SEATTLE – What does it take to be considered a local to Seattle and the Pacific Northwest?
Is it hiking in the rain and loving it? Dressing casually for every occasion? Or is it spending at least half your life here, as respondents in a recent poll of Washington and Oregon residents suggest?
Knute “Mossback” Berger, editor-at-large of Crosscut and host of the TV series “Mossback’s Northwest” on KCTS 9, believes it’s a little simpler than that.
In a letter from the 1880s that was sent to him by a reader, the author, who had recently moved to the Olympic Peninsula, wrote that if you had lived here a couple of years, you were considered a mossback.
“I think the idea behind it is that if you can withstand a couple of Northwest winters and the rain and the dark, you had earned your stripes,” he said. “My feeling now is some people come here and right away feel they are home and other people can live here 20 to 30 years and never feel that. It has to do with whether you are predisposed to like it and how you adapt.”
A recent Pemco Insurance poll of more than 800 Seattle- and Portland-area residents found that respondents largely agreed on which characteristics are quintessentially Northwestern.
Topping the list of Northwest-y attributes is wearing casual, outdoorsy clothing, with 78% of Seattleites saying that if given the choice, they’d pick a puffy vest and jeans over a suit any day. In Portland, 81% said their wardrobes lean toward casual, outdoor clothing.
Berger said that while the Pacific Northwest has changed in some ways, not dressing to impress remains pretty universal, with people always attired as if ready to head to a mountain emergency.
He tells the story of a former boss who had been born in London and lived all over the world before moving to Seattle.
“He walked in the first day in Savile Row pinstripes, wearing rubbers on his shoes and carrying an umbrella, and everyone was staring at him,” Berger said. “He looked around and it was all hiking boots and slovenly dressed people. Held out for five to six years before he dumped the rubbers.”
Additionally, Northwest residents say that you’ll find true locals mostly outdoors, despite the rainy weather. In the poll, 66% of Pacific Northwest residents claimed they participate in more outdoor activities than indoor ones when compared with their counterparts from other regions in the U.S.
Rain doesn’t stop true Northwesterners from getting outside, the poll found. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of Northwest residents said they enjoy the stereotypical gray Northwest climate and 72% said they aren’t too bothered by the rain itself.
While many other regions of the country may whip out an umbrella when it rains, you won’t find that behavior in the Northwest, as 62% of residents said they rarely or never use an umbrella when the skies open.
Even though there are certainly some characteristics Northwesterners agree are widespread across the region, others depend on the city residents call home. The poll found that when it comes to being friendly to newcomers, the Seattle Freeze may be a real thing. In Seattle, about two-thirds of residents (63%) agree at least somewhat that giving newcomers the cold shoulder is a typical Northwest trait.
Berger said there’s been evidence of the freeze for at least 100 years.
It happens in surges when the city grows quickly and lots of people move here: in the early 1920s, during World War II and the influx from California in the 1980s.
“You begin to see articles about how the place is really beautiful, but the people aren’t as nice,” he said. “It’s real, but it’s not real for everybody, and it’s not personal or about who you are. This isn’t the kind of culture where you are baking casseroles for the neighbors, and a lot of people would see that as minding your own business and a good thing.”
One warning from Berger about fitting in: a surefire way to show you’re not a local and to irritate the heck out of him and other natives is to put a “the” in front of “Puget Sound.”
“Maybe it’s a California thing, like saying ‘the 5’ instead of I-5, but you can’t say ‘I live in the Puget Sound.’ It’s like fingernails on a blackboard for me. I have a very strong negative reaction to that and it triggers my inner freeze.”
While one-third of respondents identified as transplants, the vast majority (83%) said they identify with core Northwest quirks.
“It’s interesting to see that so many of us who transplanted to the Northwest identify with many of the stereotypes of the region,” Pemco spokesperson Derek Wing said. “I think the silver lining of this poll is that it shows plenty of common ground between locals and newcomers. When so many things divide us these days, it’s nice that many of us can agree on what makes the Northwest unique, and that we can celebrate how much we all embrace the PNW way of life – whether you’ve lived here your whole life or are new to the area.”