Friendship and the Seattle Freeze
Did you know the Seattle Freeze is eight years old?
Now I’m specifically talking about the etymology of the term “Seattle Freeze,” and not necessarily about the reserved demeanor (perceived or actual) of Seattleites. The Freeze is a pretty big deal here. And while we Seattleites are always polite, we’ve also been accused of being cold, distant, and not particularly friendly. A lot of people have spent a lot of time discussing and writing about this seemingly regional phenomenon. There’s a Wikipedia entry as well as multiple entries on Urban Dictionary that describe the “have a nice day, somewhere else” disposition of Seattle folks.
I didn’t know that the official term was largely coined a result of this 2005 Seattle Times article by Julia Sommerfeld, which makes sense as I hadn’t heard of the term when I was living in Seattle in the mid-late 90s.
Now, I’ve made the argument before that it’s usually easier to meet people and to form friendships in cities that attract people from somewhere else. Transplants are generally more motivated to meet new people and to reciprocate friendship, especially if they also happen to be looking for friends too. But in Seattle, this corollary doesn’t always seem to hold true. The Freeze still permeates our social scene, so much so that there’s a retaliatory friendly social group called the Seattle Anti-Freeze. And despite the fact that the majority (over 60% according to Sommerfeld’s article) of Seattle’s population is transplanted from elsewhere, many still bemoan how difficult it is to make friends and form genuine relationships in our fair city.
Personally, I suspect that the Freeze isn’t endemic just to Seattle, but is a basic social hurdle in any major metropolitan city that draws a diverse incoming population from elsewhere. I’ve also lived in DC and experienced some milder aspects of a version of the Freeze there, and have heard similar sentiments from numerous friends who’ve moved to New York—though perhaps NYC exudes a more in-your-face aggressive attitude that differs from SEA’s polite-but-passive-aggressive + cold-shoulder vibe. But in either case, it’s always hard to be the new kid and to meet new people and to make new friends in a new city. It inevitably takes time, no matter where you are. I suspect that some version of the Freeze is easily applicable to the social scene in almost all American cities.
I lived in Seattle in the mid-late 90s, moved away for a long while and moved back in the last few years. And I only recently became aware of the term “Seattle Freeze.” I remember that Seattle was a very different place when I lived here last. It was smaller, but then again it was the 90s, and I was in my late teens/early 20s and in college. But even all through college, I can confidently state that all of my closest friends were NOT from the Seattle area. Much of it had to do with the fact that those of us who weren’t from the area or from out-of-state all lived in the dorms, unlike the many local area Seattle kids who lived at home and simply commuted. And I also noticed that a lot of the Seattle kids seemed to already have an established network of friends. They didn’t need to bother with making new ones, unlike me.
The Seattle Freeze has been attributed to a combination of the dreary weather, a high concentration of socially-awkward tech minions, and possibly the Scandinavian heritage of long-time residents. The weather is definitely a valid argument in my book, as is the high concentration of tech geeks. But the Scandinavian/Nordic argument has been proven wrong, particularly with recent census data. In Gene Balk’s Seattle Times article, he points out that a mere 7.4 percent of Seattleites claim their primary ancestry as Scandinavian. And among Seattleites of European heritage, Nordic-Americans only rank as the fourth largest group in the city behind the Irish, the Germans, and the English. Whatever is causing the Seattle Freeze, it’s definitely not the Scandinavians.
Which leaves the dreary weather and the introverted tech geeks. Touché.
But let me add one more possible reason to replace the Scandinavian explanation: Age.
It’s just simply harder to make friends in your 30s than in your 20s. There’s less time to hang out with work and family schedules. People move out to the suburbs and have kids. And I’ll bet that most of the columnists writing all these articles about the Seattle Freeze are probably at least in their 30s and 40s.
Alex Williams’ NYT article from last year perfectly captures a sad-but-true observation that I think many of us who are aging intuitively suspect, but often can’t verbalize. We simply just don’t have as much time for friends as we get older. Schedules and logistics don’t seem to allow for it. He points out that as we age into our 30s and 40s, the period for making BFFs the way we did in our teens and early 20s is pretty much over, and that many of us resign ourselves to situational friends: KOFs (kind of friends)—for now.
