Is The Seattle Freeze A Real Thing?

Mar 17, 2014

When John Reese moved from northern Illinois to Seattle last year he kept hearing people talking about the Seattle Freeze. So far he hasn’t seen any sign of it. In fact, he says people are nicer here than they are back home.

“What is the deal with the Seattle Freeze?” he asked. “I’ve heard that people don’t make friends, but I don’t seem to have a problem doing it.”

As part of KUOW’s Local Wonder series, our audience took to social media to ask us questions about life in the Puget Sound region and then vote on what topic they most wanted to hear about.

Apparently, newcomer Reese might be one of the lucky ones, because more than a dozen people wanted us to investigate the Seattle Freeze. We in turn put the question to people on KUOW’s Facebook page and received a variety of responses.

"I think the Seattle Freeze is a myth," wrote Torie Hightower. Bran Schaffer said, "I acknowledge the existence of this Seattle Freeze, but I don’t subscribe to it." "Seattleites are just introverted," wrote John Morgan. Jason Brown pointed out that the Seattle Freeze would make the perfect name for a hockey team.

Anecdotes and naming possibilities aside, a recent report gives some strong proof that the Seattle Freeze could, in fact, be real.

More: Get a behind-the-scenes look at how this Local Wonder story came to life.

Credit KUOW Photo/Daniel Berman

‘Neglectful Of The Stranger In Our Midst’

To understand what the Seattle Freeze is, first you have to define it. Local historian and Mossback Knute Berger described it as “the surprising cold nature of Seattle residents towards newcomers.”

Berger said it’s difficult to pin down who originally coined the term Seattle Freeze. The first reference he found was in an article in the Seattle Times in 2005. But the theory that Seattleites might be a little chilly towards strangers has been around for a long time.

This is an excerpt from the Seattle Daily Times from February 1, 1946: “It was revealed what we had indeed suspected – that newcomers do not always find us altogether perfect; that we sometimes are neglectful of the stranger in our midst; that we seem unduly preoccupied with our own local concerns.”

The Times article points out that the discussion of Seattle’s “shortcomings and advantages” was controversial and generated keen interest from readers.

Sixty-eight years later, the Seattle Freeze debate is still going strong.

'Us Versus Them'

Bartender Michael Kostin is positive that the Seattle Freeze is real.

“We don’t know what causes it or why it happens, but it does exist,” Kostin said. “Even though Seattleites will swear it doesn’t happen here, it does.”

Kostin is a member of Seattle Anti-Freeze, a local Meetup Group with over 4,000 members. The Anti-Freezers gather at various social events around the city: from laughing yoga to walking tours.

Joni Ross and Michael Rostin host a trivia night as part of an event hosted by the Seattle Anti-Freeze group.
Joni Ross and Michael Rostin host a trivia night as part of an event hosted by the Seattle Anti-Freeze group.
Credit KUOW Photo/Bond Huberman

One rainy Tuesday evening, about six Anti-Freezers met up at the Ship Canal Grill near Eastlake to play trivia. Kostin was the co-host of the event. He said the Anti-Freeze is a way to meet other people in Seattle and make new friends.

Kostin moved here from Oahu eight years ago. As a bartender he says he meets people all the time, but he finds it hard to keep those relationships going outside of work. He called the Freeze an “us versus them” mentality.

Kostin played out an example: “You’re not from Seattle so you’re not one of us. You’re a transplant and therefore you are on the outside of everything.”

To challenge that chilly theory all you have to do is turn to Kostin’s co-host and self-proclaimed trivia mistress Joni Ross. Ross is a Seattle native. She is a bundle of positive energy and all smiles. There is nothing frosty about her.

“I see someone sitting by themselves and I’m like, oh, they’re sitting by themselves,” Ross said. “I say, want to sit with us? I’ve met five or six people that way, if not more.”

Ross does admit that her fellow Seattleites don’t always respond in kind. She blames people’s busy work schedule. “I think that they’re just busy and they kind of over commit, you know. I think a lot of people over commit,” she said.

Credit KUOW Photo/Daniel Berman

Not So Neighborly

Work, weather, economic disparity, our Nordic heritage: These are a few of the theories blamed for the Seattle Freeze. Lots of anecdotes, but is there any real hard proof that the Freeze actually exists?

Diane Douglas is the executive director of Seattle CityClub and she said yes, absolutely.

Douglas was the lead author on a report called the Greater Seattle Civic Health Index. Her report used US Census data and supplemental census reports to measure civic engagement in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

She said the root of Seattle’s Freeze is in an indicator called “social cohesion.”

“It’s really the tissue of how communities form,” Douglas said. “The informal things like whether people do favors for each other, how much do you know and talk to your neighbor, how many times a week do you have dinner with family and friends.”

When it comes to talking with neighbors, greater Seattle is ranked 48 out of 51 similar communities across the United States. In the category of giving or receiving favors with neighbors, such as taking over a bowl of soup to a sick friend, Seattle is ranked 37. 

But Douglas is quick to point out that there are a number of things at which Seattle excels.

Diane Douglas, executive director of Seattle CityClub, said, "Seattle is one of the best cities for getting things done."
Diane Douglas, executive director of Seattle CityClub, said, "Seattle is one of the best cities for getting things done."
Credit KUOW Photo/Jim Gates

“Seattle is one of the best cities for getting things done,” Douglas said. “Rolling up our sleeves, joining organizations, volunteerism: Those are the things where we are near the top.”

So which city is the most neighborly? That distinction goes to Tampa, Florida. Douglas hopes to drill down on this and find out what Tampa is doing right, so that Seattle can learn from their success.

But there is one thing we have over Tampa. “I was inspired by what happened with the Super Bowl win and the '12th Man' spirit that emerged,” Douglas said.

Douglas wants to keep that 12th Man spirit alive: When Seattleites talked to strangers, made eye contact, bonded over the shared goal of cheering the Seahawks on to a Super Bowl victory.

To do that, the Seattle City Club is starting a program aimed at telling civic stories. She hopes the stories will help connect neighborhoods and be models of civic engagement.

Bartender Kostin has another suggestion for nudging up the mercury on the Seattle Freeze.

“You have to be persistent,” he said. “Getting involved and being around people and being around the same people all the time, and eventually they start to warm up to you."

So the key to thawing the Seattle Freeze? Perseverance. 

Watch out Tampa.

Have a question about Seattle, the Puget Sound region or its people? Ask it here. The answer to that question could be the next Local Wonder story.