I discover the “Seattle Chill” on CL RnR

14 January 2009


I am one of those people who always pauses in front of bulletin boards. No doubt there reasons I do so. For starters, I am curious, though there is probably more involved. I would have to speculate on it, as I don’t really know or understand my own motives.

An extension of reading bulletin boards is to read the electronic bulletin boards of our time, and, for all practical purposes, this means reading Craig’s List. That’s right. I regularly scan Craig’s list. I never deceive myself that the self-selected contributions to Craig’s List are representative or statistically valid. Nevertheless, some kind of portrait emerges. I certainly recognize some familiar Portland traits when I read the Portland board.

I read Rants ‘n’ Raves for the same reason that I watch television network news: I want to know what people are saying and thinking. On television one gets the sanitized version of what is being said. On Craig’s List Rants ‘n’ Raves one gets the utterly unsanitized version. There is, to be sure, a lot of pure garbage here. The same is true, of course, of the evening news – it’s just a different kind and caliber of garbage. The dedicated reader will eventually find some sapphires in the mud. I have gotten some of my best laughs in the past year off Craig’s List. Reading it can be frustrating, but it can also be therapeutic if not cathartic.

While I mostly stick to Rants ‘n’ Raves for taking the pulse of contemporary electronic society, I sometimes venture into other categories. Similarly, I mostly review Craig’s List for Portland, but I also look in other cities as well, mostly in the Pacific Northwest, but sometimes farther afield. The lists set up for other countries are quite quiescent, as there are no doubt other forums in the local languages not accessible to the English language crowd.

CL has a lot of predictable threads. There are always prospective residents who ask what life is like in a given region, and this begins a frequently acrimonious exchange between those who love the place and those who hate it. A few days ago I was reading Rants ‘n’ Raves for Seattle when I came across a discussion of the “Seattle Chill” (also known as the “Seattle Freeze”), a result of a poster claiming they were going to move to Seattle. From the tone of the discussion it was obvious that many were tired of any further discussion of the subject, which had been previously discussed ad nauseam, and they regarded the whole thing as terribly old hat. To me, however, it was all new.

Being a newcomer to an idea is not unlike being a newcomer to a geographical region. Newcomers to Seattle claim to experience a higher than average level of social isolation, with attempts to interact socially with long time locals repeatedly frustrated. Of course, everyone knows that it is difficult to be the new kid on the block. It is difficult to be the new one acquiring an idea as well. Others are familiar with its contours, they know all the familiar arguments for and against, they have defined their own position to their satisfaction, and have moved on with their lives, having taken the idea and its ramifications fully into account.

I immediately did some casual research and found a few interesting articles about the Seattle Chill on the internet. I took care of the steepest part of the learning curve within a half hour of hearing about the Seattle Chill. I was then able to return to the recent posts on Rants ‘n’ Raves and to better appreciate them. One poster actually suggested to a prospective Seattle resident that if they wanted Pacific Northwest ambiance without the Chill that they should go to Portland. I returned again to Seattle Craig’s List RnR a couple of days later to re-read and save some of the comments in the thread, but it was nowhere to be found, presumably all flagged and removed (in accordance with the Terms of Use, I guess), such is the level of fatigue with the subject. That was a shame, as I intended to provide verbatim quotes in this post.

In some of the discussions of the “Seattle Chill” that I subsequently found on the internet, I came across many things that sounded eerily familiar. I have long felt that one of the best descriptions of Oregonians that I have heard is “polite but wary”, which sounds very close to the “polite but distant” said of Seattle residents (this phrase is used in the above linked article). One of the common complaints of new arrivals to Seattle seems to be that people are polite on the surface, and nice in a superficial way, but that they are hard to get to know. In what I read there was a lot of talk about “meaningful relationships”, and, used in this social context, I really have to wonder what the complainers have in mind for a new city. Is it expected that you arrive and within a few weeks you’re sharing intimate secrets with people you’ve never met before? Is this really a healthier form of social life?

I don’t know about anyone else, but I genuinely enjoy the politeness and niceness of the Pacific Northwest, and I don’t expect to have “meaningful relationships” with any but a few persons that I have known for a long period of time. Genuine friendships require time and effort. They cannot be conjured out of the clear blue. There is nothing new in this sentiment, and it appears in the famous speech by Polonius in Hamlet:

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade.

In Lionel Trilling’s book, Sincerity and Authenticity, he invokes this famous speech of Polonius and says that the old man’s maxims “compete with one another in prudence and dullness”. That is, until the final line about “to thine own self be true”, which Trilling accounts “a moment of self-transcendence, of grace and truth”. Perhaps Trilling is right, but perhaps also there is grace and truth elsewhere in Polonius’ speech, and there is something about tried and true friends that is in perfect accord with – nay, is a perfect expression of – being true to oneself.

a sincere and authentic expression of the spirit of the Pacific Northwest

Seattle: a sincere and authentic expression of the spirit of the Pacific Northwest


I would like to extend my thanks to Al at PorBlogs for including me on his list of Portland blogs.


8 Responses to “I discover the “Seattle Chill” on CL RnR”

  1. Greg said

    I’m from Kansas (the friendliest place in the world) and I have lived in Seattle 30 years this year, so I knew the old Seattle and I know the new Seattle too.

