What is the Seattle Freeze?

A quick internet search reveals that the Seattle Freeze phenomenon has been discussed and analyzed for decades in various types of publications ranging from peer-reviewed scholarly articles to a Wikipedia page. The general consensus is that Seattleites are standoffish, cold, distant, and slow to allow newcomers into their cliques. Let us all remember how Meredith Grey first treated her sister Lexi on Grey’s Anatomy. Seattleites have also been called superficial and fake, which often prevents meaningful friendships from forming. Planning a party in Seattle is like herding cats because people are notorious for flaking on plans without regard for others feelings. I decided to stop planning birthday parties after years of disappointment over friends not showing up, leaving a party of 4 at a table for 12.

As a native to the Seattle area, I am guilty of being ‘chilly’ towards others. At Fred Meyer, I stare blankly at the various celebrity gossip magazines instead of speaking to the human that is bagging my groceries. A nervous shutter creeps down my spine whenever I’m sharing an elevator ride. Do I speak? Do I whip out my phone and pretend to be really interested in what’s on the screen? What if I have to fart? When I do manage to take the risk and summon my voice I inevitably say the most awkward thing possible, causing my would-be conversation partner to stare daggers at me. So I keep my mouth shut and go about my day in silence.

It wasn’t until a recent discussion with an east coast transplant that I realized the social climate around Seattle is much colder than the rest of the country. I include myself as a practicing member of the chilly club. Growing up, I spent a lot of free time reading novels in my blanket fort and playing computer games by myself. Maybe it’s the Seattle conditioning, but trying to have a real life conversation just gives me anxiety.

So how does this social frostiness exist in the same city that’s full of energizing coffee, passionate artists, beautiful nature, and quirky traditions like a naked bike race? Prevailing theories across the interwebs include the area’s Scandinavian roots, the dreary weather, and the large population of overworked tech employees glued to their computers. I agree with the weather part. Whenever the sky gets sad and decides to cry, it spreads the misery. Despite the 30+ years I’ve had to adjust, I hate being out in the rain. Since umbrellas are not socially acceptable, the walk from the parking spot that took forever to find and is much farther from my destination than I wanted ends with me being a soggy mess. I would much rather stay at home in my comfy recliner, with my blanket, heating pad, and cats to snuggle with. Seriously though, residents of the Pacific Northwest are often deficient in vitamin D and experience seasonal depression when the sun doesn’t shine for months at a time. While the darkness makes an excellent environment for sparkly vampires, everyone else is grumpy and therefore less likely to want to chat with a stranger. Especially when small talk often involves the weather.

What is so damaging about the Seattle Freeze?

So why do I care enough to risk embarrassment, then blog about it, to resist the Seattle Freeze? As it turns out, the type of social isolation Seattleites experience is detrimental to ones health. Dhruv Khullar, a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital, calls social isolation a ‘growing epidemic’ that threatens people’s physical and mental health. Research shows individuals with a lack of meaningful social connections experience weakened immune systems, abnormal sleep patterns, and increased risk of heart disease. Loneliness increases depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, which in turn makes socializing harder, creating a positive feedback loop of declining mental health. Psychology professors Shoba Sreenivasan and Linda E. Weinberger say a person experiencing loneliness doesn’t necessarily have to be alone; they just lack any relationships or social interactions with depth or meaning. In other words, Seattle’s shallow, passive approach to friendships is harming the city.

What am I going to do about it?

To put it simply, I am going to start talking to people I meet. And not just about the weather. I will fill the silence in an elevator, on the bus, in an uber, at the grocery store, and any other place where the opportunity presents itself. Though I fully expect blank stares, eye rolls, and one word responses, I think some people will appreciate the opportunity to chat with another human in real life. Since change needs to happen gradually, these conversations will be fairly short. Whenever I have a meaningful encounter, I will document it here. I would love for my readers to do the same. For more information on how to join my mission, see the ‘Contribute’ tab.