Further in the article, Williams points out the three basic conditions that sociologists have considered crucial for making and keeping close friendships: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college. And in our 30s, 40s and onwards, some of us seem to make do with KOFs and situational friends. Which leaves us feeling a little lonely.
But there’s hope as authentic friendships can also come about from the most unexpected places and situations. Attitude is everything. I enjoyed this recent article from Jezebel entitled “How to Make Friends When You’re Old,” where the author uses a conveyer belt analogy. In school and our early 20s, the large, reliable conveyer belt is moving towards us, filled with people with similar interests so it was much easier to make friends. But as we age and hit our 30s, the conveyer belt changes:
- It’s smaller.
- There are actually a hundred thousand more of them if you want them, but you have to find them instead of them finding you.
- The people move in and out more often, and therefore must be acted up on more quickly.
- The conveyer belt no longer moves toward you, but away from you.
So get out there and snag your conveyer belt. Sign up for the next Seattle Anti-Freeze event. We often forget that cultivating meaningful friendships takes time and effort, whereas liking someone’s Tweet or post on Facebook is relatively effortless. And I’m sure there are plenty of other Seattle transplants who feel the same about the Freeze, and who are also looking for people to take that mutual first step. It’s hard and it takes courage, but often times it’s so worth it.
Now if we could only work on the dreary winter weather. But, there’s really no weather excuse this weekend, so get out there. You never know, you just might meet a good friend.
I didn’t realize the Seattle Freeze was a relatively new term. It makes sense that I had never heard of it until I moved back a few years ago. I wonder if it also has anything to do with people getting lazier as they get older. Or maybe they’re just more tired? Really interesting!
Hi Grace, Yes, same with me. I was like, “What the heck is the Freeze?” when I moved back, which now makes sense. I think you’re right that we probably get more tired and lazier as we get older! Not super encouraging, but probably true. Thanks for stopping by!
When I first moved to Seattle (1997) I remembered people talking about this idea (by a different name), but I never really had to deal with the “Seattle freeze” as I made quick friends with all the other transplants who had come to study law at the UW.
As an expat in China and Hong Kong I’ve also found it easy to make friends, but it’s the same idea: make friends with the other transients.
In England, I found making friends very hard going. If there is such a thing as the “Cambridge freeze” I felt it hard. Lots of polite nods, but very few real social invitations for the first year. I imagine coming to Seattle as a non-student could feel very similar.
Hi Jen! Absolutely, I think the social scene is quite different when you are in school (the whole conveyer belt analogy moving towards you.) And just like you, all of my closest friends from the UW weren’t from Seattle and were also transplants.
I think the one exception might be Asia, as I don’t think the ease of meeting and befriending people in HK is equal to anywhere in the US or even Europe. The expat circle is pretty small, and it just seems more convenient and easier to make friends since no one is from HK and everyone is keen on making friends if they’re relatively new.
Or maybe it IS the weather. I think Cambridge’s is relatively similar to Seattle, no? The first year anywhere new is tough, but it does get better. Hope all is well in HK! I’ve been reading and seeing photos of the awesome yellow rubber ducky in Victoria Harbour! 🙂
Haha. Enjoyed your examination of the Seattle freeze. It can be tough making friends here, as a transplant myself I know my circle of friends was made easier by first attending UW and getting to know people there. I think technology also is a condition both of the Seattle freeze since we are so tech savvy, but also of the current age which relies on social networks and communications through some device.
Great post. Sun should be out this weekend so hopefully this freeze is over!
Thanks for stopping by! Totally agree that the weather factor is a big one too. I’m loving the pre-summer summer weather, which also seems to put people in a better mood, as well as tear their eyeballs away from those shiny screens. Besides, it’s hard to see those screens in the glaring bright sunlight, no? Hope you had a good weekend in the sun!
Wow, I haven’t heard of the ” Seattle Freeze” but I think it can apply anywhere. I have found Seattleites to be very welcoming and easy to start up a conversation with. I remember living in Boulder, Co and experienced the ” Boulder Freeze” One time sticks out, I introduced myself at a hiking club meeting and was met with “it is very nice to meet you but we are not looking for any new friends we have enough.” Ok, she was kind and related that it was nothing I had done or said but simply that they didn’t “need” anyone new in their circle of friends. I know that’s not the norm since I am well acquainted with making friends having lived in 10 states and many places within those states (not military but a government bra- yes) but I never once experienced that from a Seattle native.
