John Oliver recently dedicated 19 minutes of his weekly show to the North Dakota oil boom, encouraging North Dakotans to "be angry" about oil-industry pollution.
Instead of getting angry, North Dakota got passive aggressive.
As Midwesterners, it's just what we do best!
Sky Digital, a Fargo digital billboard company, started running ads that say, "Hey John Oliver, don't be angry, be 'North Dakota' Nice (it really works)".
North Dakota niceness alleviates pollution and water contamination from fracking? Holy shit, maybe we should try it!
As Sky Digital Sales Manger Paul Hilt explained to the Fargo Forum, "Hey, this is what really works in North Dakota, we play nice, we are nice, we're great people."
Also, a state where the oil industry has a lot of money to buy billboards about how nice everyone in North Dakota is. Sky Digital said a couple of clients who helped craft the billboard messaging "shall remain nameless."
But let's not play that East Coast "blame game" of what special interest bought what billboard with what agenda in mind, or who poisoned whose water supply, or who ruined whose air quality. That won't get us anywhere! We're just real nice people! So let's forget our troubles with a big bowl of strawberry ice cream and remember our region's primary strength: passive aggressiveness.
No region in America does it better than us!
Our irritation can be so masked in polite remarks, cryptic messaging, or deflections that a non-Midwesterner may leave a confrontation thinking, "Man, people here sure are friendly!" while the Midwesterner is thinking, "Jesus, I really laid into that guy. I didn't want to have to be so forceful, but, he got the message loud and clear."
Michigan-native Potter Stewart, US Supreme Court Justice, perfectly captured the extreme passiveness in Midwestern passive-aggressiveness when he wrote that pornography was hard to define, but "I know it when I see it."
Sooooo ...... uhhhh .... is what you saw pornography or not?
Potter probably learned this at an early age from his mother when he wanted to go out somewhere and she didn't want him to go.
The Northeast Jewish mother takes the most direct approach to her passive aggressiveness: "Oh, you're going out tonight, even though you're only home for three nights from college? ... No, I understand, you're Mr Popular. So if you want to leave your poor mother, that's fine, just fine. I'll have plenty of fun on my own here, all alone, with nothing to do except slowly wait to die. No, go on, go on, I want you to have fun with your friends while I sit and stare at the wall, wishing I had a more considerate son."
The Southern Baptist mother brings Jesus in for backup: "Going out tonight with the boys? So late? Do you really think that's what a good, upstanding Christian boy should be out doing? Do you know what they'll be talking about this Sunday? About who saw you out and what you were up to? Are you going to let Satan win."
The Midwestern mother plays it verrrrrrrrry passive: "Oh, you're going out? Are you sure?"
Am I sure? I have my coat and I'm holding the car keys. I told you at dinner that I was going out later. Am I sure I'm going out? Or am I sure I should be going out? Are you sure? Is there something you want to talk about?
Film maker Alexander Payne, Omaha-native, says that he's always, "been interested in trying to observe how human frustrations play out within a culture of niceness and seeming normalcy." This quiet tension is at the heart of his movies, like Election, About Schmidt, Nebraska, and even the non-Midwestern-based Sideways or The Descendants.
Payne splits his time between the coasts and Nebraska. Once, during the construction of his condo in Omaha's Old Market, Payne had a dispute with the construction company about who would pay for a damaged section of the roof. "Two friends from New York happened to be present to listen to ... the contractor, the developer, and me," Payne said. "[My friends] told me later it was like hearing a different language. ... My friends had barely been able to discern when the pleasantries had finished and the true discussion had commenced."
Recently, Payne's hometown had to take in the news that ConAgra Foods, transformative food company that brought America Slim Jims and Crunch N' Munch, was packing up its headquarters and going to Chicago. ConAgra explained that Chicago is a hipper city, and that hip-ness could help ConAgra better develop their brand.
Omaha was beside itself with rage.
Oh, shit! No they didn't! In Philly that would translate into, "Yo! We let you tear down part of our historic downtown to build your shit-hole headquarters, and then you pack up your Pam and Peter Pan Peanut Butter and head for another city?! Are you fucking kidding me?! Are YOU. FUCKING. KIDDING. ME? Get the fuck outa here! Nobody wants you anyway!"
While folks in North Dakota may be able to let environmental destruction slide, the Red River Valley is currently home to a red-hot confrontation of epic proportions. Or as we call it in the Midwest, "A bit of a dust-up."
For the last several months, The University of North Dakota has been working on a new nickname.
