You hear the term "Iowa Nice" once in a while, and it almost makes you want to cringe.
It's like saying, "our state doesn't have much going on," so we'll make our reputation on being friendly, homey folks. We're the Care Bear of states.
I figured it was one of those awkwardly meaningless marketing tools. You know, like Alabama's slogan, "Share the Wonder," or Connecticut's "Full of Surprises" - catch phrases that manage to say nothing at all. Or this stinker for Illinois, "Right Here. Right Now." What's here - aside from prisons and political corruption? Or Missouri's "Where the Rivers Run," because goodness knows they don't don't do that anywhere else. Or South Carolina's contribution probably thought up by an intern who is a distant cousin of the governor, "Great Faces Great Places." Or the worst slogan of all time, Washington's "Say WAt."
Iowa has never managed a slogan of much value, or anything that sticks. Virginia is for lovers, Montana is Big Sky Country, I Love NY is the stuff of a billion t-shirts, New Mexico is The Land of Enchantment, Texas is the Lone Star State. What about us?
We've staggered around between a dozen lame attempts at humblebrags - The Hawkeye State, Fields of Opportunity, Is This Heaven? (stolen from the Field of Dreams movie), Life Changing, a State of Minds, Iowa: Wave the Next Time You Fly Over, Land Where the Tall Corn Grows, and worst, "We Do Amazing Things With Corn." There are things you just shouldn't do with corn.
"Iowa Nice" may have some traction. You've probably seen those great videos by Mr. Iowa Nice himself, actor and Carroll native Scott Speaker, slamming Iowa's antagonists and blasting stereotypes. Iowa Nice t-shirts and mugs are floating around.
Thing is, Iowa Nice isn't really a slogan. Iowa really is nice. Way, way nice.
So nice that if you come to a four-way stop in Iowa, nobody ever gets through because everybody is too polite to go first. You'll spend ten times longer sitting there than you would anywhere else, waving and gesturing each other on in encouraging fashion. You'll be late, but you won't drive off mad.
Chances are you won't get murdered in Iowa. There are no drive-bys, because nobody would want to block someone's driveway. And if there is a shooting, the victim will probably take time to clean up the blood before dying, not wanting to cause anyone an inconvenience.
Iowa's probably the only place you could have a first-in-the-nation caucus for long. You can actually have Democrats and Republicans in the same room without blue-haired grandmothers trying to execute flying drop kicks on each other. The Buena Vista County chairs of Republicans and Democrats actually work together on caucus education events for high schoolers. I've yet to see one decent fistfight break out at a candidate speech, though some of them could have used some excitement.
You know what happens if you're in Omaha and call a cop for help? You get an answering machine. Leave your name and number, we won't get back to you, but it might make you feel better. In Storm Lake, police come out in a rainstorm or blizzard to try to unlock your car because you've gone and locked the keys inside. Very nice - well, at east it is if you aren't a locksmith. Our police collect mittens for poor kids, for gosh sakes.
Every year, there's a story about a sports team somewhere in Iowa that finds the opposing team putting in a challenged kid who never gets to play, and they won't just let him score, they'll rebound and give the ball back to him until he does, because winning is defined just a little differently here. If a kid gets hurt on any court or field in Iowa, and has to be helped off, the opposing crowd cheers the fact that they are going to be okay. It's expected, and if you didn't do it, somebody would slap you in the back of the head. Heck, in the NFL this weekend, one team's fans were throwing things at the other team's quarterback while he was being hauled away on the medical cart.
They trample the flag in this country. I wouldn't try it in Iowa. If you forget to take your hat off when the color guard goes by in the homecoming parade, you're about to get an education in patriotism. Be nice.
You get pay-it-ahead chains at restaurant drive-ups, where one car pays for the food for the people in the car behind them, and that person pays for the next, and so on. It's ridiculous, but it's nice ridiculous.
In Iowa you hold doors, you stop so jaywalkers or Canada geese can cross the road, you tip the waitress extra if it looks like she's had a bad day, you put the fish you catch back in the water if you don't need it for supper. You clean up your table at a fast-food place because you weren't raised in a barn. We ask how you are, and we actually want to know. You don't even realize all these little things, until you spend some time elsewhere, and they are not the practice.
You not only say "hi" to strangers you pass in Iowa, you have to.
If I pass someone on the street, and say "hi," and they don't answer or at least smile, I'm stunned and dismayed. After five minutes, I want to sprint back and tackle them and shake them by the collar. "Did you hear me, homeboy?? I just said hi! Greet me!"
Of course, you can't do that, because it wouldn't be nice.
But if you don't say "hi" back, I'll spend sleepless weeks fretting about it. Do I not look friendly enough? Did I have a booger showing, or had I accidentally left my zipper down? Why, why would someone not want to greet me?
On our Facebook page recently, we shared a note from Joe Saldana, of Pasadena, shortly after the Rose Bowl:
"A quick note of thanks to the thousands of Iowa fans who came to our city this past week. As a 56-year resident of Pasadena, I have experienced many Rose Bowl Parades and Rose Bowl games. Absolutely no group of fans can hold a candle to the Iowa faithful. They are just the nicest folks, period. Thank you, Iowa fans, for a delightful experience."
Maybe being known as "Iowa Nice" isn't so bad. Maybe it's not goofy marketing.
Maybe it's more than a slogan.