Disputing the “Seattle Freeze” myth

Lately I’ve been working on a “Happiness Report Card” for Seattle’s local government.  I’m not supposed to talk about what’s in it until our official launch in November, but I can talk about something that didn’t make the cut because it was deemed too flippant:Ice

photo by me

We believe that we have finally empirically proven the unfairness of the “Seattle Freeze” stereotype.

In case you’re unfamiliar with it, the Seattle Freeze is a maddeningly common stereotype about Seattle being a place that is superficially friendly but very difficult to make friends in.  It certainly hasn’t been my experience of this place.  It did take some time from arriving here to really making some friends, but that’s a normal part of adult experience.  I’ve long been convinced that the pervasiveness of this myth is because so many people move here because they are hired straight from college by one of the big IT or engineering firms, and it’s the first place they’ve moved to without the über-supportive but totally weird environment of starting college so they have unrealistic expectations.

In writing that report, we found that the differences between Seattle and the rest of the world were small and uninteresting, while the differences between demographic groups within Seattle were much more significant.  In itself that’s a finding I’m glad to be able to report, because Seattle often has a bizarre sense of its own specialness which manifests in an unhealthy unwillingness to learn from anywhere else.  Every piece of data we can use to say “look, we’re not special, we can learn from successful practices in similar cities” is a thoroughly worthwhile thing to have.

That said, the biggest differences between Seattle and elsewhere were Seattle scoring higher on the Social Support and Interpersonal Trust sections of our survey.  The Interpersonal Trust one didn’t really surprise me.  I’ve always found Seattle to be surprisingly high-trust for a city as big as it is, and it partly just reflects our relatively low crime rate, but it still seems like a good counter to the stereotype of Seattleites all atomised apart from each other.  The Social Support part really was a surprise to me.  That scale asks survey respondents how they feel about the support available to them from their friends and family, and I expected Seattle to score poorly because we have such a large proportion of residents who are not from here, and consequently don’t have relatives nearby they can turn to.  To outscore the rest of the world on that section seems to imply that the average Seattleite actually has a network of friends so good that it can compensate for the lack of nearby relatives; no small achievement and certainly not the cliché of lonely, antisocial people crying into their artisanal lattes.

The words “empirically proven” were always clearly an overreach—this is a preliminary report on a convenience sample taken with a previous version of our survey that I have some methodological concerns about—but it is pretty hard to square these findings with the “Seattle Freeze” idea, and that pleases me greatly.

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