Newcomers to Iowa encounter before long one element of our state DNA, and may come to embody it. This assumes they make acquaintance and friendship with long time Iowans and don’t stay hunkered down with colonies from either coast. It is “Iowa Nice” that seeps into their bones.
Our present Episcopal bishop arrived in 2003 from southern California, went around the state meeting people in his many churches while sharing with them his ideas for things to come. He was met warmly, people nodded their heads at his ideas, and then said (or more often left unspoken) their inclination to do things in the old way just the same. The bishop was left scratching his head. He thought they agreed with him. Folks in LA don’t disagree this way.
Conflict avoidance can be a downside of Iowa Nice, however the bishop remarked on his flock’s true hospitality and cordiality all the way along. They were truly glad to have him, they were willing to listen, and they had their own notions for running a church.
Iowa Nice gets satirized and discounted a lot these days even in Iowa, but just maybe it is a serious commodity worthy of export in this testy world of polarities and stridency, more than corn and soybeans.
The behavior probably dates from pioneer days. When your neighbors are few and scattered around, and they will likely farm that plot of ground for some time to come, the last thing you want to do is alienate them. You will need their help sometime, perhaps every harvest going farm to farm with everybody pitching in around a single threshing machine. Then there are the frequent emergencies, or a group of locals overseeing the one room schoolhouse, or the community festivities to help with, and so on. People need to get along. It means survival and prosperity.
So is born Iowa Nice and its live-and-let-live approach; at best showing mutual respect, solving conflicts with even tempers, and staying positively connected over time. Of course it is not always this pretty, but you can see the direction.
Doesn’t it sound like a social/political climate change that we need? Sure there are times when serious confrontation is needed (e.g. Flint, MI, or Iowa’s river quality). but even urgent situations benefit from a dose or two of Iowa Nice. Political discourse often assumes that we do not have to live with or care about our temporary opponent (T.O), that they are a child of the devil rather than divinity (beware of people being labeled ‘evil’), that looking at the issue from their point of view doesn’t matter, that the goal is win-lose rather than win-win.
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If we export Iowa Nice with missionary zeal, then we will need to show how we can come at problems and conflicts as if we are going to be living with our T.O for a long time. We may need to learn other skills, too, such as staying engaged at the table until something is solved. Our state-hallowed approach also assumes that more authority comes up from the grass roots than down from a hierarchy. Properly executed, Iowa Nice takes more work and caring than knee-jerk polarizing behavior.
Some years back a few leaders in Northern Ireland must have caught our virus, for they evolved a solution to long and deadly social divisions, such that occasional disturbances do not dislodge the cooperation.
Yet Iowa is in danger of forgetting its own best heritage. Let it be taught in the schools. Let us demand it (nicely) from our elected representatives or vote them out next time. Let us nod our heads and pass on by those who would have us respond with venom and judgment instead of respect and curiosity. After all, our T.O. today may be the one who pulls us out of a ditch tomorrow.
• The Rev. Mel Schlachter grew up in Nebraska, has lived in Iowa City for 14 years, and did research for this article earlier by living on both U.S. coasts.