AAWMS: On “Southern Manners”

Hey y’all, it’s time for “Ask a White Male Southerner!”

Allison writes:

When I worked in the customer service department at Camping World (RV accessories), my favorite callers were southern men because of the politeness and accent. I dreaded the calls from New Jersey men because of the un-politeness and accent. The women from the north and south seemed to fall in the middle of the extremes. What is your take on the politeness of southerners…men in particular?

This is an excellent question that I don’t have a real “answer” for – just several impressions.  So I’ll share those.

First, there’s the question of politeness in general.  I have a few theories here, beginning with the funny and obvious one of “Well, down here 100 years ago you had to be polite or you might find yourself in 10-paces-turn-and-fire territory.”

That’s not entirely true, but it’s not entirely untrue, either.  I think that southerners of a hundred years ago or so used their peculiar blend of manners the same way Victorians in England (or upstate NY, or what have you) used them, as a way to separate themselves from the masses of the Great Unwashed.  It was a way to distinguish themselves as a class.  That may sound Marxist, but I think there’s some truth to it.  The masses themselves then attempted to emulate them, to varying degrees of success.  You could say that maybe a lot of it was completely faked, like telling a guy “Good day, sir” when you’d rather stab his eyes out, but that sort of faking was encouraged.  Whatever your true feelings were, you couldn’t be a “man of honor” if you didn’t display the proper manners.  And so you did, no matter what your real feelings were.

Now as for modern-day politeness, I really don’t have a clue.  Maybe a bunch of it is still fake, or just for show’s sake.  I don’t know.  I could say that southerners nowadays have a sort of need, conscious or no, to define themselves and/or their southern-ness by this display of politeness, but I don’t really think that’s a major factor.  For me and people like me, it was just something that you were taught growing up.  Taught by example and taught straight-up by having Daddy or Grandma or whoever whack you with a wooden spoon to teach you not to reach across the table for the salt.  It seems completely normal to me, such that I have a hard time pointing out why it should be different for other people who grew up elsewhere.  I can’t imagine that they weren’t taught the same way I was, and I can’t imagine that if they were, why they wouldn’t behave similarly to the people I grew up around.

For myself, I know I’m a little unusual even among my fellow southerners.  I personally still take my hat off whenever I’m indoors, which all of the older male members of my family do (at least that I can think of), but others of my generation-including my brother-don’t, and aren’t necessarily corrected for it.  Now that I’ve moved around a bit, I see a lot of guys that aren’t that way.  I don’t think any less of them for it, but I kinda like that it makes me feel a little more unique.  Not better, just different.

I also have a little mannerism in that I say “sir” and “ma’am” a lot.  Not only to my elders or customers or that sort of thing, but often to my peers and even to people younger than me.  I noticed a few older guys that I worked with – black guys, if it matters, which it didn’t to me at the time but now seems like an interesting cultural footnote – doing it, and I thought it was a very nice thing to do, so I started doing it myself, and now 15 years later it’s pretty well ingrained.

I’ve had people (mostly guys, now that I think about it) think I’m mocking them before, which really shocked me.  I wasn’t being overly reverent, but I wasn’t being flippant or smartassed about it either – just being jovial and friendly.  I’d say “Yes sir, let’s go do that” in the same tone and inflection as if I’d say “Yeah man, let’s do it” or “hell yeah” or “Sure thing, m’man.”  It’s like they couldn’t accept at face value that I was using a term of respect, so I must be being a sarcastic asshole.  Which of course I may be, but it wasn’t the intent at the time.

Now, there’s the other half of your question, the “men in particular.”

I think “guy manners toward gals” are a completely different set of behaviors when compared to manners as a whole.  And there are some facets of that that I think are uniquely southern, it’s true.  I used to open doors and carry packages and stuff for women from time to time, people I knew and people I didn’t.  (Actually I still open doors for strangers, male and female.)  Dyskinesia said it made her uncomfortable when I did it early in our relationship, so she broke me of being so chivalrous toward her.  Now she says she regrets that.  D’oh!

Anyway, if you were raised in a southern household like mine, you were raised to hold women in a special sort of regard.  In the situation you’re describing, I definitely think that the fact that you were a lady answering the phone probably made a difference to a big percentage of the southern men who called.  They might have been hopping mad, but something in their upbringing made them back off rather than take their frustration out on a woman, whereas women and/or men not raised in that culture might feel no such compunctions.

A feminist viewpoint on this might be that it’s chauvinistic or demeaning, that it’s mocking the strength of a woman, subtly insinuating that she needs your help or protection, and thereby insinuating that she should be in some subservient role.  Personally, I think you can offer help to someone without insinuating that they’d be helpless without it.  I don’t feel bad by saying that I’m generally stronger than most of the women I know, so if there’s manual labor around I feel like crap if they’re doing it and not me.  (Or at least without me doing the hardest and crappiest part of it.)  There are women out there who could physically tie me in knots, and that doesn’t bother me.  But the culture in which I was raised suggests that I put what little brawn I have to the service of those who stereotypically if not actually have less.  If that’s chauvinism, then it’s a level of chauvinism that I’m comfortable with.

