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Don't give newcomers the cold shoulder

July 28, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
I've never thought North Dakotans – myself included – were particularly good at adapting to change. That may present a problem as new people come into the area, including new people who are helping with the flood effort. This is a time when we cannot afford the suspicion of someone with a different accent or a different sounding name or even of someone who might have a record but has cleaned up his life and wants a second chance.

I say this as a native. I grew up here and my family goes back a few generations in these parts. I speak like a North Dakotan and know how to play what my mom calls the North Dakota game. It goes like this. I meet someone, discover he's from somewhere in North Dakota, ask if he knows so and so, another person who I know who attended college there or works there or has the same last name. North Dakota is so small that everyone is connected in some way. I'm always bumping into someone's cousin or someone who shares the same minister or priest or someone who was at the university a few years ahead of me. This game is a way we build connections with each other and also reassure ourselves that the person we're having a discussion with can be trusted and "belongs." People from other places probably play their own version of the North Dakota game.

The game has its darker side too, since it can freeze out people who are judged a little too different, either due to accent or a different sounding last name or mannerisms that are judged just a little too animated or too loud for this reticent German and Scandinavian-influenced culture. I never thought too much about our oft-quoted saying "Forty below keeps the riff-raff out" until a newcomer asked pointedly: "Just who are the riff-raff?" Well, I guess the riff-raff are the people who don't know how to play the North Dakota game or are too different to ever learn how.

I think if you come from a little town, you get a little too used to the people being largely the same, talking the same way as you do, bringing up acceptable topics like the weather, the family, church activities and the fortunes of the high school basketball team. You soon learn that deviating too much from those norms or being too different will be met with disapproval.

In the last few weeks I've encountered people from different parts of the country, people with different accents, people with different looks, people with life stories quite unlike ours. They're here to help out people who badly need help. I hope we don't freeze them out. It's time to come up with a new version of the North Dakota game.


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