How to be a Nice Midwesterner in a Pandemic

illustration of two people in masks
illustration of two people in masks
Be smart, do your part: Wear a mask, keep your distance, wash your hands, travel wisely.

The holidays are going to be different this year. That fact, and many others, is beyond our control. But, holy wah, we can still be nice and thoughtful people.

When our expectations don’t match reality — when a sense of overwhelm overcomes us — our minds get whiplash. In this state of mind, the pressure we feel can cause us to say or do mean things to other people.

Midwestern Nice does not negate this human trait. Also, being Nice is more than just the surficial expression of opening doors for everyone within 50 feet of the entryway or saying “Ope!” when you come close to bumping into someone (see: Manitowoc Minute glossary). Deep down, the polite aloofness of Midwestern Nice is a sincere desire for harmony. Simple harmony. The fewer complications the better.

Simple and harmonious are not adjectives that apply to 2020’s anxiety roller coaster. But even as finals, snow shoveling, politics and the pandemic loom, we can still seek simplicity and harmony in our own lives. And, we can start with one simple example that needs harmony: What are your plans for travel over break?

Watch Are you traveling home for break, Huskies? video
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Are you traveling home for break, Huskies?

Epidemiologist Kelly Kamm, assistant professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology, explains what you need to do before, during and after your trip. Getting a test is not a substitute for safe behavior — remember, what you choose to do now and during break can affect your loved ones.

Get Tested

Kelly Kamm, assistant professor of kinesiology and integrative physiology and Michigan Technological University’s epidemiologist, is the person you can thank for the effective asymptomatic testing program on campus (and please, also thank everyone working hard in the COVID-19 testing lab). This is not Kamm’s first infectious disease rodeo; she’s seen a number of communities around the world deal with and pull through outbreaks.

“Don’t forget about the communities you belong to — both at Tech and outside it,” Kamm said, advising all of us to be considerate of the people around us. “If you travel, then you need to quarantine for two weeks before you come back. Follow all the safety procedures — wear your mask, wash your hands, keep your distance and get tested when you return. Get tested as soon as you come back and again a week later.”

Moment of realness: This sucks; this is difficult. No one needs to be a jerk about it. When you catch yourself being sour/salty/snappy, forgive yourself, then move on and seek simple harmony again. Extend forgiveness, simplicity and harmony to others.

Wear a Mask

Another concept many people thought was simple has proved hard to harmonize: Wear a mask.

Just like the Midwestern Nice practice of not taking the last piece of cake, wearing a mask is not all about you. The last slice keeps getting cut in half because Midwesterners have Puritan sensibilities about appearing greedy — and, honestly, we like to think of others. We can shift from thinking about masks appearing political and do it because we’re thinking of others.

Kamm’s own daughter pushed back on this when she wore a mask during class while younger students were not required to do so. “Well, not everyone has an epidemiologist for a mom,” Kamm told her. “You’re ahead of the curve. ” (A week later all students were required to wear masks.) We cannot change the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and we cannot control what other people do. But, we can choose what we do and who we interact with — and we can choose to put the safety of our loved ones ahead of our holiday traditions.

About the Researcher



“It’s an uncomfortable conversation, but we need to have it,” Kamm said, offering tips on how to talk to people about COVID-19 safety. “You may have great habits, but your safety and your loved one’s safety is only as good as the habits of the people around you.”

Kamm compares it to the most commonplace conversation in the dating world: Wear a condom to avoid getting a sexually transmitted disease.

“People know to talk with their partners about wearing a condom and to ask about their sexual history,” Kamm said. “With wearing masks, maybe you’ve established ground rules with your roommates, but when you travel you need to talk about it with everyone you interact with.”

And, hey, talking to your parents and sibs about wearing masks and washing their hands is probably less awkward than bringing up condoms at the dinner table.

Plan Ahead

Even during difficulty, celebrating winter holidays is one of the highlights of the year for many of us. From Diwali to Hanukkah to New Year, there is a lot going on in November and December. Of course, there are also finals, dissertation defenses, scraping ice off windshields and, you know, a pandemic. That’s our reality right now and we cannot change it. But we can become more skillful in how we respond.

As you travel for Thanksgiving and Winter Break, channel your Midwestern Nice. Just like you would in lab, follow the safety protocols. Just like you would for a zombie apocalypse (outlined in a viral post by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), be prepared for the unexpected and work with the resources at hand. And be considerate of others.

“Would you rather miss one holiday or have an empty spot at the table at every future holiday?” Kamm asked. “I know it is hard to imagine holiday celebrations that look and feel different this year. I want nothing more than to gather in the kitchen with three generations of my family and laugh about epic failures from years past. Instead of letting the pandemic drive us apart, let’s focus on what we can do to show our love and respect for one another.”

We’re missing our friends and family members. But by thinking of others this holiday season, we can help ensure that we all keep bumping into each other (“Ope!”) for many more years.   

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.