I’m in receipt of a note from Julie Nordendale, a neighbor in St. Paul who points out some particulars of Minnesotan behavior that I recognize from social gatherings in these parts.
Nobody wants to be the first to dig into the food at a potluck, or if somebody brings food to work to share with coworkers. And conversely, nobody takes the last item either. You will notice one last cookie sitting on a tray all by itself for what seems like forever. Everyone is trying to be polite by leaving it for someone else.
This phenomenon seems like a clear case of Janteloven in action. We wrote about this Scandinavian-derived cultural orientation in Pink, after it was introduced by reader Addie Berg in a comment on the inaugural post.
(Drawing by James Benton; signed poster for sale here.)
Indeed, who would want to be first in line? Who do they think they are, better than everybody else?
In my experience with Midwestern gatherings, the first in line is often an Easterner. Such as, for example, me.
A little introspection reveals a bedrock attitude: essential politeness requires assuming that others are competent and self-willed. (I haven’t worked out whether this attitude is Eastern or is more particular to my own makeup.)
If the hostess has put out food and announced that it’s time to load plates, why, who am I to assume that I know better than she does about the proper timing of the gathering? If it’s time and I’m hungry, I’m there. And I assume others will take care of themselves and get food in whatever timing works for them.
Of course it’s necessary to pay attention to the social realities of the situation. Are there kids involved, or perhaps older people for whom it would be kind to offer to load a plate? Does someone need extra time? Is someone being honored such that it would be appropriate for them to lead the line?
I probably wouldn’t be quick to take the last of an item in a buffet, though. If it were a small gathering around a dinner table, one could offer the last won-ton to everyone else first. In a stand-up-and-mill-about party that’s not possible.
The second phenomenon is the “Long Minnesota Goodbye.” When you want to leave a party, you feel it would be polite to say goodbye to the host. Plan on it taking another 20 or 30 minutes before you actually get out the door. So you have to build your goodbyes into the time you really need to leave.
The Long Goodbye isn’t so much of a thing in the East, Katharyn and I have concluded. We have experienced it at a couple of gatherings in St. Paul in recent times.
A few weeks back we attended a small birthday party for Katharyn’s brother. His next-door neighbor shares the birthday, so the champagne-and-cake get-together was broadened to include neighbors as well. Nobody was a stranger. The champagne and wine and beer flowed and we got happier and more voluble as the evening progressed.
Katharyn and I were the first to leave and it did take about 20 minutes. Where are the host & hostess to say bye? Let’s finish up a few other conversations too. Where are our coats again? We had to maneuver around many people crowded into several rooms. Oh, and we had removed our shoes and it took time to find them and get them on.
The other occasion was an intimate post-midnight Christmas Eve gathering at a neighbor’s. We felt quite honored to be included in a revillon at which everyone else was family (but not ours). The center of the evening was the opening of presents from a son and his girlfriend, who are traveling in Ecuador and participated via Skype. (We are living in the future.)
It was strangely exhilarating, and a little daunting, to be out among people at 2:00 and 3:00 in the morning when we knew we’d have to get up the next day and put together a party for our own family. We didn’t know everyone at first, but before long we did and, as I say, we shared a little bit of awe at being so included.
We weren’t the first to propose leaving, but it still took us 5 or 10 minutes to get out the door.
Perhaps after all the Long Goodbye is mainly an outgrowth of how good a time you’re having.