October 08, 2013

Southern Diplomacy

When you think about the South what comes to mind?  Pretty women in fluffy dresses sitting out on big porches drinking mint juleps?  Cotillion parties, Civil War reenactments, Southern gentlemen opening doors for ladies and children.  Or maybe, it's backward hangups on race, breeding, and family ties.  Well, all of that plays a part in our culture in some way or another.

Having been raised in a diverse community, I've seen both sides of the Southern coin.  I know families who wouldn't allow their son or daughter to date outside of their class or community standing.  I'm not talking about the classic father moment, "no boy is good enough for my baby girl".  No, I mean, "well honey, his daddy is a 10th degree Mason and his grandaddy owned half the parish, I reckon he can take you out for a coke."  There have been plenty of unions over the decades where a son marries the local white trash daughter and the family is shamed beyond repair.  They come home and low & behold mama is giving ole girl the stink eye all the while offering her up some sweet iced tea.  "Well bless your heart baby, you're a skinny thing ain't ya???  I used to be tiny like that, then I had them four boys.  You plan on having children?  Get ready honey, the Jones' make nothing but big ole male children."  Pat pat pat.  Now depending on the strength of that gal she will either look her new mother in law in the face and smile or she will wilt a little.  Mama is looking for one or the other, and no matter how subtle the reaction, she will notice.

Maybe it's something left over from the days of plantations or brought over from countries where hierarchies aren't confined to the castles.  Britain, Germany, Sweden, France, tribes of Africa...all of these have some type of monarchy and a caste like system that assures folks know where they belong.  We, in the South, have developed a knack for maintaining that system.  I personally know a few ladies who have gone through cotillion and have moved on to being professionals with law degrees, married to physicians.  These women have made children, built up fine reputations, and landed the largest homes in the historic districts of some quaint Southern towns.  These ladies are who come to mind when you think "Southern Lady", classy, wealthy, polite, sincere women.  Then you have the next step down: similar upbringing, not quite cotillion class but family in good community connection, a little too proud for their own good.  Daddy is on the high end of the working class pyramid-he built the company and has his employees but his isn't the only one of it's kind.  Mama still has to work to bring in her own cash flow.  The children are raised in a similar fashion, girls set out to meet the man who won't make her work for her cash flow, at least not outside the home *ahem*.  Nine times out of ten these young ones leave the nest believing they are entitled to something.

And then you have the working class folk.  The ones who aren't quite dirt poor but one bad season or a thrown back is all it takes to get them there.  These folks very often teach their children all the manners and courtesies that will allow them easier passage into the world of high and upper middle class dealings.  You see the lower classes know that without the manners or the polite teachings their children will remain trod upon and cast into a negative stigma.  Stay with me folks, I do have a point in all this.  There are levels of polite and kiss-assery that are taught from babyhood, it's just part of our culture.

Southern polite is a well known topic.  We say "bless your heart" to avoid telling someone they are ignorant right to their face.  We smile and put on tea with folk we would rather physically sling off the porch.  We have a tendency to be polite to a fault.  We do it to family members we don't like, friends who have back stabbed us, in laws who drive us insane, former friends, colleagues, and lovers that we truly can't stand.  There is a limit however, to how far polite can go.  There are rules regarding what is prudent or couth.  There's a saying from my favourite movie, Fried Green Tomatoes, "a lady always knows when it's time to leave".  This resounds so far in so many different ways.  In a literal aspect, yes, a lady never over stays her welcome in someones home.  In a more figurative way, a lady never forces herself onto people or into situations that she does not belong near.  If the relationship is over, be polite, be a lady and walk away from it.  Maintain what ties are appropriate and move along.  If you know you can't get along with an in law, stay long enough to make polite conversation, eat some of her rice dressing, and go home.  Any lower class young woman with one nice black dress and decent table manners knows that.  It's expected of someone who comes from or claims to come from any upper societal class.  It goes like this, you can't boast culture or breeding if you exhibit the mannerisms of a common fish wife.

All the little things from basic table manners and public decorum, to how long to stay at a funeral for someone who is not your family make a difference on how someone is perceived.  That perception of course leads into bigger issues such as overstepping boundaries and using the excuse, "but I just love that person/family".  Maybe you do, but maybe they don't quite feel the same way, or perhaps it's very simply not your place.    Using guerrilla tactics such as cuddling up to a former lovers parents in an effort to say, "see, they do love me best" makes a ex appear foolish and desperate.  Here again resound the words, polite and appropriate.  If things are done with well concealed malicious intent, even Southern breeding won't save you.

The moral is:  Be who you claim to be, own who are really are.  Breeding doesn't equal class or couth, good manners do.

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