Friendship and the Seattle Freeze

Frozen Fountain att

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.

Mt Rainier Winter


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.

Happy Friday!