The Seattle Freeze: Making Friendships Better

Posted on
Mar 6, 2012

The Seattle Freeze in full effect.

I’ve tried writing this post three times already. I spent the whole morning working on it, then most of the afternoon. At one point, it may have even reduced me to tears. And by “may have” I mean “definitely.”

The problem is that I can’t be objective on this topic. I know what you’re thinking: that’s never stopped me before (not at all). But this time, it’s far more difficult to write about. I can’t help but get emotional. I can’t help but have it hit close to home.

Because this post is about my hometown. More specifically, it’s about the Seattle Freeze.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the phenomenon, the Freeze is something that a lot of new transplants say they feel upon getting to the city. It centers around the notion that the locals are as cold and as unfriendly as the terrain. That it is difficult, if not impossible, to make friends in Seattle. Everyone runs around in their own cliques. People approach each other tentatively. Strangers don’t make conversation.

It comes up a lot. Most of the time I simply leave the conversation when people mention the Freeze, because – let’s face it – it’s really hard to hear people speak badly of your hometown. It hurts.

I once met a friend of a friend who had recently moved to Seattle. I asked her how she liked it, and she proceeded to tell me “how much people here suck.”

Later, she tried to engage me in conversation by asking if I had gone “to the University of Washington, like all good little Seattlites do.”

I wasn’t exactly warm to her after that.

A few times, I’ve nearly gotten into screaming matches with people over the issue.

“I’M FROM SEATTLE,” I’ll yell, “AND I AM NOT COLD AND HEARTLESS TO STRANGERS.”

Funny thing – when you are angry and yelling, it is really difficult to convince people that what you are saying is true, especially when you’re trying to prove how sweet and welcoming you can be. That’s the problem with the Freeze – it becomes self-fulfilling quite quickly.

So much so, in fact, that I began to question if it was even real. So I asked people on Twitter. The resounding response was yes. Yes, Seattle can be cold and icy to newcomers.

And I was an ass for even suggesting it wasn’t.

Sigh. I guess I knew that was the case. I knew, because years ago, when I moved back to Seattle, I felt the Freeze firsthand.

I returned to this city from Florida during the middle of my ninth grade. I now found myself in Seattle, in January, on the lowest rung of the social ladder: I was the new girl and a freshman.

I cried almost every night.

I had spent the last 7 years growing up on a tropical island. I was 14, awkward, and wearing knee high socks and slip dresses (thanks, Alicia Silverstone). I had yet to even buy a proper winter coat, because I hadn’t needed one during all those years in Florida. I was feeling the freeze in every way possible, and I was petrified beyond all reason.

I still remember what it was like walking into that packed lunchroom on my first day, and looking at table upon table of people sitting with their friends. I knew positively no one.

Had you told me that everyone fell silent and turned to look at me the center I entered the cafeteria, I’d have believed you. It might not be accurate, but in my memory, that is how it played out.

I remembered how scared I was on that January day, how cold the months after it seemed. I lived for weekends. I remember telling a classmate of mine that, and she stared at me like I was nuts.

“I love weekdays,” she said. “That’s when I get to see all my friends.”

And I remembered I swallowed hard, and wished I had just one.

I joined clubs. Lots of them. It was human contact, sure, but afterwards, everyone had their own agenda, and their own thing to do. They didn’t seem like they needed another person in their group, so I walked home, alone. Months passed.

During all that time, though, I never thought that my inability to make friends had to do with the city or with the people. I just figured it had to do with being new to a place that was so different from everything I had known. With being a teenager.

In September, my fifteenth birthday came. I spent it on the couch by myself, watching T.V.

By my sixteenth birthday, though, things had changed. I’d amassed a group of friends who didn’t simply come to my birthday party – they threw it for me. A surprise sweet 16. My living room looked like a carnival.

The Seattle Freeze had thawed. And it was lovely.

And it was, I daresay, all worth it.

I understand how difficult this town can be. Combined with the tendency of folks here to be a weensy bit passive aggressive (yes, I am guilty of this, too. When someone upsets me, I surreptitiously take photos of them which I post on my blog.) and the 9 contiguous months of rain, you end up with a large number of new-to-Seattlites feeling miserable, rotten, and homesick. They start to hate it here.

They complain about the weather. They complain about the traffic. They complain about the price of groceries and the lack of parking and the impossibility of getting a reservation at any decent downtown restaurant, and SERIOUSLY HOW IS IT STILL RAINING? IT HAS BEEN NINETY-THREE STRAIGHT DAYS. I AM SO BUILDING AN ARK.

Newcomers have my heart and my sympathy, because I understand. The Seattle Freeze is miserable. But here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s entirely bad, either.

Yes, I can say this. Fourteen. Knee socks. Huge nose. I’ve earned the right to say it, damn it.

And while we’re at it, let’s toss away the notion that the locals are jerks. That does no one any good. Tell a local that, and they won’t exactly be keen on being friends. Some of the warmest people I know are born and raised in the Northwest. They might be the exception to the rule, but there’s a hell of a lot of them for that to be true.

Besides, most everyone in Seattle in a transplant, anyway. Many come here to start over. I’ve met divorcees from other states, newly-outed gay men and women from further east. Folks called to the Emerald City by a new job, by school, by simply their desire for change and a wish to be alone, for at least a little while.

It’s not a town full of snobs. No. It’s a town full of oddballs and outcasts, refugees from other, cheerier parts of the world. So many people I know have come here because they never felt quite at home where they were. They spent years being the weird one. Being alone.

So, isn’t it natural that they’d be unable to understand that someone out there actually wants to be friends?

And so friendships in this part of the world develop slowly. We court like they do in old Victorian novels. We play our cards close to the vest. We say hello, we exchange a few pleasant words. We reveal ourselves little by little. They do the same.

The payoff is this: we know exactly whether or not we like someone well before we become friends. We know that we are compatible. That we have things in common. We know whether or not we are worth the trouble. The concept of frenemies, of people who are your friends, but whom you don’t really like – doesn’t exist up here. It can’t. We wade in too slowly and learn too much about the other person beforehand. There are no surprises.

Except for the time we stumbled onto the Seattle Zombie Walk. Slightly surprised there.

Friendships here are not hastily built, ready to totter at any moment. No. As Rand put it, “Friendships in Seattle are earned.” They’re crafted slowly, and made to last – through the rain and cold, through 9 months of gray skies, through that miserable summer when we had to turn on the heat in July.

And the hard work that goes into them makes you take care of them all the more. There is surprisingly little drama. There is a lot of bending over backwards. There is love and respect.

And pirate hats. There's also pirate hats.

To many, I’m sure it sounds exhausting, but I found that the friendships I’ve built have been worth it. They’ve defined my life. They are the officiant at my wedding, the person sitting next to me the night Rand proposed. They got up at 6am and brought me breakfast the day I got married. They picked us up from the dentist when Rand got his wisdom teeth out and I had a flat tire on the snowy morning after Thanksgiving.

If this is frost, may I never be warm.

They are my ride to the airport, my emergency contact, my fashion consultant, my new-recipe guinea pig.

They are my friends. And I’ve earned every last one of them. I just needed to wait for the Freeze to thaw.

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