A northerner sees a southern world disappear

I have to admit, when I first moved to the South ten years ago, I wasn’t quite ready for it. I didn’t know what to do when cars honked at me as I walked by on the sidewalk (it turns out they were just saying “hello”). I was shocked when people greeted me with a “hey, how are you doing?” and they really wanted to know the answer (in the north, the proper response is to say “how are you doing” back and not wait for a reply — it’s a greeting, not a question). I was stunned to see men opening doors for women, and waiting for them to walk through, not just bumping it out of the way so it didn’t smack the lady in the face.

The biggest surprise was the southern accents my kids picked up at preschool. My son, sounding out how to spell words for the first time, actually wrote N-A-Y-U-L for the thing you hit with a hammer.

Here in the South, I learned they name streets and buildings after people who are still alive and kicking. They have property taxes on cars and “intangible property,” at least until they find out those taxes aren’t legal. They take their basketball more seriously than their football (at least in North Carolina) and their college sports more seriously than the pros.

Here people will stop you on the street and tell you how good it was to see you at church last Sunday — even if you weren’t there — so you’re not really sure if their memory is flagging or if they’re subtly chastising you for not showing up.

I was amazed at how conservative the politics are here: I had thought I was conservative, but I grew up in Seattle, where a conservative is someone who thinks maybe you should only raise taxes every other year.

I even saw how some people here wear their racism on their sleeve, instead of letting it fester in their gut like they do up north.

But eventually I did learn how to handle these southern quirks — and I learned to appreciate them, too. It’s a good thing, when you ask someone how they’re doing and you actually get an honest answer. It’s a good thing when friends acknowledge each other on the street. I know racism isn’t a good thing, but at least people here are honest about it.

Yet I can also see some of these traditions beginning to change. Now, more often than not when I hear a horn honking, it’s telling someone to hurry up or watch out. Now, I’m much less likely to see a man cavalierly leap in front of a woman to hold the door for her. Most restaurants even serve unsweetened iced tea!

“It’s those northerners,” people say. “They’re coming down here and ruining our traditions.” And yes, I do think that’s part of it. Many people are arriving and they are changing things. But sometimes I wonder if even the native southerners are changing, too. With every new “world class” skyscraper and stadium, is the South relenting to the pressure to be more like the North?

With all this sprawl, and all this traffic congestion, and all this hustle and bustle, are southerners starting to succumb to the temptation to be rude and inconsiderate, to be blunt in their criticism, even (dare I say it?) to become more liberal? Maybe becoming more liberal in your politics is a way of dealing with all the obnoxious, arrogant behavior you see around you.

Some of this change is probably a good thing. If we drive racism underground, maybe eventually we can stamp it out. It’s fun having a pro football team (especially if they’re winning). That hustle, bustle, and growth is creating jobs and lifting people out of poverty. And some northerners can actually be nice people.

But if we see someone being annoying, or inconsiderate, or outright rude, do we really need to imitate that? Do we need to honk at strangers, or drive with a cell phone in one hand and a latte in the other, or walk with our heads buried in a newspaper, just to be “world class”?

My kids have already lost their southern accents; their speech is indistinguishable from their Seattleite cousins. Let’s hope some of the other things they’ve learned about the South don’t disappear as well.

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