A Southern sort of day

I saw Paula Deen at a Press Club lunch yesterday and To Kill a Mockingbird at the renovated Strand Theater last night.

So here’s my thought for the day:  Is civility — in the form of attention to other people’s comfort and feelings  — what sets the South apart?

you can't protect them from all the ugly things in the world

you can't protect them from all the ugly things in the world

Somebody asked Paula Deen what makes the South special, and she said (in her very roundabout fashion) that manners come first in the South from the time we are very young. Not just ma’am and sir, but understanding that you must never hurt anyone’s feelings. This is what fuels the popular idea of “Southern hospitality,” she suggested.

And while I would not normally think of Paula Deen as an arbiter of Southern taste (too much cream of mushroom soup)this really gave me pause.

It was absolutely the clearest thing my mother taught me: I would get an out-of-character, clench-teethed “Hush!” if I violated it. Company comes first. Other people’s feelings and comfort come before your own — especially if they are disadvantaged in any way, even by unfamiliar surroundings. And I suppose it’s what I’ve been trying to beat into my own boys’ heads. I always say if I can just raise them to be nice to other people, to consider others’ feelings in all they do, I will have done my job.

Last night, I watched Atticus teach Scout that very thing. This was the first time I’d seen To Kill a Mockingbird as a mother, and I now think it should be given out in birthing hospitals with birth certificates. Atticus has his big words, and he always takes the time to explain things to Scout, but it’s his actions that are really important in the instruction of his children.

protecting a mockingbird

protecting a mockingbird

He turns a quiet other cheek to town talk about his defense of Tom Robinson. He helps Scout understand that Mr. Cunningham is embarrassed by his poverty. Calpurnia tells Scout that Walter Cunningham is her guest and if he wants to eat the tablecloth, you let him do it!  Atticus tells the children all along to respect Boo Radley’s privacy, but it’s Heck Tate who sets the ultimate example to protect this vulnerable soul. And in the end, Scout makes the connection between killing a songbird and failing to protect the innocent.

My favorite lesson from To Kill a Mockingbird is how kindness overcomes ugliness. Remember Atticus regaling Mrs. DuBose about her flowers, just being thoughtful enough to know what would flatter her? Scout naively violating the field of hate between her family and the gathered lynch mob, simply by being polite and connecting with Mr. Cunningham?  It’s tough to keep on being ugly when someone is killing you with kindness. When Atticus walks away from Bob Ewell after he spits in his face, it’s not only the worst thing he could have done to Ewell — it is the ultimate example for Jem about courage and civility.

yesmaamBack to Paula Deen . . . She refused to stand above folks on a stage yesterday and instead walked out into the crowd and touched or looked at every person there. She put people at ease with her celebrity and welcomed them into her personal space. What do you think she would have done if someone had asked her a rude question about, say . . . cream of mushroom soup? She would have deflected it with humor (bless your heart) and turned the other cheek.

I realize that there is a basic conflict in this notion of respect for individual humanity and the South’s racial history. And I realize that people from other parts of the world share this value. But it is (or was) true that selfishness is the ultimate rudeness in these parts. And Southern culture once conspired to inculcate this concern for others into its young, and to enforce it by rigid example.

So what do you think? Is this just another sentimental manufactured  myth? Or are manners, in this sense, what defines the South?



Filed under Food, Movies (and Tube)

