You know where you can stick that Southern civility?

By Jack Shafer
November 2, 2011

The last refuge of a bogus trend story is the claim that it “got people talking.”

If the author and editors of “A Last Bastion of Civility, the South, Sees Manners Decline” from today’s New York Times have adjourned to a coffee shop to eavesdrop on the conversation, I suspect they’re hearing what I’m thinking: Does that bold assertion come with evidence?

Here are a few examples from the  “growing portfolio” of behaviors the Times draws on to plot the decline of Southern manners.

·         Two black men drinking at a bar were asked by a bartender to surrender their seats to two white women. They declined and a lawsuit ensued.

·         A professor of history and Southern culture at the University of Mississippi tells the Times, “Manners are one of many things that are central to a Southerner’s identity, but they are not primary anymore. Things have eroded.”

·         The South’s make-up has changed: More Northerners have moved in; modern communications technology has made parts of the South less insular; and changing politics and the recent economic upheaval have made the place more contentious and insecure.

·         A “media specialist” says manners have dropped so low that African-Americans can no longer automatically trust other African-Americans.

·         A second grade teacher in Birmingham says today’s classroom manners have drooped lower than any time in her 36-year career.

·         A wedding planner (and graduate of the Emily Post Institute!) says brides and grooms are more selfish than ever.

·         Gov. Nikki Haley, R-S.C., was mean to 10 state lawmakers.

·         Charlotte, N.C., is the home to “road rage,” “rudeness,” and NASCAR “riots.”

Hmmmm. Blacks who won’t give up their seats to whites. A professor who thinks things aren’t what they used to be. A “specialist,” a middle-aged teacher, and a wedding planner who agree that standards of Southern behavior have shifted.

I wouldn’t want to go to trial with this case.

If you really needed to establish that Southern manners aren’t what they used to be, you’d first have to pick a baseline period for exactly when “used to be” was. Was it 1980? 1960? 1940? 1840? But the Times piece never pegs the golden age of Southern civility. Even if it had, journalistic anecdotes like these aren’t any way to reliably measure changes in civility.

The piece wisely concedes at a couple junctures how “courtesy and deference” have been used to control women and blacks, and to limit public debate. One voice in the piece holds that Southern civility was a coping mechanism designed to mask animosity. “If someone is polite, you better be careful and consider what that politeness veils,” says William Ferris, a University of North Carolina folklorist. This provocative comment, and the failure of the Times to fully explore its meaning, reminds me of the way Interview magazine conducted interviews during the Warhol era: Whenever the interview subject said something remotely interesting, the interviewer would quickly change the subject.

Other examples of bogosity: The Times cites a source to assert that Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Herman Cain all benefited from their “ability to pour Southern charm over the political process.” This is news to me. I missed Carter’s charm, saw through Clinton’s, and if anybody thinks Cain is charming, they’re crazy. The notion that Southern politics was once a bastion of good manners, a theme the story bangs on a couple of times, will jolt anybody who ever followed the careers of George Wallace, Lester Maddox, Strom Thurmond, Orval Faubus, et al.

Anecdotal news accounts charting the decline of this thing or that thing often include a counter-example, a stick-figure who functions like the Japanese soldier hiding in the jungles of the Solomon Islands who won’t surrender, demonstrating that against all odds, some people just won’t give up the faith. The Times observes this tradition by concluding the piece by visiting Dorothy McLeod, a 70-year-old who teaches ballroom dancing and etiquette to Augusta, Ga., children.

“I will not give up,” she says of her struggle to instill kindness and manners in unruly children.

As bad as the Times piece is, it could be worse. It could be about the return of Southern civility. Maybe next week.

******

Seen a bogus trend piece that needs a good beating? (Thanks to reader Matt Jezior for suggesting this one.) Forward it to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter, your reliable source of bogus-trend anti-venom. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.

PHOTO: A window washer cleans the windows above the front door of the New York Times building in New York, March 26, 2010. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

14 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

In a time when kids don’t know the front from the back or their caps, buy undershorts with the intention of suspending their trousers to only cover some of them, and would as soon mug, knife or shoot anyone THEY, in their sole opinion, feel “dissed” by, the lack of civility is no longer geographically challenged.

The very term “civil population” conveys clearly that “the rules” of acceptable conduct apply ONLY to those that are “civil”. No rules apply to the treatment of the uncivil, that’s a matter of “what goes around comes around”.

When I was 20, I hitchhiked from central Texas up to southern Illinois to see my grandmother. Made it without having to “sleep on the road” although I was picked up by a half-dozen cars and one long-haul trucker.

