees of separation are only four.
Much has been made of the Seattle Freeze, which theorizes that the city's two dominant cultures (Asian and Scandinavian) tend toward stoic reserve, which means that Seattleites are "the most polite people you'll never know." While there may be something to the theory, at this point, there are far too many transplants here for genetic stoicism to really be the issue.
In my experience, it's not. What harms social and business relationships in Seattle is the lid of "tolerance" on the surface which means everyone acts as if they like you and your ideas, but really, they don't. Everyone's just so nice, and oh, isn't that just great, and then you realize you're not getting the promotion (even though no one will actually tell you this), or the person you thought was a comrade finds you annoying.
I was recently in the Midwest for two weeks and felt refreshingly at home with everyone's directness. I didn't have to translate what people were saying to figure out what they really meant. It's the same with Easterners. When I taught college freshman at University of Miami, the only criticism leveled at me on student evaluations was that "sometimes" I am "too nice." When I moved to the Northwest, my first batch of students said I was "mean."
On the other hand, you'd be hard-pressed to find an overt racist making a go of it here in Seattle. They might be thinking bad thoughts about you based solely on your ethnicity, but they'd never utter a politically incorrect slur. While I do have to put up with ignorant assumptions and bad behavior fueled by institutionalized racism when I visit the Midwest, in Seattle, it's just not an issue. If racism rears its ugly head, it's subtle — perhaps making it more sinister — but I think people here are actively trying to be anti-racist in their thoughts and action. That's admirable.