‘How to Talk Minnesotan,’ 25 years later

People from elsewhere seem to have certain ideas about what Minnesotans are like, and especially about how we talk. It’s safe to say that a fair number of those ideas come directly from Howard Mohr, a guy who documented our peculiarities (and thus perpetuated them) in a little book called “How to Talk Minnesotan” in 1986. He also wrote many of the skits featured on that other source of local stereotypes, “A Prairie Home Companion,” in the 1980s.

Mohr writes musical comedies and poetry from just outside of Marshall, Minn., a creative outpost out on the prairie that has been home to many Minnesota writers, including Bill Holm, Paul Gruchow, Tim O’Brien, and Carol and Robert Bly. Mohr says it’s nice out there, maybe. “Uh. Could be. If you like hog confinement barns.”

In “How to Talk Minnesotan” he demystifies Minnesotan as a second language for transplants and visitors by explaining useful phrases (the three workhorses: “You bet,” “That’s different” and “Whatever”), regional etiquette (the section on dessert negotiation will help you get all the dessert you want without appearing to want it) and cultural rituals (lutefisk, waving and snowbirds).

The book has remained continuously in print for 25 years, which seems to indicate that people still need help understanding us, even though all kinds of things have changed here in that time. So this summer, Penguin has released “How to Talk Minnesotan Updated for the 21st Century,” proving that we are an adaptive people, able to discuss gluten-free food, smartphones and Facebook alongside the weather and in the same unimitable (try as they might) style. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

MinnPost: Have Minnesotans changed that much in the past 25 years?

Howard Mohr: HTTM deals in many ways with “Greater Minnesota,” the code word from the big city for boondocks. With that in mind, I have to say that after 42 years of living smack in the middle of corn, soybean and livestock country, I have not noticed significant changes in the language and culture out here.

MP: The classic Minnesotan phrase is “That’s different.” But that inherently seems to assume a point of normal. But we’re a much more diverse people these days. So what’s “normal”?

HM: “That’s different” is still used out here where I live. That phrase is still valuable as a non-commital remark when you have an opinion but do not want to be so impolite as to express it. The current equivalent of that phrase might be “Awesome.” Or “Cool.” Those two utterances always seem to me to be just ways to get out of saying anything significant.

MP: You say, “We believe in the weather.” But that’s become a tricky topic. How can we talk about the weather without getting into conversational areas you say are off-limits, such as religion and politics?

HM: Amy, we had a good thunderstorm last night, and when I went out to check the rain gauges (we have two, a Republican rain gauge and a Democratic rain gauge), one showed seven tenths of an inch and the other showed eight tenths.  So we compromised and came up with three quarters of an inch of rain. That is considered a very worthwhile rain for the crops.  So how much rain did you have in your rain gauge this morning? 

MP: I still see a lot of Minnesota salads out there, marshmallows and all. But when was the last time you had a hotdish, and what were the ingredients?

HM: The most recent hotdish I was presented with was tater tot hotdish, the No. 1 favorite in many school lunch programs for years. But it is now out of favor, I believe, for its extraordinary amount of embedded fat. I will say that it took almost four days to digest it.  It was the classic recipe, but the cook had experimented by throwing in a couple handfuls of smoked oysters.

MP: I thought your book was a little guy-centric. For instance, I don’t think women spend 30 percent of their conversational time talking about cars. So are you saying Minnesota is Guyville, or are Minnesota women not especially feminine?

HM: One might say I am illustrating what most Minnesota women have to put up with in a Minnesota guy. Remember, I am trying to be funny, and that involves exaggeration. By the way, I think Minnesota women are outstandingly feminine. Are you trying to get me in trouble?

MP: Since everyone is texting and emailing and such, how does the Minnesota Long Goodbye work in the virtual world?

HM: It doesn’t work at all except when your guests are getting ready to leave for home after a visit and you can walk them out to their car in the driveway and chat for a few minutes through the rolled-down window. The Long Goodbye is still solidly in place in small-town and rural Minnesota, but clearly a long goodbye as your friends leave your 30th-floor condo would be pretty cumbersome. But I think a text message from the hosts after the departees get in their car or on the Hiawatha would be obligatory.

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