Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Adjusting to the Land of Cotton Kindness

Warning! If you can’t deal with gross generalization bordering on stereo-typing, you will want to click away from this blog right now. Sure there are lots of exceptions to what I’m about to say, but I’m not talking about those here. I also have no empirical evidence whatsoever to support what I’m saying, but then, that never stops me from saying it anyway. After all, this blog is about what’s going on inside my noodle, so deal with it.

Growing up in Ohio, I always thought that people are pretty much the same everywhere. Then, thirteen years ago, I moved south of the Mason-Dixon Line and I learned that there is a fundamental difference between those of us who were raised in the North and those raised in the South.

Many visitors to the southern states are charmed by the southern hospitality. It’s that warm, cozy feeling you get when you walk into the Waffle House and the waitress behind the counter yells out, “Mornin’, sweetie! Just plant yourself anyplace that looks good and I’ll be right with ya.” (Nobody in the North calls me sweetie or honey or darlin’ and gets away with it. But in the South, it would seem silly to take offense.)

I’ve discovered that what we consider southern hospitality is really just an outward manifestation of something much deeper, something that is so much a part of the southern psyche that it would take a lobotomy to remove it from a Southerner’s behavior. I’m talking about their congenital kindness. It’s clearly a cultural thing, passed on from generation to generation. I can tell you that this isn’t the way people are raised in the North. Southerners put kindness above everything else. And I mean everything.

There are many things Northerners value above kindness. One is time. They never seem to have enough of their precious time and resent it when someone else wastes it. I was reminded of that last night when I drove through a McDonald’s to pick up an ice cream cone on my way home. In Akron, Ohio, this would have taken three minutes, tops. I waited in line for fourteen minutes and twenty four seconds. And there was only one car ahead of me! Nobody had to remind me that I wasn’t in Akron anymore. In the North, you go to a drive-thru because it's quick. In the South, the difference between a drive-thru restaurant and a sit-down restaurant has nothing to do with the amount of time you wait. The only difference is that, at a drive-thru restaurant, you wait in your car. Despite that, I suppose some people might still consider the drive-thru a convenience, if you happen to be sitting in a really nice car, or if you want to run out and grab a bite to eat in your pajamas. But the point I’m making is, time is valued more highly in the North. For Southerners, time, or the lack thereof, isn’t very high on their hierarchy of needs.

As a pastor, I had to learn this the hard way. Let me give you two examples. First, where I come from, talking on the telephone is a utilitarian activity. You call someone up, you say what you need to say to take care of business, and then you hang up. That’s it. When I moved to North Carolina and did that with my parishioners, they started mumbling amongst themselves about the pastor. Was she mad at me? Did I do something to offend her? Doesn’t she like me? (Of course, it was a church member who had moved here from the North who had to tell me they were saying these things.) I realized that, in southern culture, a telephone call is, first and foremost, an opportunity to express to another person that you care about them. So, you have to begin with a friendly exchange of information. How is your mother doing? Isn’t Zac graduating from college this year? Where will you be taking your vacation this summer? It seemed rather tedious to me at first, but I've actually grown to enjoy it.

I encountered something similar when greeting people at the door after worship services. Where I come from, the whole point of standing at the door after worship is to shake hands and get people on their way as quickly as possible. To stand at the door chit-chatting with the pastor while other people are waiting in line is considered rude. But, here in the South, the exact opposite is the case. If I don’t have at least a mini-conversation with each individual as he or she leaves the church, they feel slighted. It took me a while to get this, but I think I understand it now. Yes, Southerners value kindness above time.

Another thing highly valued in the North, that kindness always seems to trump in the South, is honesty. Adjusting to this hasn’t been easy for me and I’m often confused about where I stand with people. Now, I’m not saying Southerners are dishonest. I just never know if they’re telling me the truth. I’m not sure if they know either, and I suspect it’s not something they think a whole lot about because they are congenitally kind. It probably doesn’t even occur to them that they might be telling a bald face lie if they think it makes someone else feel good. I mean, is everything really cool between us after I so obviously said something that hurt you? Could you really sit and listen to me preach for hours? Do I really look ten years younger than my age? Am I really as wonderful as you say I am? Funny how nobody ever told me any of this when I was in Ohio all those years. That’s because people in Ohio are brutally honest. They feel compelled to tell you the truth, especially when it has the potential to ruin your day. Southerners just don’t think that way.

I’m not saying this is good or bad, just different. And it’s taken some adjustment for this kid from the Buckeye State to learn to play nice. People who were raised in the South probably can’t understand how much effort it takes for us non-Southerners to adapt here in the land of cotton kindness. We weren’t raised to put kindness above things like time and honesty. Kindness is something we have to think about. Since moving to the South, I've been thinking about it a lot more.


Boo Boo said...

I must admit that I've grown up in the south all my life. Never once have I lived outside of the great state of North Carolina. Now, with that being said, I often wonder if I was switched at birth. I don't have southern qalities most of the time, and I don't mingle well in social settings unlike my southern peers. Small town life seems backwards to me, and I enjoy the quasi city life. How I've survived thus far is a mystery. I take that back, it's called Zoloft.
I actually understand a lot of what you said, and it brings some of your mannerisms into perspective, Yankee.
I present to you, a golf-clap. :) Seriously, you should have something published!

Anonymous said...

Oh, goodness, it's so nice of you to take the time and effort to put these precious thoughts together - bless your heart! They're also the biggest load of codswallop that I've ever had to wade through.
But you certainly nice and you look 10 years younger than your real age. Bless your heart. Honestly, Bb

GRITS said...

Well, now, let's see here, Dearie. I absolutely ('scuse me, I have to check my honesty thermometer...) agree with you! I grew up in S.C. (or, shall I say, I GREW in S.C.) I grew manners and nice-ness at the expense of honesty; as a result, I don't even KNOW how to speak my truth without fearng I'll hurt someone else's precious feelings; therefore, I rarely tell the truth. Aren't we called TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE? Can we find just a little ole happy medium here, say like, Honey, bless your heart, I feel for you that you grew up in Ohio. But it's not your fault. Here, have some of my sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet tea, though, and sit a spell. Keep it coming, Nancy. Glad I found your blog!!!!