Stranger In a Southern Land

We are super excited to introduce our very first Guest Writer to the blog! As two Louisville gals living in Bushwick, our perspectives have certain limitations, so we’ve been reaching out to some of you folks to get another spin on things. Interested in becoming part of the Z&S writer family? Email us at zeldaandscout@gmail.com!

By Lori Suvajian

I am in no way a Southerner. I was born, raised, and educated just outside of Boston, and then moved to Brooklyn straight after college. I grew up shoveling snow and cultivating a New Englander’s proud loyalty to Dunkin Donuts. In fact, my first conversation with someone with a Southern accent was when I was 22 (not because I had made any particular efforts to avoid Southerners — they’re honestly just hard to find in my neck of the woods).

So when I made my first trip down to my boyfriend’s place of origin — Sevierville, Tennessee (pop. 14,807) — I was a wide-eyed Southern Virgin with a lot of learning to do. By trip’s end, my eyes had been opened in more ways than one. Here are the two lessons that come most readily to mind.

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Lesson One: Social Etiquette with Strangers

Let’s say I’m at a Dunkin Donuts in my Massachusetts hometown. There’s no line. I walk to the counter and the cashier stares at me, expectantly. I give her my order, she says “Okay,” and leaves to prepare my food. I stare at the donuts while she makes my coffee. She hands me my items. I say “Thanks,” put a tip in the jar, and walk out. The cashier gives no sign of a farewell. Does this story sound strange to you? If it does, you’re probably not from where I’m from.

In the North, it’s perfectly acceptable to go through a check-out line hardly saying anything to the cashier, who will, in turn, hardly say anything to you. It’s not rude. It’s just the way strangers relate to one another. The cashier doesn’t really want to entertain me with conversation, and I usually don’t feel like drudging up meaningless small-talk with a stranger. We’ve both got other things on our mind in addition to the act of buying coffee, the act of making coffee — we don’t need to add wondering how this unknown person’s day is going to the mix. The transaction is cold, quiet, efficient, and easy. And then everyone moves on.

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But in the South, it’s a different story. Southern culture seems to dictate that strangers express interest in each other’s lives. It’s a matter of politeness. The woman ringing up my groceries at a Southern supermarket will greet me with a large smile, say something like “Well how you doin’ today, honey?” and continue to talk to me throughout our transaction. What’s even crazier to a Yankee like myself is that this is not the mindless droning of forced small-talk: she actually wants me to give her answers!

While in the South, I found myself constantly taken aback by these talkative encounters. This friendliness was kind of nice, kind of weird, and, if I’m being my perfectly honest and slightly cynical Bostonian self, a liiiiitle bit annoying. Sometimes, you just want to buy some deodorant in peace. In the North, people do their own thing and leave other people alone. There is a silent understanding that our silence is okay. Yes, it could be seen as antisocial, and it can even be a bit lonely. But sometimes it’s comforting to know that in certain situations, social interaction is neither expected nor even encouraged.

This Southern friendliness does come with significant advantages, however. For one, I’m more likely to leave a check-out counter in the South with a smile on my face, even if it’s a slightly bemused one. And on a more macro scale, whether it be at a gas station, a party, or an interview, Southerners in general have much more practice generating conversations with strangers than Northerners. And this is a valuable skill, since being comfortable talking with people can be a real door-opener.

Experiencing SEC football for the first time.

Experiencing SEC football for the first time.

Lesson Two: Gender Roles

There was an exact moment in Tennessee when I realized just how foreign this level of Southern politeness was to me. I had just finished eating lunch at a restaurant with a bunch of blue-blooded Southern men: my boyfriend, his dad, and a couple of his dad’s buddies. Stuffed full of biscuits, I stood up and swung my jacket around to put it on. Suddenly, I felt someone behind me tugging my jacket sleeve away from me. I remember a feeling of panicked confusion, thinking, oh my god, this is so weird, is somebody actually trying to steal my jacket? I mean, why else would anyone be pulling my clothing out of my hand? (As a Northerner, I’m all about my personal bubble. When people I don’t know invade this bubble, it’s generally cause for alarm and needs to be stopped immediately. Stranger danger and all that.) I turned, ready to confront the jacket-stealing creep, and saw that it was just one of my boyfriend’s dad’s friends trying to help me put on said jacket. I had only met the guy half an hour ago. I was dumbfounded. Chuckling at my look of surprise, the man said, “You’re in the South now, lil’ lady. You’ve got to get used to people doing stuff for you.”

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Both in the moment and looking back, I had/have mixed feelings about the gesture. It was kind of endearing, oddly antiquated, and a little patronizing. On the one hand, the man displayed a thoughtful, generous instinct and was just trying to be nice. I can appreciate that. I’m more accustomed to male strangers making a loud comment about my ass than genuinely trying to improve my day. We need more well-intentioned acts in this world, especially from the menfolk.

However, as a modern woman, I prefer acts of gender-neutral kindness to actual chivalry. I would rather a guy hold a door open for me because I’m another human than because I’m a chick. The whole damsel-in-distress shtick does not appeal to me. And being viewed as a damsel who needs people to do things for her is actually a bit insulting: I’m a grown woman, not a “lil’ lady,” and I can take care of myself. I am no Southern Belle.

I hope, though, that this sexist chivalry is just a means to an end, a flawed way of viewing women that nonetheless leads to more respect for women on a day-to-day basis. I’d be interested in any analysis that compares the quality of life for women in chivalrous/non-chivalrous cultures. For now, though, the jury’s still out on the issue…

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Takeaway:

So what’s the conclusion? What was I thinking about, sitting on the plane home and watching the fields of Tennessee shrink into the distance below me? That things down South aren’t as clear cut as I had thought. I’m not going to lie: My expectation for traveling to Tennessee had been that I would eat some delicious food, enjoy the novelty of open fields and cows everywhere, but have to grit my teeth through the social antiquity that characterizes the South. But to be honest, it was kind of uplifting to be in an environment where people are expected to be nice to one another (it should be noted, however, that unfortunately not all kinds of people who live in the South enjoy the benefit of Southern hospitality…). And although some culture shocks were a bit uncomfortable, the social differences were thought-provoking: Can small talk actually be meaningful? Does chivalry actually benefit women? I guess I will have to book more tickets to Tennessee to find out.

Lori is a twenty-something native of the Boston area who betrayed her people by moving to New York after college. Her hobbies include exploring new places, making collages, and dancing in a manner that alarms her cat.

One thought on “Stranger In a Southern Land

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