Anonymous in Seattle

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the unique culture we have in Seattle.  We love our coffee, our dogs, and we like to dress like we’re headed hiking at any moment.  But like every area of the country, people here have unique personality quirks.  I’ve recently noticed that Seattleites seek a great deal of anonymity. They just want to be left alone.

Yesterday, the Seattle Times featured a story about August Wilson, a playwright who called our city home and wrote several famous plays while living here.  The only play that I recognize from his canon is “Gem of the Ocean,” partly because it was being preformed at the Ashland Shakespeare festival this year (we opted to watch the Shakespeare plays instead, so we missed it). 

In the article, Wilson’s widow (he passed away in 2005 from liver cancer) explains why he liked the city so much:  “He could hibernate and work here. He could be a little more anonymous than in New York. He’d sit in cafes and write, and people left him alone.” 

This famous man lived and worked in Seattle because people didn’t know him, didn’t care, or just didn’t bother him because that’s how people behave here.  It might have been a combination of all of those things. 

I know a bit about famous people and their desire for anonymity.  I lived in Montecito, California for three years while attending Westmont College.  It’s in the hills south of Santa Barbara, and all my neighbors were the rich and famous.  I got used to seeing actors and actresses in the restaurants, in the boutiques, and at the grocery store (yes, some stars actually push their own shopping carts around).  Not long after moving there, I learned the law of the land: ignore the famous people.  It’s pretty hard not to gawk when an actor whom you watched on the big screen the night before sits across from you at a restaurant, but you learn.  If you’re with some newbie who doesn’t know any better, they’ll graciously give autographs, but in general, they want to live life as normally as possible.

There’s a big difference between these two places, though.  In Montecito, only the stars get ignored. In Seattle, everybody gets ignored.  It’s a large-scale cultural phenomenon.

To be anonymous literally means to be “without a name.”  People in Seattle want to remain nameless. They don’t want to be recognized.  They just want to go about their lives without being bothered by others. 

I think it’s strange that Frasier moved from Boston, where “everyone knows your name” to a Seattle, the place where nobody does.  If the quintessential Boston gathering place is the local Cheers bar, in Seattle, it’s the corner Starbucks, where maybe the Barista knows you, but she’s the only one who will talk to you. 

My pastor has dared us to strike up conversations with random people sitting at Starbucks.  (We’d probably get blacklisted from our favorite caffeine spot and need to cross the street to the next one.)  He points out the irony, that we’re a city filled with lonely people (the last census showed that we have one of the highest rates of people living alone), who go to coffee shops to be around people, only to ignore them. 

The good news is that in a city that doesn’t want to know our name, God knows it: “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:3b).    Even though Seattleites ignore us, Jesus never does.  He pays attention to all the moments and details of our lives, “And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Matthew 10:30).

Just a note to the girl in line behind me at Starbucks yesterday.  I know that in Seattle, people don’t talk to each other, but isn’t it taking it a little far when you swat me on the shoulder (rather hard, I think) instead of simply telling me that the barista was trying to get my attention?  I may not know your name, but I know your drink, which is just as good, Miss Short, Skim, Mocha!

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Baltimore (where I live) is a plesant mix of the southern hospitality and northeastern aggressiveness. But, I’ve found that people will talk back when I initiate conversations. Knowing the name of the woman who used to hand me my news paper in the morning (Annette) became a source of daily encouragement, as she was also a believer. Mr. Bill now hands me my paper, and we have daily mini-conversations. Mrs. Linda does some of the “house-keeping” services in the building I work in. Sanford and Beverley work security. Alvin mans the tourist section of my building. Sam is the matre de (spelling?) at the restaurant across the street.
    Granted, I need to be more intentional in sharing the gospel with these people. But, I’ve seen where people light up when I walk by. Not because I’m so great, but because there are few people that acknowledge their existence each day.
    I used to think as Baltimore as a cold, crime driven city. But now, I love my city. And now, it is not so anonymous to me.
    God bless and “good luck” with your endeavors to strick up conversations!

  2. Michelle,

    It sounds like you’re making an impact in Baltimore, one name at a time! When living in Vermont, I used to laugh at the rampant “customer NO service.” At least here in Washington, sales people and store employees are friendly and personable. If I can’t connect with their patrons, I can at least make some extra effort and get to know them better. Thanks for the inspiration.

  3. Here in Houston no one talks to you at church, but everywhere you go in stores the employees tell you to “have a blessed day” and prayer sessions break out in line at the supermarket. When you call a business or a doctor’s office and get put on hold, you will be listening to Christian music. Stores that are part of nation wide chains play Christian music overhead.

    But can you just chat over a cup of coffee? Not unless it is about your kid’s sports team, your dog, or what you are wearing. Drives me crazy.

  4. Having just moved here pretty recently, the personality of Seattle in general is a refreshing change from where I lived (in MIchigan.) My most recent place of residence was a small town; you went in a store or any public place, and nearly every head would turn to see if they knew you. If you tried to sit and rest/eat in a restaurant (espresso doesn’t exist there – Folgers is considered “gourmet”) you would feel the burn of the eyes, and even hear snickers. One of my reasons for leaving was that you could never feel anonymous anywhere – which of course, some people LOVED. But I had been in a relationship that ended badly, and I was so sick of running into acquaintances of my ex (or trying to avoid them) that I had to avoid going to many spots.

    The lonely-looking people in Starbucks are most likely not feeling lonely – they are feeling lucky that they live in Seattle where they CAN go and sit and drink their coffee – not try to gulp it while walking up the sidewalk. There are other related treasures about Seattle that almost shocked me – wonderful customer service nearly everywhere; people hold doors; and despite having an immigrant population of massive proportions, Seattle is very harmonious and absent of much racial tension. A wonderful thing, because it not only gives us such a diverse populace, but also the wealth of ethnic food and culture that would be shunned by midwesterners. Despite the fact that it can be hard to meet new people here, the comfortable pace and manners in general make up for all the tension and closed-in claustrophobia of the east. I think Seattle is a wonderful place and I’m so glad I made the move.


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