Yes, yes, and yes. I saw the piece in the New York Times, the one that suggested southern chivalry is dead, or at least wounded, and manners are on the decline. It did ruffle my southern feathers and I have decided to opine. I took a few days to consider whether or not anything good could be gained by my wading into the conversation, but when you’re known as The Belle of All Things Southern, it can be difficult to remain in the background during this sort of melee.
I will, however, begin my remarks with one caveat: I wasn’t there and I won’t be speaking to the court case at the heart of the article. I’d rather address the larger questions that are repeatedly presented to me here at All Things Southern. They take varying forms but they can all be traced to a single root. Are Southern manners just a myth we like to perpetuate? Do we really treat others more warmly? Are we more hospitable? And the big one: even if this has been true in the past, does it still hold true today?
Being a storyteller, I’ll open with a little tale. I’ve done a lot of traveling in the past month. Too much if you ask my husband and my dog, and while those travels have been confined to the South, they’ve offered me countless opportunities to interact with people who “aren’t from around here.” One such meeting presented itself during a long flight with a seatmate from Maine. After a bit of introductory chit-chat, and without any prompting from yours truly, my new friend offered several observations from his Southern stay.
“Everywhere I go down here,” he said, “people talk to me. And if they don’t speak, they nod at me. Strangers even talk to me in line! It surprised me at first, but I actually like it.”
Of course, since he opened the subject, I was quick to jump on the thread. I told him who I was, and what I did, and how often I get critical emails from people who aren’t southern accusing us of perpetuating the southern myth of hospitality.
“Oh, it’s definitely there,” he said. “People here really are nicer.”
Admitedly, I was puffing up so quickly that I almost missed the next curveball–
“Which is why I don’t understand why you don’t trust each other.”
What?! Someone pass the smelling salts! When I recovered, I asked my seatmate to explain. He told me he had noticed that people here were always afraid someone was going to steal something because we keep everything “locked down and tied up”. Backstory: my seatmate was a fisherman who had been in town scouting out the best fishing holes for an upcoming state tournament. If he could be believed, and why shouldn’t we trust him, he said he could leave his equipment in the back of his truck at the Wally World parking lot in his home town and find it right there upon his return. The fishing buddies he had met told him not to try that here unless he was willing to kiss his favorite reel good-bye!
My new friend and I went on to have a lengthy conversation but I filed that particular observation of his away to ponder. And ponder I have. To be frank, I’m still not sure what to do with it. Should we spin it? I could, you know. It wouldn’t be hard to come up with a couple of theories to explain why that lack of trust thing was just an aberration. I could find a way to revel in his confirmation of our friendliness, while spinning his observation about some purported lack of trust, but I would rather be brutally honest. Like people everywhere, we Southerners are complicated creatures with virtues and faults a plenty.
What continues to differentiate us as Southerners may be that so many of us openly aspire to those lofty ideals of hospitalilty and charm in the face of relentless ridicule and sterotypical accusations. Indeed, we’re one of the few remaining groups one can belittle with impunity. And yet, by large numbers, we struggle to hold the fort against the coarsening of society by insisting on manners others discount. We believe teaching children to use respectful titles like “no ma’am” and “yes, sir” remains a battle worth waging. We insist on the importance of family even if the different branches don’t see eye to eye. Oh, we don’t do it all right and believe me, we know it– but we’ll always celebrate good manners wherever we find them. And that, dear readers, brings me to my closing thought.
Maybe you’re reading this from another region of our country, or even another part of the world, and thinking to yourself, “But, Shellie, so do we!” In that case, I have only one thing left to say, “Thank you for being a part of such a worthy cause! There’s strength in numbers.”
Do you feel the South remains distinctive or have we melted into the rest of the country?