Southern in: the U.S.A.


About two and a half years ago, I decided that it'd be a good enough idea to sell everything and pack the rest, and embark upon a cross-country tour. I'd live in a different city every three months. I'd work in coffeeshops (and sometimes bars and restaurants) to pay my way. With this kind of gameplan, I would get to experience the local culture cultivated by all kinds of American cities.

At first I moved through a couple cities in Virginia (including Richmond, the former Confederate capital), but things naturally weren't all that different than they were Back Home. And then there was Our Nation's Capital, gleaming and polished. What people don't often realize about DC, though, is that it's actually a very Southern city despite all the pomp and legalese. There are plenty of lawyers in the District that have no qualms with slipping the darling invisible Southern 'y' into "habeyas corpus" or "eyx post facto," for example.

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At some point while living in Philadelphia two summers ago, I bellied up to the bar in a South Philly gastropub. Along with my beer I ordered the house-cut fries, which come with some curried house-made ketchup. All was going well until I asked the waitress if they had Ranch.

"Where are you from?" she asked.

"North Carolina," I proudly replied.

"Go back," she flatly said.

But that's Philly for you.

In the rearing of any proper Southern child, there's an important emphasis on minding that you address your elders with "sir" or "ma'am," and the repercussions of doing otherwise can lead to a simple scolding or the dire predicament of having to face the switch or the paddle (maybe you had to cut your own switch if you're old enough, but nowadays there's probably an App for that). This important salutatory training held fast in all the places I made my home in the last two and a half years, but wasn't always appreciated.

In New York City, I worked in a very busy coffeeshop in Grand Central Station. After a few weeks of "What can I get for you, sir?" and "Thank you, ma'am!" I was pulled aside by the manager and informed very plainly that New Yorkers don't really like to be called "sir" or "ma'am," even in a service context. This puzzled me but didn't really surprise me, since New Yorkers really don't like much of anything, or at least they don't say it out loud.

I thought about it a bit and decided that, for the next couple of days, I'd continue to address people as "sir" or "ma'am," but I'd really lay the Southern accent on thick so they knew that I hailed from a foreign land. This was a bit tough because I grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and it's a known fact that Southerners from The Cities (Raleigh, Charlotte, Atlanta, etc.) don't really come equipped with that much of a charming twang, but I knew from plenty of experience what the twang sounded like, at least, and that was a good start.

After a couple days, I was asked more firmly to at least stop staying "ma'am" in favor of saying "miz," which sounded OK enough, so I got in the habit, and haven't looked back, except when my Mother is angry with me and calls me by both my first and family names.

Along the way, I met other Southern ex-pats lodged in their lives far from the balmy embrace of Back Home. On one chilly April day in Chicago, my friend Sue and I teamed up to make fried chicken and collards for some of our friends. We told them all about "Bless Your Heart" and explained what it meant when we said that a person wasn't "Raised Right." We were a little disappointed when they all suddenly slipped into what would be best described as fried-chicken-induced comas. Since Sue and I were not phased by the chicken in the slightest, we were left with the task of doing the dishes, despite having also cooked the meal. As we both scrubbed, we reminded each other that some people just weren't Raised Right.

In Milwaukee and the Twin Cities, I ran into another salutation conundrum: when you address another individual there, you ought to completely omit the "sir" or "ma'am" or "miz" or "miss" altogether, which took a little adjusting on my part. If you really need to get someone's attention, which is rare, since whatever they're doing probably isn't really bothering you, then you can try "guy" or "bud" or sometimes "pal." If someone from Minnesota is calling you "sir," then they probably think you're trying to steal their car.

In all these places, I was required to adapt different facets of the local culture. Sometimes, these facets are tough to swallow and even tougher to adopt as your own, but I had an advantage: at heart, I'm a Southerner. Southerners are imbued by our rearing with incredible charity, kindness, and most importantly, a distinct politeness that you'll find nowhere else. And when faced with something different or unique or even unpalatable, nobody is as well-prepared to handle it like a Southerner can.

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