Minnesota Nice Ain’t Nice – Challenging the Accepted Wisdom in Communication

Bob Ryan


Shoreview, MN

If you grew up in Minnesota, or even in the Midwest, you probably were taught “Minnesota Nice.” It’s a cultural norm in communication that dictates we talk nicely to one another in the belief that it is more respectful. In the Midwest, we rarely say what we really mean. We speak in a way that avoids conflict. We tend to couch our communication in a bundle of “niceties.”

Maybe there’s a fear that if we are too direct, we’ll sound like some of those rude people from the East Coast – which is a mis-perception people from the Midwest often have.

In much of my consulting with companies, I find that Minnesota Nice is the cause of a great deal of interpersonal problems, conflict, misunderstanding and even animosity. It is far from “nice.” I submit that it is downright disrespectful and counterproductive to effective relationships and task accomplishment. Read through the common communication errors below and their corresponding remedies. Then have a frank talk with your staff, your significant other, your children, your friends.  I guarantee you will find it easier and more effective to communicate if you stop being so “nice” and concentrate on directly communicating what you really intend.

Error # 1 – Sandwiches, Dessert and a la Carte. Sandwiching happens when we hide the negative message between two other, more positive messages. Here’s an example. “I really like the way you handle the accounts. Of course, we had a number of complaints from the National people, but most of the time you are right on.” The poor listener doesn’t know if this is scolding or praise! Which message is the dominant one?

Here’s a Dessert and a la Carte error in the same sentence. “Oh, you are such a sweetie and are always so nice and thoughtful of other people. Would you mind getting me that paper over there?” It starts with sugar coating (read, manipulation) and ends with an ambiguous request that suggests a choice but actually leaves none. All three of these errors are disrespectful to the listener. They don’t allow the listener to decline without appearing to be “not nice.”

Remedy: Make just one point in a statement or one request in a question, and make it directly. The effective corrections to both of the examples above are, “I want to talk about the complaints from the National account,” and, “Please hand me that paper.”

Error # 2 – Triangulation. This occurs when Person A has something to say about Person B, but doesn’t tell Person B. Rather, Person A talks to Person C about Person B. We do this to avoid conflict, but in reality, triangulation escalates and spreads conflict. It is disrespectful to both Person B (because we don’t give B a chance to explain or defend) and to Person C (because we are putting B in the middle of our conflict with A). Worse still, it is totally ineffective in dealing with the situation. The disliked behavior or the uncomfortable issue will not be dealt with because B still doesn’t know about it.

Remedy: Always speak directly to the person with whom you have an issue or problem. The effective communication would sound something like this, “Mary, when you raised your voice in the National meeting, I felt very embarrassed.”

Error # 3 – The Ambiguous Plural. I hear this one often. “Some of the staff thinks that the National account is a wrong direction for the company.” Like Triangulation, most people probably use it thinking they are avoiding conflict. If I don’t name names, we can avoid confrontation. However, this too, is disrespectful to the listener (because it deprives them of judging the accuracy of the opinions. Subconsciously, I believe people who use the Ambiguous Plural are simply trying to protect themselves from having to communicate directly and own their own opinions and feelings.

Remedy: Always use first person singular statements to identify your own feelings about an issue or problem. The effective correction: “I feel very uncomfortable with the direction we are taking in the National account.”

Error # 4 – Statements in Disguise. This error comes in a couple different flavors.

First, there’s the Manipulative Statement in Disguise. It sounds like this. “Don’t you think it would be better if we…” The speaker is asking a leading question, manipulating the listener into agreeing. These questions frequently hide a judgmental position taken by the speaker. This is especially disrespectful when the speaker has more power than the listener.

Second, there’s the Wishy-Washy Statement in Disguise. It sounds like this. “Boy, I sure wish I had more time to prepare the presentation.” The listener doesn’t know whether to deal with the time issue, or the speaker’s attitude about the job, or to let it go as an idle thought. The speaker avoids making a direct statement and there is no closure on the subject.

Remedy: Only use questions when you are seeking information – not to give information. In the first instance, the effective communication would be, “I would feel more comfortable if we…” In the second, “Ms. Thompson, would you please give me another day to prepare the presentation?”

There are many more, smaller things we do in our communication patterns, but if you focus on correcting these four in your own speech, and teach others to do the same, you will find your relationships improving, and the workplace (or your home, school, church or friendships) will be both more effective and more efficient. Let’s redefine the term, “Minnesota Nice” so that it comes to mean people who respect and care about each other enough to speak plainly and directly.

©2003 Bob Ryan.  All rights reserved worldwide.  Used by permission.