When my sister, Maggie, and brother-in-law, Gary, came up to Maine from Rhode Island recently, they noticed something. “People are nice” here, they said.

A couple of weeks ago I described Mainers’ deteriorating driving habits in this very space. Just two hours before I sat down to write this column, my husband, Paul, was honked at — by the driver behind us — as he stopped briefly at an intersection before turning right. We recalled that there was no such impatience when we moved here in 1986 from our native Massachusetts, that rich breeding ground for rabid drivers. Times have definitely changed.

Yet, I readily agreed with Maggie and Gary in their assessment. In the car, Mainers may be turning meaner. But on foot, we are still nice.

There is a thing called “Midwestern Nice.” An article in “The Economist” attempts to define it, and who better than the Brits to analyze us? Midwestern Nice is “apologizing involuntarily when scooting past someone, both to warn of your presence and to express regret for any inconvenience your mere existence may have caused. It is greeting people as they step into a lift and wishing them well as they leave.”

So, I was in a crowded venue the other day and suddenly realized I was standing right in front of another woman. I moved and apologized. “That’s OK,” she said. “I’m just looking for my kids.”

“I’m looking for my husband.”

“Same thing,” she said. We laughed.

Yeah. Maine Nice.

It took me years to recover from the snooty atmosphere of my high school. I was never sure whether a schoolmate — outside my circle of friends — would say hello to me, even if we were the only two people passing in a corridor. Now it is routine for me to nod or say “good morning” to strangers encountered while I’m out walking on the rail trail.

Maggie, Gary, Paul and I talked about Maine Nice for a bit. I said I’d noticed it when I’d first moved up here, in the demeanor of supermarket cashiers. They might actually engage you in small talk. Comment favorably on an item you were purchasing. “I haven’t tried that flavor yet.”

“Well, you should. It’s terrific!”

What accounts for it? Maine is a small state … but so is Rhode Island. The population is about the same. But the Ocean Staters are squished into a much smaller area. Maybe they get on each other’s nerves. They might have a stronger need to be insulated while out in public.

Maybe it’s the predominately rural nature of Maine that contributes to our niceness. It is common, for example, for people living in small towns to wave at each other as they pass on lonely roads, even if they don’t recognize the other vehicle.

Maybe it’s because we have a low crime rate as compared to the rest of the country. Are we more prone to think it’s safe to talk to strangers than people are if they live in more crime-ridden states?

Whatever the reason, Maine Nice is a real thing. I even see it in young people.

I’m an educator, and I can tell you that it can be dangerous to try to move through groups of teenagers who are trying to get to their next class. Earbuds are in place, their mental GPS is set for their destination, and a 5-foot-1 librarian is not on their radar. Yet, these same students — when not in a rush — will hold doors open for me. When I thank them, the reply often is, “Of course.”

One day I was trying to maneuver a cart of books from my car to the school. A high school student was walking ahead of me with his girlfriend. As he opened the door, he turned and saw me. He came down the sidewalk, commandeered the cart, and got it through the doors and into the lobby for me.

Of course.

Maine Nice includes a level of trust. This is seen at unstaffed roadside stands, where customers can leave their money and take away fresh eggs, or a pint of blueberries. Paul and I were at an indoor farmers market recently. As we waited for our pizza, we noticed there were several piles of money on the counter. When our pie was done and I got out my wallet, the proprietor, pointing to the countertop, said, “Just make your own change. It’s $12.” He was on to making another pizza.

I blinked, then put down a 20 and counted out my change. Twice. That was a lot of responsibility.

Of course, I would never say that life in Maine is all rainbows and unicorns. I keep track of interesting interactions I have at the grocery market, and many of them are negative. But the one I like best, the story I tell the most, is of the man who paid for my order.

I think it was because he and I had engaged in a little repartee at the checkout. I had laughed at a joke he made.

Take it from this Massachusetts gal. That’s how Maine Nice rolls.

 

Liz Soares welcomes email at [email protected].


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