I have a weird intersection in my head. Southern Gentility meets 1960.
I admit to an infatuation with / admiration of living in the South. We can all agree that Florida is too far south to actually be The South, but there are some shadows of it hiding in the corners and garages. I’m intrigued by the gentility, the manners, the politeness, the rituals of Southern living. We lived in Atlanta briefly — only a couple of months — in the 1990’s, but I liked it. A lot. Cities dilute whatever local flavor there is…everyone is from somewhere else, but there was something in the air that was just…Southern.
When we were preparing to leave Michigan (in January) for Atlanta, I heard all the common advice Northerners give about the South. Beware, they’re still fighting The War. Watch out for all the racism. And the one that killed me: They’re polite to your face, but they’ll stab you in the back. My laughing retort to that was “at least they’re polite to your face, which you don’t get up here.” So we lived there a bit and moved away…but in the short time we were there, I liked the politeness, the friendliness, even the more relaxed pace which drives some Northerners nuts.
Now we’re farther south than The South, and I thought I’d look up — if it’s possible to Google this, and it turns out it is — how to be a Southern Gentleman, and the rules of The South. Of the first, turns out I do more of those things than most Yankees: hold doors open for people, let ladies go first, say “thank you” and “you’re welcome,” try to generally be courteous.
Of the second, though…the rules…man, there’s a lot of unspoken stuff down here. Apparently one could be invited to someone’s house for dinner, to meet people who might want to be a Northerner’s friend. Not the host, mind you, God forbid. No, other guests, invited because they might lower themselves to the task.
And of course, there was a lot of posturing and whatnot about how Southern boys work more before breakfast than we darn Yankees do all day, and so on.
So…there are some things, I think, that Northerners do right.
If we invite you to dinner, or act friendly — on the blue-moon rare occasion that it happens — it’ll be genuine. We’re a rude part of the country, but not a fake part.
If we tell you we’re going to be someplace at a certain time…that’s when we’ll be there. No need to build in 30 minutes of padding to cover the Southern pace.
If we tell you something, there’s an odds-on chance that there’s no hidden meaning or subtext. No, it’s just too darn cold to let any extra heat out of our mouth. We’ll tell you quickly, to the point and honestly.
If someone wrongs me and calls it my fault — I can just call them a fucking prick and get on with my life. I’m not honor bound to defend my honor to the point of hospitalization.
But we could really take a page from the Southern handbook on manners and politeness. It is totally lacking up North.
So how does this tie back to a television show about Madison Ave. in 1960? Well, from what I read, Mad Men is painstaking in their portrayal of behaviors from that time period. And the show points out a lot more ritual and manners than we have now. Men stand when women enter the room. Women say “yes sir” and “no sir.” Dinner is cooked at home, and eaten at the table. The husband does handyman chores and defends his wife’s honor. Everyone dresses more formally in public — no Spongebob pajama pants and tube tops. Speech is more formal and less profane…there just seems to be more structure and framework around interpersonal interaction.
So watching this show, I swear that my childhood was spent in the tail end of this era. I hazily remember the early 1970’s, and I firmly believe that the first few years of any decade are essentially like the previous decade. In the years before kindergarden, everyone had both parents. The dad worked, the mom stayed home. Dinner was cooked at home. In the less…avant garde places like rural Michigan, the decor and styles were still firmly 1960’s, with avacado green appliances, and big, Bell telephones, and percolator coffee pots. Kids still got the belt for misbehaving. And, kids still got turned outside in the morning, came in for lunch, and came in at dinner time — other than that, you played outside, and could roam.
In other words, the American Family was still intact, just the way it should be. Divorce, latchkey kids, double-income families…none of it had begun yet. Things were more old-fashioned…more, dare I say it? Southern. More polite, even in Michigan.
So, maybe that’s why I want to live in North Carolina, or Tennessee, or Virginia — the current flavor of Southern gentility reminds me of the general attitude of 1974 Michigan.