19 responses to “A Southern sort of day

  1. I re-posted your entire question on my blog..
    Short answer : YES
    Longer answer: Still yes, but let’s extrapolate a little bit. ( Yall, know any good Southerner can go on for hours about the color of white house paint…)
    First, lets define our terms. Civility is that knowledge that you must never hurt any ones feelings, I am talking Jainism (ahimsa) here, you just don’t do it. Manners are the outward manifestation of this process, the tools that are used to achieve an end. You simply do not notice the shoeless boy pouring syrup all over his lunch…
    I had the good fortune to catch a 2007 documentary on Independent Lens on our local pbs station the other night : The Oder of Myths. It’s all about Mobile Mardis Gras , and how in 2007 the African American King and Queen of Mardis Gras, and the oh-so- lily white King and Queen of Mardis Gras go to each others balls for the first time in history. When the President of the all white Mardis Gras krew was asked if there was any strife having African Americans at their ball, his reply was : “They are guests in our home”, in a tone that let the questioner know that the notion of allowing any discomfort to a guest was akin to eating worms, and old nasty worms at that , not nice plump clean ones.
    It is ingrained with in you, a kindness , a politeness that goes beyond, which fork to use, or yes’mam or no’mam.
    A side story on this topic, when I first moved here to the great white north, almost Canada, SEVERAL people asked me to STOP saying that to them! asked me to my face. These were older people, or people older than me , also.. and this all but kills me, I was told to call people a great deal older than me, BY THEIR FIRST NAMES! – these were NOT relatives or people that I knew very well, but older acquaintances! They do not have the need for the use of ” manners”
    I have no clear recollection of being taught this ” kindness”, just seems a part of me. Maybe someone told me, or maybe you just pick it up.. in the air.. like Baptists and .. well, college football ( had to throw that one in). Also, just the geographic luck of being born south of Washington D.C. does in NO WAY assure that you will posses this value.. there are plenty of folks who three syllables in the word EGG and are .. well, clueless to their lack of tact and manners.
    This ” Northern-ness” or “Un-Southerness” has caused me some real problems living where I do live. I get my feelings hurt , when that was very much not the intent of the person doing the deed. They just do not understand the ” gift wrapping” that we , as Southerns need to get by. When I go out of my way to .. set a pretty table, or cook a good meal for someone or give up a parking place, I am not doing it for praise ( well…. ) BUT some basic acknowledgement of my deed is expected. Also, I am from what was a small , small town. We talk to one another.. everywhere. In line at the post office? I need to hear about your latest grandbaby. Looking at peaches in the grocery store, I need to know your Aunt Tilda’s recipe for cobbler. Wear a Gator hat to the bar .. it will be discussed. SO, not the case up here… people look for the closest exit or security guard when I start a conversation. Just in a simple yes or no answer, I can take offense with some ones tone of voice, maybe I am JUST TOO SENSITIVE.. or maybe , I simply do not expect UN-kindness. NOT, that this is a bad place to live , at all, nor are the people in anyway really un-kind,they simply lack the manners to know the difference.
    “Are manners, in this sense, what defines the South?” The core of this answer is yes. IT is how we chose to treat one another that makes the South different. Well, that and the God given ability to make good tea…

  2. and Miss Paula, God love her, has too much metal on her

  3. Jeff J

    My experiences living in IN for awhile, I came to the conclusion that the differences between there and the South are manners & kindness. I would open the door to a bank or gas station for somebody and they would stare at me as if I were crazy. A ‘thank you” was not commonly used in this part of the world either.

    I enjoyed reading your column (along with your other stories).

  4. Butler

    I think you really hit the mark.

    I was discussing the “Sirs” and “Ma’ams” with someone from the north several years ago. I said that keeping respectful terms in conversations was an important part of civility and consideration. I was completely shocked when the reply was that they were taught NOT to use words like that – Especially in business. They felt it gives the other person the impression that you were servile in nature and would loose negotiating position.

    I’ve been naive about plenty of things in my life, but it never occurred to me that others may consider good manners as a weakness. I’m sure there’s more than a few puns about “foreign thoughts” from 150 years ago…

  5. jane

    Sorry, but I do not agree. Guess I’ll be dissed. All cultures have a definition of culture and good manners. Ours is not unique. I do not believe that down here in the South we rule. Good gracious do you all not recognize the rule number one of insulting someone, by ending the insult with “bless her heart”? “She’s such a slut, bless her heart.” Some of the caddiest people who have ever lived, and yes, I’m including myself, have been taught that caddyness in the Southern culture. Yea, we have been taught to cover things up and put on a big smile, but we do NOT have the oneupness on kindness. I’ve lived in Ga., SC., RI., Wy, and the beautiful Montana. I’ve seen and experienced kindness in every place.

  6. jane

    Think I shoudda added the bigotry, racism, and inconsitencies reinforced in Southern culture. It ain’t all bad, but it ain’t all good either. OK, nows the time for you all to diss me.

  7. that Jane… bless her heart….

  8. bday321

    Jane, you’re just trying to be contrary for argument’s sake. I know what Sally Mama would say. The two of you are mistresses of sugarcoating — you learned from the best. And wouldn’t you rather have your cattiness with a little sugar?

    I totally agree, though, with both your points (and tried to acknowledge them in the post). The South doesn’t have a monopoly on thoughtfulness, and there is a bizarre conflict with the very idea in the region’s racial history.

    But it is true that the South has — or had — a more codified version of civility, expressed through “manners.” That idea certainly lives in the popular imagination of the South. In reality, in places like Atlanta and ‘burbs, it has mostly disappeared, or at least is not noticeable, because Southerners are in the minority. But I still find it to be the norm when I’m in smaller towns or with people who were raised in them.

  9. Mary Wallace

    It is most gratifying to know that the lessons you tried to pass on to your children actually took. It’s hard to tell when they are little.