But I think that there are still sexist attitudes that predominate large swaths of southern culture, both white and black and of all walks of society.  I don’t think stereotypical southern manners are a cause of it – arguably they’re a symptom, but definitely not a cause.  Some feminists might say that the mannerisms should so that they won’t continue to be a reminder to the worst elements of the inequalities of the genders.  I personally think that if you take away the manners, the sexism would remain – and that if you took away the sexism, then the manners could still exist and not hurt anyone.  Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s what I think.

**********

That was a fun diversion, I think.  I’ll happily open it up for discussion now – what do you think?

Oh, and I’ll gladly take other questions for “Ask a White Male Southerner” – just leave a comment, or email me at taobikerblog at gmail dot com!

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5 Responses

  1. As a fellow White Male Southerner, I agree, I was just raised to take my hat off indoors (don’t dare get caught with your hat on at the table), you always say ma’am and sir, and you always open the door for someone else if you get to it first. I’ll go so far as holding an elevator door for someone. I never put much thought into it, just thought that’s the way it was to be. I still do all of these things. I still wave at fellow drivers (almost never get a return wave anymore), I still pull over for a funeral procession… and take my hat off if I’ve got one on.

    Hmm, I don’t pull over for funeral processions or take my hat off (but I’m usually not wearing a hat while driving anyway). But I can see why you do it. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. You went above and beyond my expectations for answering this one, TB. Thanks so much! Regarding the potential female viewpoint that it’s chauvinism, I’ve taken my fair share of women’s psychology and sociology courses…I even read The Feminine Mystique. I don’t consider myself to be a feminist per se, but I do consider myself to be a fairly strong and independent woman. That being said, I am never offended by politeness that I might not have received if I were a male or chivalrous acts in general.

    I have been condescended to by men…in particular with regards to their perception of intellectual capabilities…but I consider that to be stupidity not an attempt at chivalry.

    I always like it when Matt walks nearest to the street on a sidewalk. My dad once told me that his mom would have whacked him on the head if he had let a woman walk nearest the street. I had to laugh at that. It’s funny how we learn social expectations.

    Well, I thought it was an interesting question that touched on several good topics, so good on ya to bring it up!

    I agree – anybody that condescends to you because they think you’re not as smart as they are is displaying their own stupidity. Pah.

    Good point about walking nearest to the street, as well – I think I do that, but if so it must be mostly unconscious. We don’t really have sidewalks in our neighborhood, so when we go for a walk I tend to walk nearer the center of the street, I think that counts…

  3. You know, Todd and I just had a long talk on a road trip last weekend about comparing people in the south to people in the north. People in the south move much slower and are overall more polite and open than they are in New England. I really think that southerners have the right idea when it comes to life. They take things slow, and at the end of the work day there’s always tomorrow to finish something.

    I do think southerners, for the most part, have a greater understanding that being polite will get you everywhere. While a New Englander seems to think that the squeaky wheel gets the grease and being a demanding asshole will make people hop to it.

    I think there’s some truth to that. But I’m also reminded of Jefferson’s famous letter to Chastellux in 1785, in which he described northerners and southerners: (I’m going to reproduce this here to make it a bit easier to read, in the actual letter he compared them category-by-category, side-by-side)

    “In the north they are:
    cool
    sober
    laborious
    persevering
    independant
    jealous of their own liberties, and just to those of others
    interested
    chicaning
    superstitious and hypocritical in their religion

    In the south they are:
    fiery
    voluptuary
    indolent
    unsteady
    independant
    zealous for their own liberties, but trampling on those of
    others.
    generous
    candid
    without attachment or pretensions to any religion but that
    of the heart.”

    Obviously TJ was a somewhat biased observer, but a keen one as well, and not entirely uncomfortable in finding fault in his own people.

  4. Don’t forget the influence of religion…and beatings.

    My mom once wore my butt out for running in church.

    Did I mention it was Wednesday night…after church? She was in choir practice and I was in a holding area for choir members’ kids. And everyone else was running!

    True on both counts. I didn’t get a lot of either, but they were part of the cultural landscape.

    I may have gotten a beating for something related to Vacation Bible School once, now that I think of it…hmm. Something involving that godawful green Kool-Aid?

  5. Women feminists or otherwise that presume that polite courtesies extended by men toward women are done because the women are viewed by the men as somehow “less” are projecting their own insecurities and self esteem issues onto the men in question. When a person is polite and courteous it is not about you it is about them – how they were raised – how they view the world – how they like to treat people and be treated.
    The other advantage to starting from a position of politness and courtesy it leaves room to escalate if needed. Where do you think the phrase Steel Magnolia comes from 🙂 Love the blog and the posts are great!

    I agree on your points about “it’s not about you, it’s me.” I’m sure just about every lady I know can easily open her own door, carry her own groceries, etc., but I just can’t rest easily feeling like I’m sitting back on my ass while my wife makes four trips to haul the groceries back and forth from the car.

    And yes, I like your point about it leaving you room to escalate. When I suddenly stop being polite, it’s a warning that I’m pissed off. By the time I actually start acting pissed off, you should be ducking for cover.

    Where does your “asshole from square one” guy from Brooklyn guy go? More assholish? Or straight to swinging fists?

    Thanks for the compliments, stop on by anytime!

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