September 24, 2004    America

Yankee Manners

When I say the word Dixie, tolerance might not be the first thing that comes to your mind.

After all, everyone knows that the South is full of hateful rednecks. Everyone knows that if you go to the South people will try to chase you around and hit you over the head with a bible. Everyone knows that Southern culture and bigotry go hand in hand.

Like the man said: Don’t believe the hype.

The South, as I know it, is much different than all that. Although the politics in my area tend to be a little (and sometimes a lot) more conservative than I would like them to be, overall, I don’t think of this as an intolerant place. Actually, tolerance has a lot to do with why I have chosen to live here, rather than in the Northern regions where I grew up.

Of course, I would probably see things much differently if lived in the deep South, or if I was gay, or if I was a racial minority here. I’m not naïve enough to think that my personal experience is representative of everyone else’s, and I certainly don’t mean to give any offense by offering my views on this subject.

And though some might understandably argue that my skin color disqualifies me from any kind of deep understanding of the concept of social acceptance in the South, I can’t really agree with this logic.

Racism is just one of many ways to make someone feel like an outsider. When I talk about intolerance, I am not simply speaking about bigotry, although you may be interested to know that I have heard far more racial slurs used in the North than I have ever heard in the South.

Intolerance, to me, is not just about drawing a line in the sand about matters of religion or gender or sexual orientation. Being a tolerant person isn’t as simple as subscribing to politically correct values. Being tolerant is a lot harder than that.

Dealing with other human beings is rarely easy. It can be aggravating, if not impossible, at times. I myself am far from perfect in this department, but I do keep trying to get better.

As I see it, getting along with other people is sort of like dealing with siblings. No matter how much we might get on each other’s nerves, we still need to learn how to tolerate each other. We need to be patient with one another. We must be careful with one another, and understand that none of us is perfect.

Although human society is an intricate and often fragile web, some people manage to negotiate it as gracefully as a ballet dancer. Others do it as gracefully as Sherman marching through Atlanta.

Have you ever met someone who acted as if they were wearing a bunch of bright, shiny badges that said,

Out of my way!
Coming through!
Me first!
You are not important!

They are almost comical. You almost have to laugh at them, and think, It’s your world, pal; I’m just living in it.

Ironic as it might seem, though, their sentiment is pretty contagious. That’s when things stop being funny: when selfishness starts taking over.

When selfishness does start taking over, you are left with a culture in which it seems almost unnatural to care about The Other Guy. Who cares if The Other Guy is having a bad day? Who cares if The Other Guy feels socially awkward and ill at ease? Who cares if he feels like he is three inches tall?

Why should I go talk to him? Why should I go out on a limb for him? That’s not my job.

Quit breathing my air, The Other Guy!

This attitude brings to mind a very depressing kind of dog-eat-dog atmosphere; a sort of clique mentality in which indifference and frosty suspicion are the norm. Needless to say, it’s not a nice way to live.

Unfortunately, I have spent a great deal of my life living in places exactly like that.

When I first came to visit the town I now live in, the difference was like night and day. And when people ask me why I moved here, I tell them it’s because I like it here, because the people are nice.

And it’s true, too. The people are warmer here. They are more soft-spoken; less confrontational. They act like they care what you think of them, and they act like they have time for you. When you interact with people, you don’t feel as if they are trying to sell you their opinion. And people are much less likely to try to get away with acting as if you were invisible.

There is, in other words, just a lot less arrogance built into the culture. That’s how it seems to me, anyway.

Is this arrogance really a Yankee phenomenon, though? Is it really fair to label all Yankees as bad-mannered?

Of course it isn’t. Labels are wrong. But when has that really ever stopped anyone from using them?

It’s too late to wonder whether or not it’s fair that the word Yankee has become synonymous, in many people’s vocabularies, with rudeness and imperialism. Hopefully, though, it’s not too late to change that label.

Whether I like it or not, I am a Yankee twice: Once, for my Northern roots, and once for my citizenship. This makes me doubly committed to changing the fact that the word Yankee is quite often used as an insult, to indicate that someone is an intruder; a foreigner; an unwelcome and obnoxious presence.

Nice manners may not be the magic bullet here, but I believe they are a very good start.