    I’m a Chill expert if you have any questions. This is mandatory reading: http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/pacificnw/2005/0213/cover.html
    The chill is very real and very hard to dissect. I can help. Warning: you won’t like humans as much when you learn what I know about the Seattle Freeze.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Greg,

      Thanks for your comment. I would be very curious to learn what it is that you know about the Seattle Freeze that puts humanity in a particularly odious light, and, if what you know is relevant to all of humanity, it would be interesting to learn what it is about Seattle in particular that is relevant to this knowledge.



  2. Greg said

    Dear Nick,

    Seattle is the future for all cities. People living their lives alone, interfacing with the outside world on a computer. Drapes closed, never inviting the neighbors over for a beer. Children growing up indoors interfacing with computer machines of all nature. This is the future; it just happened first in Seattle, home of Microsoft.

    In prison, the most severe punishment issued is solitary confinement and yet that is how most people chose to live their lives in Seattle. I remember the wild parties of the 80s, the sex with strangers. It’s all history now. It’s really very sad what is going on in Seattle if you are old enough to remember the hippie days. To be single in Seattle would be quite tragic and a potentially terminal condition. People should leave Seattle to find their mate and then come back. The ROI of living in Seattle is actually very poor, very poor indeed.
    I am married with children. If you climb mountains and ski, if you are an outdoorsman, there are reasons to live here. But if you are very needy of social intercourse, your life here will be stunted like the little plant in the little pot that never had enough sunlight and never had enough water.

  3. geopolicraticus said

    Dear Greg,

    Thanks for elaborating your point of view. While I can see how your perception of contemporary life in Seattle bodes ill for the future, I remain a little skeptical. All the years I was growing up, people bewailed the influence of television, the “boob tube” as it was called. It was said that television was isolating people, who stayed at home instead of going out and interacting. While this is true, wise use of television opens up worlds previously inaccessible.

    Now we hear about how isolating the use of the internet and e-mail is. This is true to a point, as with television, but while the internet can be isolating, it is much less isolating than television. And, like television, it opens up previously inaccessible worlds. I never fail to be amazed by how the internet makes it possible to connect with people who share our interests despite intervening distances. After all, how many interests do you share with your neighbors? You will share neighborhood interests, but you are not likely, in virtue of the accident of living in close proximity, to share much else. Now people who share no interests with their neighbors can find those with common interests wherever they happen to be in the world, and thus be far less isolated than previously was the case.

    Best wishes,


  4. Greg said

    Hi Nick,

    Your observations of the Internet are perfect for furthering my description of a complex problem for modern humans. Dr Jane Goodall discovered that all the primates were an extremely social creatures by their very design. Given this, the worst thing you can do to any primate is to put it in isolation.

    The Internet and the World Wide Web is a beautiful window to the entire world. With it I can look out and see everyone, talk to anyone, learn things from people on the other side of the planet. It is so amazing and beautiful that it is mesmerizing. I in fact never have to leave home. I can meet the people I want to meet better without leaving home, by looking through my Internet window. So I never leave home. I never meet the neighbor. I already know we don’t have anything in common.

    The problem is that the Internet and the WWW is just a window. I need a door. So I can see you and you can look out your Internet window and see me. But we never meet. Therein lies the isolation, the Seattle Chill if you will. Carry this behavior out ten years and you begin to forget how to be social. You begin to feel uncomfortable around strangers. This is the Seattle Chill creeping into your bones. I am a perfect example. And yet you ARE a primate and you do NEED the companionship of others. So sadness ensues even with your wonderful window to the world. Someday we will have a door and I can visit you and you can visit me but for now all we can do is look at each other through our windows and scribble messages on the rock for the other to read as we pass by. Humans need more than that.

    Take care,


  5. geopolicraticus said

    Dear Greg,

    Since you are implicitly appealing to evolutionary psychology (which I don’t dismiss, and I recognize the validity of your point), have you considered the possibility that this is the direction that human evolution is taking as a result of the telecommunications made possible by the industrial revolution?

    You wrote that individuals who connect online can “forget how to be social”. Let us extrapolate this not ten years, but maybe ten thousand years. In what direction will this take us? Might we not find ourselves diverging always further from our primate roots under the relentless influence of lives re-shaped by technology?

    Since you evidently see this as a regrettable development, what do you think is to be done? If you think Seattle is a worse place for having been the first major North American city transformed by communications technology, what should be changed about Seattle? Is the solution further technology, say in the form of better urban design? Can communities be designed at all, or must they appear spontaneously? Are we doomed to suffer the chill so long as civilization lasts, or are there alternatives?

    Best wishes,


  6. Greg said

    Hi Nick,

    I still have hope for us. I think the crux of the problem is that WE are obsolete. We are still just the simple primates we were a million years ago. Look what has happened around us. We can’t adapt fast enough to the changes around us.

    So here I sit this hairy little primate with this computer machine all alone in my bedroom typing away. But I was designed to be with a whole family of brothers and sisters and friends and neighbors. When I do venture out I find myself in a traffic jam or a Mall full of strangers. The way people live in Seattle is not healthy and ultimately leads to depression. We were selected to live in a commune surrounded by others because that’s what we did for millions of years.

  7. Dave said

    Interesting article. I just moved to the Pacific Northwest a few months ago from Southern California. Its like stepping back in time a decade or two. I have found the people to be quite friendly here and found it almost annoying at first. Took some getting used to. Have made some fairly superficial friendships after six months. We shall see if close friendships will develop. Only time will tell. In the meantime its much rougher dealing with the weather. Perhaps there should be an article written on the suicide rate up here in the winter….

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