That decision had been expected for several years. In the 1990s, there was a national push to remove Native American-based mascots at American universities. UND's "Fighting Sioux" was firmly in the crosshairs.
UND-graduate and Nazi-enthusiast (seriously, check it out) Ralph Englestad got the passive aggressive backlash against the NCAA rolling by donating $100 million for a new hockey arena in 1999 and covering it with references to the Fighting Sioux -- seats, walls, marble floor engravings.
Kind of a, "Oh, my, were you planning on changing the name of the mascot? Nuts! I just didn't realize. It's going to be pretty tough to buff that stereotypical Injun-image out of the floor. Hmmm ... maybe we should just keep the name?"
Based in Indianapolis, the NCAA is immune to these kids of tactics. Or they didn't pick up the subtle message. Or the NCAA is an organization that makes billions off of free-labor (oh, sorry, "student-athletes") and really couldn't give a fuck about UND since it's not a Power-5 Conference School.
"The Fighting Sioux" was officially removed in 2012 and a 3 year "cooling off" period began. During that time, UND just went by "North Dakota."
This year, a the naming committee convened. Back in June, they really screwed the pooch by eliminating The Wooly Mammoths from the list. Then in August, before a final list of names was put the public, they eliminated just plain "North Dakota" from the list.
And shit got real.
In the Midwest, the only place worse than Hell is Texas.
But angry e-mails were just the beginning. Former-Bismarck mayor Marlan "Hawk" Haakenson went ahead of filed 4 Trademark applications for the names UND left on the list as a way of preventing UND from using those nicknames. He explained his actions in a handwritten letter to Kelley.
Though statements like "I will not sell the rights to my Trademarks" or "I will not let anyone use them" seem to put passiveness aside and go straight for aggressive, Haakenson does end with a "Sincerely."
Now that is North Dakota nice.
No state worries more about being passive-aggressive than Minnesota. If you Google "Midwestern Passive Aggressiveness," all the top links, from Minnesota Public Radio, to Urban Dictionary, Steve Alm, Lucidite, and Thought Catalog, are Minnesotans worrying about if Minnesotans are being nice or too passive aggressive.
"To be 'Minnesota nice' is to be passive aggressive," Urban Dictionary explains. "I'm Minnesota nice. When I'm angry at someone, I don't let them know. I just smile pleasantly to his or her face and then proceed to talk about them behind their back. I will most likely hold a grudge too."
In the 1990s, one of Minnesota's most famous residents, Prince, changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol as part of a larger dispute with his record company about ownership of master tapes and pace at which he could release music. So what, at the time, seemed like a strange decision was really a statement on American contract law. Who knew?!
It could make you think that everyone in Minnesota is trying to send you a secret message.
When a Minnesota man was seen riding his bicycle on I-694 early one morning this summer, you may have thought this was a one-man protest. But for what? Bike safety? Slower speed limits? Bike lanes on the interstate? Suicide awareness?
Really, it was hard to tell what it was for.
Minnesota State Patrol Lt Tiffani Nelson caught up to him and later told the Star-Tribune that in this case, "he was just a nice guy out riding his bike. He just didn't know, but he should not have been there."
You'd think the semi traveling swerving around you at 65 MPH would be enough of a warning that he "should not have been there."
So you can see the confusion among non-Midwesterners. Are we being passive aggressive? Are we being nice? What are we telling you?!
At RAYGUN, we've tried to help newcomers with a chart below. Pay close attention.
In most parts of the country, "Okay" or "Hmm" or "Hum" or "Soooo" or "Well" are just superlative inserts into language. In the Midwest, those are critical elements of our lexicon.
They are the difference between "Yes, I definitely want to do that" or "Though I am agreeing, I definitely do not want to do that."
This is merely an introduction. True mastery of our people could take years. We've compiled a primer into something we call:
First up are some basics. The grandaddy of them all may be, "It could be worse." We have seen some people in rough shape tell us that -- business failing, lost a few fingers to a farm implement.
You hear some longer-than-usual pauses talking to a Midwesterner? There might be some meaning to those pauses. It might totally negate what they are actually telling you. Another red flag: fine.
If "fine" has worked it's way into a sentence, you may want to snag a local and help translate. Not far behind "fine" is a favorite of every Midwesterner's parents and grandparents: interesting.
You get "interesting" and you are definitely heading in the wrong direction. But we learn this stuff growing up! Communication with our parents starts subtle and stays subtle even as we get older:
Don't panic, it's a lot to take in! We've complied the above into a poster and postcard that is available in stores and online. Keep it on the wall, reference it when necessary.