Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Mind your manners, please

I'll be the first to admit, whether it's the classic "Gone with the Wind" or the romantic comedy "Sweet Home Alabama," I can see the charm of a chivalrous Southern beau pursuing his beloved Southern belle. Part of the charm, I imagine, largely involves the "chivalry" aspect. Southern hospitality has been a concept that describes the politeness, deference, and civility characteristic of rural regions. But is this traditional Southern civility disappearing? As this New York Times article suggests, it's quite possible Southern manners are declining. Historically, Southerners enforced strict rules regarding "courtesy and deference" as a means of enforcing "social order in which women and blacks were considered less than full citizens." Against the backdrop of the Jim Crow era, the "code" of "hyper-politeness" smoothed "the edges of a harsh racial system" between black and whites. As the racial tensions slowly faded, the courtesy and manners remained. Southerners have worked to maintain that cultural marker of civility. But as Charles Reagan Wilson, professor of history and Southern culture at the University of Mississippi notes, proper manners are declining in the South:
Manners are one of many things that are central to a Southerner’s identity, but they are not primary anymore. Things have eroded.
And many Southerners blame the erosion of civility on newcomers. Between 2000 and 2010, the population in the South increased 14.3 percent. This unprecedented immigration influx from other states and countries makes the South the fastest growing region in the country. Many of these "newcomers" are largely "outsiders trying to escape the pressures of life in bigger cities," according to media specialist Saahara Glaude.

The "outsiders" from the big cities, however, don't necessarily take on "Southern identities" too quickly, if at all. As second grade teacher Dana Mason of Birmingham observes, part of it might have to do with the overall faster-paced lifestyle and the "demise of the home-cooked family meal." But in her 36 years of teaching, she observes manners are at their lowest level yet in her classroom. Parents who move to the South tell her outright they don't want their children saying "yes, sir" or "yes, ma'am" because it's "too demeaning."

In addition to the burgeoning ranks of newcomers to the South, scholars attribute the social shift to technology and globalization. As digital communication accelerates the access to information, the South has become less insular. Whereas in the past taking the time to add the proper "thank you" and "please" seemed appropriate, modern communication streamlines the process and eliminates the need for formal etiquette. Formal salutation in a text message, for example, would seem out of place.

The declining civility in the South might not altogether be so bad, however. When it comes to politics, Southerners such as Nathalie Dupree actually appreciate that "we are now more willing to say what we think" rather than beat around the bush for the sake of politeness.

Perhaps the decline of manners in the South is inevitable, but some Southerners hold on to the belief that civility and politeness will remain a unique characteristic of the region. Dorothy McLeod is one of them. She has taught thousands of children in her program,
Social Inc., ballroom dancing and proper etiquette to combat the modern family of two working parents with no time to teach it themselves. For the rest of us, I suppose it wouldn't hurt to say "thank you" and "please" more often.


JWHS said...

When it comes to ruralism don't you think that civility is a somewhat contradictory statement? While there are tons of movies showing Southern hospitality, I can think of one (which we saw last week), which doesn't display the same rural chivalry.

JT said...

I agree that a Southern's identity (which in part overlaps with a rural identity) can be complex and multifaceted. What this article was focusing on was what used to be considered the "primary" identity of the Southerners. At least, one characteristic they considered defining. This doesn't preclude the fact that there are other stereotypes associated with that region's identity, including ones you're suggesting.

Jason said...

I agree that an increase in immigration and new people will have an effect on any long standing traditions. I'd add to the list that the increased presence of media does as well. Rural areas are becoming less and less isolated as technology allows rural communities reach out and other influences to reach in. With the amount of TV programming that lacks any civility or class it's no wonder manners are declining. Just take a moment and watch an episode of Jersey Shore and you'll see how uncivil popular TV has become. On second though, don't watch it, you'll wish you had that time back.

JLS said...

In my experiences in Tennessee (and the South-adjacent Washington, DC) Southern civility is very much alive and well. This brings back memories of my family's awkward transition to a very southern (but not at all rural) place. I especially enjoyed the comment from the teacher about kids saying "ma'am." I was required by many elementary teachers to say it, but my mom (raised in California) hated to be "ma'amed" even though she knew it was supposed to be respectful. Just a culture clash I guess!

I wonder about how much these worries may be fueled by irrational fear of the "newcomer." Additionally, as your post touches on, the "hyper-politeness" often masked real disdain. Is that something we want to aim for? I'm not so sure.