Because of all the crime…carjackings, murders, etc. normal people don’t dare pick up hitchhikers any more. Truth be known, I’d be afraid today of many who might stop! That perhaps goes a bit beyond the “decline in manners”.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

I suppose this response would be considered ‘expected’ but this particular article struck me as rude and insensitive – lacking basic social grace and ignoring social mores. Having said that the quote included by Willia Ferris, “If someone is polite, you better be careful and consider what that politeness veils.” sounds paranoid. In that case if someone held a door open for someone else the person for whom the door was being held open should fear that they might be about to be smashed in the door or otherwise assaulted. It brings to mind a scene in Ken Kesey’s book, ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’ where a biker politely asks for a cigarette from another fellow over and over again – the threat being that once all the cigarettes have been dispensed from the dwindling pack that violence would ensue. In this article the author’s assault on a regional set of behaviors that is disappearing is offensive because of its lack of content and meaning. I am disappointed. The Times article appears silly and trite and this article appears silly and full of spite.

Posted by Bagwa | Report as abusive

Mr. Shafer, your “proof” about Southern non-Charm is just as anecdotal as the story you consider “bogus”. I always thought Southern hospitality stemmed from the teaching and practice of the Golden Rule; but hey, I’m just a dim-witted hillbilly, right?

Good day Mr. Shafer. We Southerners aren’t perfect by any means, but I’ll take my region’s (waning) hospitality any day over you and yours.

Posted by bobSmith | Report as abusive

My brother said about his current wife when he first met her, “You remember how [former wife] seemed to be so nice? Well, [current] really is.” I grew up in the 50s and 60s in SC and have lived in CA since and guess what, there are hospitable people and disgusting people everywhere. As a recovering Southern belle, I promise you that, as “beneficial” as it is to appear super charming, it steals the ability to know thyself. Many southerners require a collective identity more dignified than the butt of late-night jokes over Strom’s age and hiking the Appalachian trail. I suggest to promote the beauty of the Blue Ridge, far more stable than theoretical civility.

Posted by Kate95112 | Report as abusive

Having adopted Texas as my home in recent years, I can vouch for the civility — and kindness — I have experienced here. Only on the roads and highways, might I feel there are exceptions, as we would find in almost any
state. New Yorkers, on the other hand, tend to hide their inherent kindness with a surface bruskness. But, down deep,
they’re both great people. My former home, California, nice place to visit, but I find it becoming more of a dizzy Disneyland.

Posted by schmendric | Report as abusive

I’ve moved around enough over the years to have a feel for how people handle themselves in different parts of the country and wish to put in a plug for the level-headed Midwesterners. By and large, the best of several worlds. Perhaps the most remarkable attribute is “what you see is what you get”, regardless of setting or situation. A consistency largely missing elsewhere. Oh, I know this is a generalization – but the quality of Midwesterners blows away those who reside in other areas.

Posted by BA25 | Report as abusive

Uneducated generalizations and baseless assumptions have entered into the rhetoric of dialog in public forums such as this one. The tone in many instances is less than polite.

Southern Hospitality is a qualitative ideal that is shared freely, and not a commodity that can be quantified. It can only be given away. It is born out of a deeply ingrained sensitivity that having “more” (resources, privileges, etc.), does not give a person a right to treat others disrespectfully. People demonstrate “manners” not for their own personal benefit, but to make others around them more comfortable.

To suggest that “manners” and “decency” are exclusive to the South, is an injustice to good people everywhere. It is just that in some regions this remains a hallmark characteristic of the area. In many peoples minds this forms the cornerstone for a civil society.

There will be greater “Hope” for our Nation when Love and Respect return to our Public Discourse. If all people were to understand that they are expected to share, when they openly display their largesse in front of people less fortunate, then decency may make a comeback in our culture.

Posted by veerhoff69 | Report as abusive

Great article, fun and informative. Thank you.

Posted by jlj | Report as abusive

I am not a Southerner, but I have lived in the South for long stretches of time beginning in 1976. I’ve lived in both the Deep South (Pensacola and Mobile) and more recently in Tidewater Virginia. Not my first choice, But one goes where the job is.

I wish to say that I’ve found that this thing known as Southern Hospitality simply does not exist. I suspect this is a conceptual holdover from the antebellum South where half of the population was enslaved and the others were in awe or terror of the ruling elites.

Oh, a Southerner may extend a cloying kind of hospitality to his own, and it certainly is shown to one’s betters (yes, they are very class conscious in the South, one could say groveling), but when it comes to outsiders and people of different social and ethnic groups, you may just as well forget it. I’ve rarely encountered a more hostile, rude, pushy, or sneaky-mean people than those here in the South. The average Southerner has nothing over the run of the mill New Yorker. If anything, they are worse because they enjoy it.