    Though I have only lived in the South, I have been surrounded by friends and acquaintances who grew up in other parts of the country, and most of the people I know are nice. For instance I have several friends who grew up in Illinois who put me to shame when it comes to being kind and thoughtful. And who cares if they don’t say yesmam and nomam as long as they say please and thank you. Of course when you are nice to other people they are almost always nice to you.

    I must say it is most gratifying to learn that your adult children have not only learned the lessons you taught them but appreciate them as well.

    And by the way, the movie gets better the older you get.

  10. bday321

    “Of course when you are nice to other people they are almost always nice to you.”
    — My Mama

  11. Bobbie Jo

    The South may not have a monopoly on “kindness” but let’s keep “revisionist history” to a minimum…It was Northern ships (one of the reasons they won the unpleasantness) and Northern industrial looms, mills, and banks which not only perpetuated the South’s dependance on slave labor but also entrenched the racial social orders of the day. Remember that Chicago (not Birmingham” is still the most segregated city in America. All I can say is “Ah’m proud to be Southern”

  12. “Speak kind words and you’ll hear kind echoes” is on Amy’s kitchen wall and she’s not from around here. While Beth and Harper Lee capture so eloquently the essence of southern kindness at its best, neither seem to make any claim that the south or southerners have the only valid claim to “it.”

    I too have experienced kindness great and small in most every place I’ve been and sometimes even despite my own behavior. We stopped at a well-known BBQ joint in SC which displayed a framed copy of a letter written by Robert E. Lee conveying his sentiment that had he known how the “other side” would treat the Confederate states after the war, there would have been no surrender at Appomatox. I’m no historian or Vanderbilt expert on manners, but that clash of the southern region’s racial history and their habits of kindness are happily forming a sort of roux in which the best flavors (hospitality, manners) are brought out. So, yes; I do believe that manners help define the south and our country.

  13. JUST LOOK at what you have started , young lady : ( it is from Drudge, but hey…)
    Tue Apr 14 2009 08:44:54 ET

    AUSTIN – Gov. Rick Perry joined state Rep. Brandon Creighton and sponsors of House Concurrent Resolution (HCR) 50 in support of states’ rights under the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

    “I believe that our federal government has become oppressive in its size, its intrusion into the lives of our citizens, and its interference with the affairs of our state,” Gov. Perry said. “That is why I am here today to express my unwavering support for efforts all across our country to reaffirm the states’ rights affirmed by the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. I believe that returning to the letter and spirit of the U.S. Constitution and its essential 10th Amendment will free our state from undue regulations, and ultimately strengthen our Union.”

    Perry continued: “Millions of Texans are tired of Washington, DC trying to come down here to tell us how to run Texas.”

  14. bday321

    Oh. My. Well, I guess as long as they had a president from Texas it was OK?

    Do they have nice manners in Texas?

    New question for debate (I can hardly wait!) Is Texas in the South?

  15. The south becomes the west when they start referring to cooked beef as BBQ. SO, east Texas is the South ( cooked PIG is BBQ) west Texas is , well, the WEST…

  16. Dedee Ressl

    not sure I even want to get in the mix so late in the game- was easter egg hunting in South Florida which is definitely NOT the south as we all know, but firmly believe what sets southerners apart is being keenly aware of the importance of manners.(even if we don’t always use them)The irony is the way we are taught our manners as children (a pinch or worse!) and the ever so popular back handed compliments perfected at an early age by most! (You don’t sweat much for a fat girl do you?) But by and large, the pleasure good manners brings to the recipient is the reward for me and affirmation that my momma was right when said that treating others as you would want to be treated feels good to giver and receiver no matter where you’re from.

  17. Lyta Norman

    Okay, I’m replying thanks to that not-so-subtle hint from you. Manners is a huge part of being Southern. It’s encoded in our damn DNA or something. I had a conversation about this once with Gene Willis. I was complaining about someone (who shall remain nameless) who was clearly NOT Southern and didn’t seem to understand the basics about how to treat other folks. Gene said “Well, I’m from Virginia – am I Southern?” I said “You know how to act in front of somebody’s mama, don’t you?” He said he certainly did and I said “Well, there you go.” That’s really my acid test for Southern manners – acting right in front of somebody’s mama. Shows you were raised right.

  18. Jimbo

    I agree that manners make the S0uth. I just don’t know what “inculcate” means, bless your heart.

  19. bday321

    ha! it was a bad choice of words, Jimbo, you’re right. Kind of sticks in your craw, doesn’t it?

    Roy Blount Jr. might call it “sonicky.” Sounds like you’re cramming those manners down those poor younguns’ throats.

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