By Nan Nan Liu
Northwest Asian Weekly
Moving to Seattle? Beware. It is not just cold. It can be freezing.
The Seattle Freeze, brought to infamy in a 2005 article on NWSource.com, was explained as a highly contagious “social disease,” where people in Seattle are polite in passing, but extremely cold and disinterested when making friends.
In the article, Seattle was described as “that popular girl in high school. The one who gets your vote for homecoming queen because she always smiles and says hello. But she doesn’t know your name and doesn’t care to. She doesn’t want to be your friend. She’s just being nice.”
Also noted in the article was the fact that although Seattle is one of the politest cities, the Freeze makes it one of the hardest in which to build intimate relationships. It makes people new to the city feel lonely and isolated.
How cold is the Freeze?
Roxanne Tolnas, an Asian American Seattle native who moved away after college, described people in Seattle as having an “aloof veneer.” She noticed it only when she moved back.
“In New York, making friends was very natural. People would be chatting [about] going to happy hour … and they would say ‘Oh you want to come?’ … And a group of us became friends … [When] I moved [back] to Seattle, [I would be in] the same situation [where] people were talking about their plans, and then [there would be] a pause … an awkward silence … [in the end,] they don’t invite me.”
“[When I reach out], they say, ‘Let’s get together,’ ” added Tolnas. “And I try to schedule, and I don’t hear from them for six months. [But with friends in other cities] — and they have babies — we say we are doing something, and they will actually get a sitter.”
Cliques, exclusivity, and flakiness — is this a stereotypical high school — where social circles are so solidly bound and segregated by some unspoken constitution that anyone who tries to penetrate through gets crucified by either bitterness or dismissal?
“[When] I came back, I felt kind of lonely at first,” admitted Tolnas. “People that move here complain about how hard it is to make friends, but the irony is that they become the same way. … [Now,] when I invite someone to do something, I find myself getting ready for rejection. I never know what the turnout will be.”
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel occasionally lonely,” confessed J.D. Lim, who moved to Seattle in 2006.
“I have seen scenarios play out that could possibly be attributed to the Seattle Freeze. [I see people] devote a lot of time and effort into being social with the end result of them having many acquaintances, but few close relationships. … I’ve never really made as deep a connection with anyone I’ve met in Seattle.”
Is there really a Freeze?
For a long time, Seattle was a sleepy town, known for its cold drizzles. Then it sprouted, from a stoutly child to a lanky adult almost overnight. Industries boomed, attracting talents from all over the country.
As a result, slews of ambitious individuals journeyed across the Cascades to settle in their new city.
According to a recent article in The Seattle Times, Amazon’s online job site “lists about 1,900 openings in Seattle,” while “Microsoft is adding to its payrolls again.”
“My immediate team [has] six people. I think all but one is a transplant,” informed Jim Liu, a Microsoft employee and a transplant from Florida.
“Seattle wasn’t like it is now,” recalled Tolnas. “With the tech boom, there was a huge influx of [transplants].”
Alone in a foreign place and away from family and friends, anyone would experience vulnerability and a yearning for companionship. Could the Seattle Freeze, then, be a result of the transplants’ failed attempts at connecting with people?
In a state of loneliness, transplants may have hurried the organic process of making friends by reaching out to people they barely know or have with whom they have common interests, resulting in either rejection or some awkward reaction. And in a heightened state of insecurity, they may feel more alone than if they were in a comfortable situation. Also, as a result, they may build an aloof veneer as a defense mechanism.
“Maybe people are just protecting themselves,” speculated Tolnas. “It’s an easier way to live, because then you know you are not going to get rejected. So you don’t put yourself out there.”
“Insecurity can present itself in many ways. One of these is that people who are insecure feel psychologically unsafe in their environment and, because of this, come across as guarded, withdrawn, or cold, among other things, so as not to take any emotional risk,” explained John Tran, psychoanalyst at Capitol Hill Counseling.
When enough transplants put up a wall, this behavior magnifies into a social phenomenon, with a catchy name and a bad rap.
Spreading the Freeze
In addition to contributing to the Freeze, transplants have brought it notoriety by giving it an excessive amount of attention. Articles were published, online forums were created, and blogs were written, all on the subject of the Seattle Freeze, as if newcomers in any other city never felt the desolation of simply being new.
“[People notice] the bad news more than the good news. People notice the bad first,” explained Tran.
“Perhaps they come over here expecting to be welcomed by [a] dynamic city like Seattle. When they don’t find it, they have an illusion the same way anyone would dream up any negative social connotation.”
“I’ve talked to a lot of transplants before [and] they do notice the isolation in Seattle,” added Tran. “They brought attention to [the Seattle Freeze because they] are more sensitive to things [they] know about.”
Liu, who claims that he has never experienced the Freeze, confirmed Tran’s theory by stating that because he isn’t sensitive to the Freeze, he doesn’t really notice it.
“I haven’t encountered the Freeze … that might be my personality, as it doesn’t bother me much if someone doesn’t contact me [for] events. … I can’t really blame someone [else] for feeling lonely [myself] if it’s mid-February and raining outside [and I have] no one to hang out with,” said Liu. “I think [the Seattle Freeze’s existence is] very much because of the high number of transplants in the city. Seattle already has a unique personality, and meeting new people in a new place is always a challenge.”
“If I didn’t move away, [the Seattle Freeze] would be harder for me to understand … [the transplants] made it more palpable,” said Tolnas.
Can people get over the Freeze?
“People who are transplants are cultural immigrants,” suggested Tran. However, Tran also suggested, “Within [the immigrant] community, [people] are warm to each other because of the immigrant mentality that [they] need to take care of each other … [when] groups congregate … that leads to a warm atmosphere to their communities.”
Despite the looming presence of the Seattle Freeze, a few “cultural immigrants” like Tolnas, Liu, and Lim are putting in the effort to congregate. They just have to try extra hard.
“Generally, I try to stay involved. I always accept invites to go out, even when it may be inconvenient to do so. I always try to extend invites to others [with the host’s permission],” said Lim. “I seem to meet more people through work, [but] outside of work, it gets way tougher, in my opinion. Talking to people is easy, introducing yourself is hard, and keeping in touch is not without effort.”
“Seattle doesn’t just hand you those opportunities. You have to create them yourself,” added Lim.
Tolnas agreed, “You just have to make the most out of the opportunities. … [you] have to make more of an effort. You have to be willing to be vulnerable and not take things personally.”
And when people do stop taking things personally and let their guards down, like Liu has always done, perhaps they will find a solid group of friends like he has.
“[I] definitely found real friends. It took me several years to find a solid group of friends. … It took time, but it happened,” said Liu, “In general, my group of friends is quite open to new people. We try to include people as much as we can.”
By letting down their guards, transplants might even meet someone like Vithayu Chaijaroen, an outgoing Seattle native with a ton of friends in town, who often extends an invite, “If I feel comfortable with the person, I wouldn’t have a problem inviting them out.” (end)
Nan Nan Liu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.