Like many folks raised in the South, I was indoctrinated into a polite system of manners and communication that at times has proven not to be so helpful in making my way about the world. Different locales and changing times frequently have necessitated revisions of my personal set of manners.
I was raised by a mother and grandmother in a very traditional southern style. I was required to yes ma’am and yessir, to please and thank you, and to always, on pain of death, to write thank you notes. As I grew older, it all grew more complicated as life, because of the more rigid rules, seemed to be more complicated back in the 50’s and 60’s. For example, one had to know what was appropriate to wear and when. I had my white gloves but was grateful that I arrived at college in the first year that the coeds were NOT required to wear them off-campus. An occasion was either casual, Sunday school dressy, semi-formal or formal, with no blurring of the lines like today.
My first brush with an alternate ‘manners’ reality came in high school, though, when I rode a bus to Atlanta and then caught a taxi to my sister’s home. The taxi driver was asking me questions and, the good girl I was, I responded with “yessir” immediately. His reaction was astonishing to me at the time and may also be to my younger readers today. He got upset at my yes sir and told me not to yessir him. You see, he was a black male in his 40’s or 50’s. As a product of his generation at that time, he obviously felt that it wasn’t appropriate that I, a young white miss, yessir him. But he was my elder, so I did.
He certainly gave me some things to ponder. It was a shock to find out that the world doesn’t work the way my ‘genteel’ family told me that it did. After all, back then so many customs, good or bad, were unwritten, but I, however, only operated on the written rules, such as the yessir-your-elders one.
I ran head long into this again while overseas and became interested in language from a cultural aspect while teaching a variety of men from different backgrounds that weren’t southern. I was disturbed at our lack of communication. I decided to research communication from a cultural position and even did graduate work in the field later after returning to Georgia.
One acquaintance at the time relayed a story that highlighted this difference in language. She moved from the South to Chicago as a teenager. Soon after enrolling in school there, she answered a teacher with a yes ma’am and found herself sent to the principal’s office for sassing!
As the years have passed, I’ve found deciphering these unwritten communication rules takes up inordinate amounts of my time and thought. My first job as a reporter was very difficult for me because “it’s not polite to pry”. Asking questions for many years was just hard. I found it easier (and still do) to talk about myself instead. I know that folks have thought me 1) self-centered or 2) uninterested in them. I read some years back that asking questions is a better conversation gambit and I’ve worked very hard to develop that habit. I still, however, occasionally wonder if folks think I’m nosy or rude!
I’ve always tended to be an honest, up-front person (Never tell a lie) and I have always gotten my self in trouble that way as well! Not knowing how to evade a question or come up with a polite “white” lie, has hurt my chances for promotion, lost friends and has even gotten me fired!
When I first moved out of the big city, back in the early 80’s, my first encounter with the locals was in the “mercantile” store when I was trying to find out where to pay my water bill. After stating my question in my generic (overseas military) accent, the fellow returned with a question, “Ware you from?” I replied “Gainesville” in a very southern (hill) accent. He said “Oh, ok,” and then answered my question! I wasn’t a yankee so I got results.
But I found myself stumbling there as well. Just being polite with the right accent didn’t always seem to get the results I wanted but I was back in the South.
On my return to the city and my entry into retail, I did find manners to be an important element in business. They stood me in good stead when confronted by a difficult customer. “Excuse me, sir, I must ask you not to smoke in here.” “I’m sorry you have had that difficulty, ma’am.” No, sir, I can’t sell you that beer at this hour of the night.” Customers like being treated that way (or at least find it harder to get belligerent when faced with such). I continued the practice and delivered excellent customer service after opening my own store.
Recently I’ve been truly amazed since my move to the country about how well I fit in out here. I’ve always thought as rural southern areas as just countrified with folks that I wouldn’t have anything in common with. I have been delighted to find that my manners, my language customs, work out here (not to mention how wonderful my new neighbors are). I’m glad to say I live here.
But this comfort has raised some old problems and presented some new ones. Over the past few months I have had occasion to leave messages (polite, genteel, of course) on answering machines and with live secretaries; however, folks frequently don’t respond. What is today’s effective phone etiquette or is there any at all? I’m clueless.
I’m having to deal with various and sundry contractors as work progresses on my 100 year old house. The carpenter disappeared after 3 days and never returned . The first 2 insulating companies never showed up in the first place and so on. I finally had a thought and asked someone (male, not female) if I had to be mean to these folks to get results. His answer—yes! Another man’s response (this guy was a yankee) was also a very forceful “you better believe it”.
Obviously, I have a lot more to learn about communicating effectively in today’s world.