January 28th, 2012
The one that's gotten me in the most trouble is "could be better" vs. "could be worse."
If you ask me how I am doing, and I say, "Could be better":
Some coastal friends have thought I meant, "I think I might have improved since last time you asked." They will say, "Great!" or, "Yay!" in unironic voices. Then I will give them the eyes of betrayed puppy doom because they are so very mean.
What I actually mean is, "I can think of so very very many ways in which my current situation could be better; there is hardly anywhere to go but up from here."
"I just got a several million dollar deal on a book contract I'd been working for years to pursue": could be worse!
"Someone very close to me has just received a terminal diagnosis, possibly myself": could be better!
The pinnacle of human existence, of course, is "can't complain." "Can't complain" comes when you have that several million dollar book deal and also the terminal diagnosis someone close to you got last week turned out to be a mistake and what they really have is a hangnail. And also your feet finally got warm for the first time in three months.
"Isn't that a thing!": this coastal person seems to expect me to express something here. I have no idea what. I shall make mouth noises and smile until they seem satisfied and go away. Alternately: I need a moment to collect my thoughts, as the thing in question has startled me so much that both having and processing the resultant emotions will be too much for me. Alternately: see "that's different." (You can tell the difference in these three situations by subsequent words/behavior. If it is followed by puzzled questions, you're on option 1. "Have you...always wanted to raise mutant hamsters?": option 1. If they then say, "Wow, that's great for you," or, "I am so sorry," we are in option 2. If they look at you expectantly like, "Why are you still here?", option 3 all the way.)
"That's sure different": like "that's different" but really anybody ought to be able to SEE that I hate your choices what is WRONG with you do you not have a combination of manners and sarcasm on your planet. "That's different": your hair smells of coconut, and I personally hate coconut. "That's sure different": your hair smells of rotten coconut. "That's different" could be an honest difference of opinion; "that's sure different" indicates that no sane person could do what you have just done. But we don't want to be rude about it!
The desire to not be rude and also not lie has led to many a Minnesota Enthusiastic Neutral. My own best example was when someone showed me her daughter's playroom, and the 18-month-old had her very own pink Disney Princess themed television. "A Disney Princess themed television!" I cried. "All for her very own!" When further comment seemed desired, I said, "I didn't even know they made those!" This is not saying, "You are a shitty parent and I hope the wolves carry your daughter away and raise her somewhere without your highly gendered fucked-up corporate bullshit." It is also not saying, "I endorse your parenting decisions in this and all regards." It is saying, "We seem to still be in an enclosed space together! Funny thing about that!"
Oh, "Funny thing about that": any fool could have expected this outcome.
Note: for the vast majority of Minnesotans over the age of 65 or so--everyone older than the Baby Boom and a great many Boomers who are from outstate--"spicy" is never a positive word. It is up there with "spendy" on things that are intense and uncomfortable and excessive. For Minnesotans younger than that, it may well be positive, but you're safest assuming neutrality until you know for sure. On the other hand, younger Minnesotans have often been around other younger Minnesotans, so even if they love spicy food, they may feel the need to warn you that something is mildly spicy just in case you're like the many blond-and-bland people they know.
One of my favorite Minnesotan-to-English translations was when you said Chicago was not the same Midwest as Minneapolis, and I said, "Oh yah?" And on the spot you translated this correctly as, "No shit, Haddayr!"