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05 April 2012

"Oh! You, Sir, Are No Gentlemen."

My wife and I often find ourselves laughing at the old bit of wisdom that "people are friendlier in the South." Having lived in the Deep South for two and a half years now, we can tell you that it simply isn't all that accurate. It's not that there aren't friendly people in the South or that people in the South are mean, but it has been our experience that, on average, people in the South are not all that different than where we're from, the Midwest. It reminds me of a conversation I had in graduate school with some friends in our program who were German exchange students. They found it annoying how Americans always asked "How are you doing?" but never actually wanted an honest answer to the question. Imagine asking a friend in passing, "How's it going?" and he answers, "Well, I'm not feeling all that happy today, and I think I'm coming down with a cold." instead of "Good!" It's a faux pas.

I think this points to the difference between what I will term cultural disposition (how people are) and a cultural self-perception (how people believe they are). Cultural disposition is the actual affect of a people, while cultural self-perception is the agreed upon understanding of a people about themselves, which may or may not accurately reflect the cultural disposition. For example, many in the South perceive themselves to be friendly when they say "hello" to you on the street, hold a door for you at a business entry, or deferentially call you "sir" or "ma'am." Behind closed doors, however, those people are equally likely to be indifferent or even cruel. Believe me; we've seen it.

In the case of Southern culture, this superficiality almost certainly is uniquely related to its traditional nature and insistence on the maintenance of honor. So much of this type of work is symbolic instead of material. In the endless succession of face-to-face encounters, meaning, role, and identity are continually maintained and (re)defined. Calling one's professor "sir" is an absolute requirement--even if he openly disrespects said professor.

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