The Border of Civility
When I first went on the road and began traveling to the US, one of my projects was in Schuylkill Haven, in the rolling hills of Eastern Pennsylvania, near Allentown, Pa. I worked with the mechanics and maintenance men in this plant, most of them born and raised locally in this rural area, however one was a transplant from Arkansas.
Everyone was friendly enough to this Southerner, though they loved to make fun of his speech and accent – and the fact that he chewed tobacco. It was good-natured fun to them, they meant to harm, however their ribbing could get a little personal sometimes.
The company, a chemical plant where they manufactured vinyl sheeting, was headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama. There was a week-long trip scheduled for the maintenance guys, to bring them up to speed on the latest machinery and techniques. When they returned, I asked the guy from Arkansas if the South had a chance at payback… the opportunity to rib all these northerners about their accent and ways.
“No,” he replied, “they’re too polite.”
This job took me to various destinations and to get to most of them, we flew from the small regional airport in London, Ontario, across Lake Erie and into Pittsburgh. At the time, Pittsburgh airport had three concourses. One was international flights and the second was the one I generally went down, to northern destinations.
When I started flying first into Charlotte, N.C. and then on to Huntsville, Alabama, I began using Pittsburgh’s third concourse, where flights with Southern destinations took off. Something was different. It took me a few trips to realize what it was: the tension. There was none. People didn’t scowl, they didn’t push; they made eye contact and smiled. I don’t think I had seen anyone smile in an airport before.
I loved being in the South. In this job, we flew out on a Tuesday, worked ten days straight until the following Thursday, then came home for four days. More than once over the next few months, instead of going home, I stayed. From the moment I stepped off the plane, I loved being here.
For years, I have not been able to put my finger on the big difference between north and South. The food is better in the South, the weather is better in the South, people’s manners are better in the South, Southerners take a little more time to go out of their way to be helpful and kind and … Southern Women, oh my, Southern Woman, oh my, Southern Women. Need I say more?
To Southern Women, appearance is paramount. Not just the way one looks, but the impression one leaves. Yes, hair (pronounced HAY-er, two syllables), nails and make-up must be perfect. I have told the story elsewhere where my ex-wife, the bleached-blonde, red-nailed, two-carat ex would not walk to the mailbox at the foot of the driveway unless she was perfectly put together.
I told that fact once on an internet discussion board. Some northerner commented that she was to be pitied. No, it’s the northerner to be pitied for having no pride. But a Southern Belle would think that, never pointing it out as that would be impolite.
The biggest difference, though, may be that people in the South are genuinely happy and glad to show it. Kindness, compassion and helpfulness are part of the South’s DNA. I’ve been down here too long to spot it but when my mother comes down here she is always astounded by the courtesy of cashiers and clerks, people who go out of their way to be kind.
Even in her doomed quest for what she considers a good cup of hot tea, the young ladies at the fast food places have offered to give her a tea bag and hot water from the faucet, or microwave some water, or even microwave some iced tea for her. The answer is never simply, “We don’t serve hot tea.”
I once overheard a father cautioning his young son at a local baseball diamond. His son was going to join team mates at a victory celebration at a local restaurant. He asked his son to “act like you’ve had some raising.”
The most noticeable of Southern manners and what makes Southerners stand out head and shoulders above anyone raised, bless their hearts, north of the Mason-Dixon Line – and ‘north’ means all the way north, well beyond the forty-ninth parallel as well – is that “yes” and “no” are not a complete response.
“Yes, ma’am”, “no, ma’am” or “yes, sir”, “no, sir” shows not only respect, but self-respect. The use of these titles is born out of respect, of good manners, of deference, of humility, and most importantly – of honor. Manners will get you places money will not.
A lady I once met in Chicago had been a part-time waitress in a riverside cafe/bar. A group of Southern men were at a convention nearby and had become ‘regulars’ for the week. She got upset at them and asked them to stop calling her “ma’am”. I didn’t want to run that same risk so she didn’t get the job she had applied for.
I guess that’s the crux of the matter. We can’t all have had the good fortune to be born in or to adapt to the ways of the South. Those ways, if they ever existed in the north, are long gone. We’ll come visit y’all because we enjoy y’all’s company, if not y’all’s ways. And when y’all’s ways get to making fun of gentility and the South, quietly and prayerfully, we know how to respond.Share