Your manners are one of your most far-reaching political actions, really, when you think about it. In deciding whether to have good or bad manners, you are deciding whether to keep your hate and your ugliness and your self-involvement to yourself, or whether you are going to share it with the rest of the world.

Rudeness is the enemy of community. It is the antithesis of diplomacy. It makes people hate you.

And that’s why it is more important than ever that Americans re-think their opinions about the South. There has never been a better time for us to question the validity of Yankee Manners.

Some people might argue that there is no point in lying and being two-faced about your opinions. Be yourself, isn’t that the Golden Rule? If you are angry at someone, why be civil to them? Isn’t it wrong to be passive-aggressive? If you back down from an argument, doesn’t that make you a chump, and a loser?

Social harmony might not be that important to an urban dweller who has the option of fading into anonymity any time they choose. But I think that anyone familiar with small-town life will easily recognize the foolishness of acting without regard for the feelings of others. We know better than to think that we are invisible.

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Whether or not you are a Christian, this is a wonderful small-town rule to live by. It will keep you out of trouble, more or less, and help you avoid the terrible prospect of eating crow.

And it’s a good rule for everyone. That’s why it gets to be the real Golden Rule, if only in name.

Whoever you are, it is only a matter of time before you will depend on the good opinion of your neighbors. It may be sooner, it may be later, depending on where you live, but ultimately, you cannot escape the consequences of your actions in society. That is a scientific fact.

The world is a very small place, and your actions do add up. They help form the pattern of life wherever you live. They are part of your culture; they are part of your national identity. Don’t ever underestimate the importance of manners.

Every day, for better or worse, you make slight adjustments to the behavioral protocol of the culture you live in. With every action, you give the system a little tweak.

You are, to put it mildly, anything but an island.

And in my experience, Southern manners reflect that reality to a much greater degree than Northern manners. Southern Charm really isn’t a myth, from what I have seen.

For quite some time, now, it has almost been fashionable to marginalize the South for its past mistakes, and to assume that anyone who displayed any sense of pride in Southern history must be a racist, or even a KKK sympathizer.

A few years ago, for example, I was teaching a children’s art class at a festival near my home. Nearby, there was a Civil War re-enactor who had set up a display of a Confederate camp. At the end of the day, as I was loading my gear in the car, he offered to help me. I gladly accepted.

When we had finished loading the car, he spoke to me for a few moments about the events of the day. Apparently he had been treated a little harshly by one of the staff, who wasn‘t at all enthusiastic about having a Confederate flag on display.

“All I want”, he sighed, “is for people to know that we aren’t a bunch of knuckle-dragging cretins.”

It depresses me that Southern heritage is such a dirty word to some people. It makes me sad to think that Southern customs are regarded with so much hostility and suspicion by people who know next to nothing about them. Southerners -- Black and white alike -- have made enormous contributions to American society, in ways that are unique and inspiring.

The last thing we need to do as a country is to encourage people to write off the South as a cultural wasteland. The North does not hold a patent on intelligence or righteousness. It does not have a monopoly on tolerance and progressiveness.

Not by a long shot.

We need to acknowledge the fact that Southern attitudes are not automatically wrong, or backwards, or bigoted, or otherwise unusable, just because they are from the South.

Some aspects of Southern culture don’t belong in the twenty-first century; it’s true. But we need to examine our stereotypes about the South so that we can recognize and honor the basic wisdom contained in many aspects of Southern culture. Especially when it comes to things like good manners.

Good manners are, after all, the heart and soul of diplomacy. And what else is there but diplomacy to save us from ourselves?

As hatred toward the United States and its allies continues to escalate, we need to be acutely aware of the impression we are making on other nations. As we work to win the hearts and minds of the world, we should strive to become much more graceful and considerate in our dealings with others, both at home and abroad.

Although good manners might just seem like insignificant step in the journey toward world peace, they really do make an enormous difference in society. And whether or not something as simple as good old fashioned Southern Charm can actually do anything to save us from global conflict, it couldn’t really hurt for some of us to try to get in that mindset, sometimes.

It seems like the least we can do to ensure that we, as a nation, keep our Yankee Manners in check as we deal with the rest of the world.