“Unfriendly” – Understanding the Alaskan Way, Mind and Soul
If America is a melting pot of peoples, then Alaskans live on the hard-crusted rim where nonconformity, prickly margins, and unsavory appearances prevail. Newcomers often don’t know what to make of us and we have at times been misinterpreted as “unfriendly.” There is a culture gap, which, depending on the newcomer or the Alaskan (let’s be honest), could be on the scale of Hurricane Gulch. The offended tourist responds with vitriol and the unhappy Alaskan privately ponders the age-old quip, “If it’s tourist season, then why can’t we shoot ‘em?”
Yes, Alaskans can seem unfriendly. In grocery stores down South an alarming number of complete strangers strike up friendly conversations in the cereal aisle, or at check out, or wherever they find you. However, if you randomly talk to an Alaskan at the store, odds are they will be slightly spooked, giving you a skeptical side-eye as they edge away. On the other hand, a perfectly acceptable greeting between strangers is brief neutral eye contact. Like wild animals passing in the woods, you acknowledge the other’s presence and move on, demonstrating that you have no interest in bothering them or hindering their hunt for fresh produce.
The truth is that Alaskans cherish independence, hating even the implied constraint of an unsolicited opinion. One of the supreme courtesies we extend to anyone, local or visitor, is to leave them the hell alone.
If an Alaskan feels compelled to initiate conversation, you’ll quickly find that our friendliness can seem brusque. After a major winter storm I was buying a snow shovel at the local hardware store when an old sourdough took one look at my bright yellow plastic shovel and loudly scoffed, “That thing’s not gonna do you any good!” I was taken aback, but I knew his desire was to help. Alaskan’s volunteer advice sparingly, but when they do, no matter how salty, it is for your good!
We know the wildness of our home. A simple grocery run turns into a life and death situation at -40 if your vehicle breaks down. Yes there are tow trucks, but there might not be cell service. When things go bad, it is the Alaskan who stops and checks on you. How far out is the tow truck? Are you warm? Do you have blankets? Yes, independence is core to our identity. Yet, joined with that is a deep concern for those in distress, because we remember just how effectively Alaska broke down our own preconceptions and modern conveniences.
So, if you have a story about being chased out of some scenic spot by a rough-looking, gun-wielding local who bleeped nasty phrases at you — congratulations! Many of us have had similar experiences. Write out your unhappy story, send it to us, and our readers will both relish and sympathize with your encounter. Only, remember this — that same “unfriendly” Alaskan could’ve been saving your life. Was there a bull moose in rut? A trapline? A grizzly’s fresh kill? You might never know, but at least you are around to tell the tale!