I do agree with the NYT article you mention, early 20’s is easy to meet people since we are all focused on just that and then those of us with young children find each other too so that makes it easy but otherwise it is harder. I worked at a climbing gym and other spots and regularly met new people so I think that made it easier. Now in my almost 40th year I make it a priority to meet up with close friends and our neighbors are like family which echos the finding of the NYT piece of proximity.
As for the gloomy weather… head east of the Cascades and soak up some Methow Valley Sunshine 🙂
I enjoyed pondering the idea of the Seattle Freeze and learned something new.
Oh SNAP! That’s a crazy story about Boulder. I know some people may think it, but to hear out loud/verbally that “we are not looking for new friends” is inconceivable to me. In comparison, I think the Seattle version is certainly more mild. How rude, and I’m actually a little angry on your behalf! It just shows how some people aren’t into growing, as I consider meeting and befriending new people as an integral part of our natural growth and maturity as human beings.
Yes, I’ve found that it is harder to make friends when you get older, but I believe that the 3 sociological components of proximity, repeated interactions, and the ability to be honesty and vulnerable can be replicated if we try hard enough.
And I haven’t even touched upon the whole bloggersphere and virtual worlds either. I’ve found that I’ve even made some good friendships online, which has been unexpectedly rewarding.
Hope that you and family had a great weekend of sun. We’ve got more coming this week, so no need to head east of the Cascades just yet! 🙂
Interesting piece, and it definitely squares with my own experiences, after having moved a few times in my life. Making friends in a new place gets so much harder after your 20s. It’s a real challenge for me now, being in a new country in my 40s.
Thank you for stopping by. Yes, I’ve also realized that making friends gets harder and that friendships sometimes end up being a little bit different from what you expected in your 20s vs. your 30s and 40s. People always seem much more pressed for time as we age, which is understandable. But I’ve also found some unexpected friendships online from fellow bloggers, which have been quite rewarding. I guess if we never want to stop growing, we need to keep putting ourselves out there. Thanks for your comments!
True, true, technology is not only opening up new avenues of meeting people and making new contacts, but is also enabling us to stay in touch with friends we’ve made all over the place. That was one of my main reasons for starting to blog in the first place.
Thanks for connecting 🙂
Great topic to bring up! I do agree with the Seattle Freeze and am guilty of it, too. I like how people don’t get into my business when I’m ordering a latte or chat me up while I’m oot n aboot. I like how my neighbor sometimes walks by my front door and, even if I’m outside, he won’t wave, but stick his head into his coat a bit more and walk by. (His dog keeps pooping in my yard and, tho I don’t have proof, I know it from the way he ignores me, dammit!) That being said, I’ve got great friends – almost like family to me – I’ve built up in Seattle. Once you get past the rain-drenched exterior, Seattlelites are quite sincere, if but politically correct to the extreme. (Perhaps this could be your next post?)
Yes, great idea for a future post about extreme-PC-Seattle! 🙂 And don’t you find it a little jarring to come from politically incorrect/borderline racist Asia to a place like Seattle? I’ve also heard that in Seattle certain dog owners know the names of all the dogs, but not the names of the dog owners at the dog parks. That just sounds totally weird to me. Sorry for the poop on your lawn, which explains why your neighbor sticks his head deeper into his coat, no? But overall (and after some time) Seattle folks can be great friends. It just takes time and some work to build up that community, but that can be said about almost anywhere. Thanks for stopping by!
I think you’re right, Angela – that age is a significant factor. It’s so much harder to make friends when you aren’t surrounded by all sorts of different people, like you are when you are in college/post-grad. The older you get, the more calcified you get — making it harder and harder to put yourself out there. Plus kids and work.
Now that I think of it, though, nearly all of our friends are transplants, like we are — all of us arrived at roughly the same time — and all of us were motivated to build community and create a sense of family in our new city. Interesting!
Ack! Calcified! Don’t you just love growing up? 🙂 Gotta keep moving and stretching and growing. But yes, to your last point, it’s kind of like economics applied to the demand and supply of friendship with shifting curves, right? Ok, I’m getting a little too nerdy right now, so I’ll stop.
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Thanks for this post! I was looking for some things on Seattle Freeze to help me process what I felt when I was there. 🙂