I’ve just returned from Atlanta, Georgia. For me, going to the south-eastern United States, the South, feels like an exotic trip. I’ve heard many stereotypes of these people: their strange dialects, their peculiar cuisine, the cultural eccentricities, and visiting the South gives me an opportunity to test these stereotypes first hand.
I still only have a tiny taste of life in the South, but in the last year I’ve had the opportunuty to visit Texas, Tennessee and Georgia. Each place is similar enough to be called the South, but each retains it’s own unique character. Indeed, much of the South wouldn’t even consider Texas as part of this great history.
Folks speak slower in the South. This is a problem for me because I speak rather quickly. As a result, I usually make this observation everywhere I go, except for maybe Boston or New Jersey. Still, particularly in Tennessee, there are often long breathy pauses in throw away phrases meant only to create a mood. “Way-ell……..how’s the wayther…back thar…..whar ye-ou..come..from?” Much thought seems to be placed on these contemplative pauses. My mind usually races ahead, predicting what the speaker is likely to say and then restraining from finishing his sentence for him or otherwise cutting him off and getting down to business. I presume the speaker is thinking too: taking time, during his question, to size me up, to decide if I really am worth saying anything important to at all and perhaps controlling the conversation; bringing it down to a pace where he can consider what will be said and what will not.
The dialect of the South varies from region to region, but most of the dialects share the stretching of one vowel into two. Thus: “well” turns into “way-el”; “yes” becomes “yay-es”, “open” is “oh-oo-pen” and so on. Either the stretching fills up space for the slower tempo of speech or it’s the cause of it, but it gives most southern dialects a polite and sweet lilt that alternately charms and infuriates northern listeners. One common mistake, though, would be to confuse the gentle pace of the southern dialect with a lack of intellect. There surely are some ignorant with narrow-minded views in the South, but neither is it their dialect that distinguishes them, nor are there obviously many more ignorant people in Georgia than there are in Colorado.
Southerners like to fry things. They fry everything. The only exception to fried green tomatoes, fried okra, fried chicken and fried potatoes is bar-b-cue. I don’t mind the fried dishes too much but since I don’t eat meat, bar-b-cue isn’t a viable option and it’s easy to get tired of all that oil drenched batter. While ordering in a San Antonio restaurant I asked if they could come up with anything vegetarian as there wasn’t anything on the menu. The puzzled waiter, looking at the cowboy-and-steer decorated bar-b-cue joint and quizzically asked “wha aw ye-ou hee-er?” “Um, well, my colleague thought bar-b-cue would be good. I figured there’d be at least something for me on the menu.” “Nah, boy, Ah, meen…..wha aw ye-ou in Tayx-is?” I don’t think he meant it to be mean, he just really wondered what the heck I was going to eat while in San Antonio.
Which brings us to hospitality. Southerners are nice, but you don’t really know how they feel because it would be considered impolite to actually show their irritation with my rapid speech and inappropriate remarks such as “Gee, there really are a lot of churches here. There are more than four within eye-sight of my hotel.” I was most surprised by Georgia which is famous for it’s gentility. “It’s the transplants” one local complained over a beer after I had expressed that most of the people I’d dealt with during my business trip weren’t really all that nice or helpful at all. “Most of those folks don’t even come from Georgia.” He continued. Most of them did have southern accents though. People were polite enough; there was none of the New Jersey brusqueness or the big-city rudeness you can find all around the world. Replacing the too-busy-to-have-time-for-whatever-you’re-asking, was a sense of I’d-rather-go-back-to-relaxing-in-my-elegant-state-of-repose-than-be-bothered-by-you. I really only saw Atlanta though. Perhaps this is their version of big-city rudeness.
During these recent trips I’ve been able to confirm some stereotypes and deny some others. Gathering first-hand knowledge of this exotic culture prepares me for future contact. I’ll know more how to react to unexpected behavior. It’s just a tiny taste though. We can’t claim to understand a whole culture just by passing through. The South has a unique history and background worth appreciating by those brought up outside of it. It would take years of cultural anthropological research to truly understand them. Meanwhile, my tip is to just order the black eyed peas and keep your mouth shut if you don’t like bar-be-cue.