The irony is that Southerners actually believe they are more polite, well mannered, and respectful than Northerners. And when you point out the contradictions between their beliefs and everyday behavior, they become quite incensed. It’s as though you’ve broken one of the unspoken taboos, i.e. exposing the meanness that underlies all of Southern society. I don’t know if this is a result of an inherent inferiority complex (they still haven’t quite come to terms with their embrace of slavery as an acceptable way to order a society and the war that they fought to defend that reprehensible institution). But whatever the reason, this meanness lies just below the surface.

So, if you do visit the South, don’t mistake the sugary sweetness you may experience in a restaurant or shop for true civility. All the while they are “honeying” or “sirring” and “ma’ming” you, trust me, they are sizing you up to see what they can get out of you or how you think. And if you don’t pass their inscrutable tests, watch out, they will pounce and stick it to you at the first opportunity.

Posted by IntoTheTardis | Report as abusive

Prior to a recent move to South Florida, I lived my entire 40-year life in South Louisiana. And I must say, I really do miss the charm, friendliness and kindness of the people from my home-state. I don’t know about every southern region, but I believe the people from my hometown are genuinely nice people.

Perhaps because South Florida is larger and much more culturally diverse, one doesn’t get the sense there’s a real bonding of the community here. It’s very difficult going from a community whose core identity is it’s culture, to a community so diverse in culture it lacks a core identity.

Comment to IntoTheTardis: Perhaps it isn’t the South; maybe it’s you, your misinterpretation, your approach, or your paranoia. Certainly the south has its share of rude, abrupt and discourteous people, but to characterize southerners in such a general manner as you have truly says more about you than it does about your depiction of the “deep south.”

Posted by melnla | Report as abusive

I am torn.

I agree that “southern hospitality” is a tricky thing. My parents have lived in Charlotte, NC for quite some time, and I used to visit factories in South Carolina in Arkansas as part of my job. The people are friendly. . . until the learn that you are not a christian, or that you are a liberal, or gay, etc. They are friendly to WASPS, and although they have ended segregation, they are still quick to bash black people when there are no black people within earshot.

I’m reminded of a visit I made to South Carolina for work. We were having dinner at the local lodge and something came on tv about Hillary Clinton. A co-worker’s wife spouted “there goes that Hillary, trying to keep prayer out of schools and help the gays”.

I lived in Indiana for 30 years, and although it is geographically not a southern state, the people who live there don’t know it. There, they proudly speak of Hoosier hospitality, but the same previously described prejudices are alive and well in Hoosierland, too.

So, yes, southerners are hospitable if you are exactly like them. That is very true. However, the reason I am torn is that the overall wording of this article reads more like something I would see on a sports web site, where trash talking and a certain “frat guy” mentality is the norm. It was surprising to read on what should be a respectable news site.

Posted by mcoleman | Report as abusive

Charlie Daniels (a North Carolina Native) said it well…”well I hope Mr. Young will remember…a Southern man don’t need him around anyhow. And one other thing, if y’all don’t like our Southern hospitality, you can just jump back into your car and I-95, I-85, I-77, and I-40 will take you right back to where ever you may have come from. Y’all come now, ya heeah? (we really don’t mean it for non-Southerns).

Posted by PilotMtnGirl | Report as abusive

And to “In to the Tardis”….frankly, we don’t give a dayum what you think. Your remarks are stupid, ignorant, bad-mannered, but mainly, just stupid. Some of us (most of us whose great grandparents were too poor to own a mule) didn’t want to go to war. We didn’t own slaves and we didn’t give a heck about states rights. We just wanted to be able to live in our log houses with no floors in them and feed ourselves and our families. So get off your rich high horse, and remember–most of the black population you so seem so ardently concerned about, that moved north, were treated like “savages”–not able to find work, find a place to live, charged with every crime that came along…hmmm…sounds like not much has changed in the last 170 years. Idiot.

Posted by PilotMtnGirl | Report as abusive

Obviously there are nice and not-nice people everywhere. Most southerners I’ve met are very pleasant. But I am convinced that the large majority of white southerners (and I myself am white) at heart are unreconstructed segregationists, white supremacists, and racists. They won’t ever admit it-it’s not respectable anymore. I look at the creatures they elect to high office and at the unreasoning narrow- minded intolerance most white southerners display to people who are not of their religious, political or sexual identification. “Bad manners” – I’m a lot more concerned about how people are at heart. I have yet to hear prominent white southerners plainly say, “we were wrong, we were bigoted, we were unfair.” Instead names like Strom Thurmond, James Eastland, Harry Flood Byrd, Richard Russell, are still honored in the south. Names they should be ashamed of!

Posted by elliotstamler | Report as abusive