I remember having a conversation with one of my southern friends several years ago during which she began telling me about an event in her Mississippi hometown during which the antebellum houses are opened up, the teens dress up, and there are tours and fun and all kinds of stuff. I was so intrigued and said something to the effect of, “That’s so cool!”
I remember her looking at me quizzically and asking, “Don’t they do something like that in your hometown?”
I’m pretty sure my reply involved some laughter and possibly me saying something like, “The closest we come to antebellum homes is maybe some share cropper’s shack!”
My point? I’m not really southern. Oh, I may live in the South now, but my formative years were spent among the stubborn, I’ll-see-it-when-I-believe-it, hard-working people of the Midwest. And there are moments in my life here in the South that I become aware of how different my life has been and how different my thinking is.
I got to thinking about all of this last night when I was reading a scene from the novel The Help (which I’m only about 150 pages into but can’t put down). In the scene, a white family has welcomed home their college-age son and his new girlfriend for a visit on the outskirts of Jackson, Miss., during the early 1960s. The daughter in the family, Skeeter, who has graduated from Ole Miss and is at home trying to figure out what to do when you’re 23, unmarried, have ambitions, and all of your friends dropped out of school to get married. The mother and girlfriend are having a conversation about silver (i.e. silverware) and begin talking about “family patterns.”
After laughing out loud at something Skeeter says in that scene, I started thinking about these Southern women talking about “family patterns” of silver in a book set in the not-so-distant past. And I had no clue there even WAS such a thing. In my family, the good silverware isn’t even real silver. . .
All of which led me to think about how Southern culture is slightly different than Midwestern, small-town farm life. Here are a few things I’ve noticed:
• Bridal portraits. I had no idea that such a thing existed until I moved to the South. In rural Missouri, we do engagement pics and wedding pics, but there is never a portrait of the bride in her wedding dress that is displayed on an easel at the wedding. I remember asking someone about it at the first Southern wedding I attended and found it was common practice, at least in Nashville among a certain class level. That would be considered silly, expensive, and breaking that rule of no one seeing the bride until her entrance in my Missouri hometown.
• Talking to everyone. I wouldn’t say people in my hometown are unfriendly. I wouldn’t describe myself that way. But I will say that we don’t chat up everyone we meet. I smile at people, say, hello, but usually haven’t discovered their entire back story by the time the elevator has moved from the third floor to the lobby. I’ve noticed some of my Southern friends are incredibly friendly and do chat up complete strangers. As a Midwesterner, I’m friendly, smile, and say hello, but I’d also describe us all as a little stand-offish—until we get to know you better. And if we like you, you better watch out, we’re loyal to the end!
• Touchy-feely. Here’s the deal with me and most of the people I grew up with: we Midwesterners don’t invite you into our space unless we really like you. We don’t generally hug everyone, lay our hands on stranger’s forearms while talking to them, or otherwise touch people we don’t know all that well. Not that any of those things are wrong or bad. I like the friendliness and general huggy-ness of the South. It’s just not as prevalent in the Midwest.
• Yankees. In my hometown, Yankee was a term we studied in history class; we didn’t use it in general conversation to refer to people from the North. Not so in the South! It’s not meant as derogatory, just meant to describe a different attitude or way of life, though, so Northerners, don’t take offense if a Southerner calls you a Yankee. They just mean that you don’t think like they do and maybe that you’re very blunt and don’t sugarcoat what you think.
I don’t mean to stereotype Southerners and Midwesterners and truly believe that there are all different kinds of people all over this great country and don’t think you can generalize anyone with an umbrella statement that starts with “Southerners think this. . . ,” “All Northerners do that. . . . . ,” or “Midwesterners believe this. . . .” You can’t pigeon-hole people like that. None of us are better than anyone else.
But there are slight differences in culture. I grew up among Show-Me State farm families with a Midwestern mind-set that involved hard work, not believing it until you saw it, and general politeness. That’s different than the experience of my coworker in the next office who grew up in the deep South. And we’re different people who think and act differently because of it.
So, have you ever moved somewhere that’s very different from where you grew up? What differences did you note?