Leber: Manners aren't a Southern monopoly

Leber: Manners aren't a Southern monopoly

November 4th, 2011 by Holly Leber in Life Entertainment

Have you heard? Southern manners are on the decline.

At least, that's what a Nov. 1 article by New York Times writer Kim Severson said.

The article also said that much of the blame for the decline in civility is the fault of "immigrants from other countries and states." In other words, "those damn Yankees."

In other words, people like me.

Gee. Thanks.

I could say so much about this story, and on the topic of manners, etiquette and human kindness in general. But I only have so much space in this column.

But I take issue with the notion that outsiders are responsible for the decline of something good, like manners.

First, I have them. And the few times I've had someone say "but you're so polite," after finding out I'm from up north, I've been taken aback.

"Good mother," I've told them, and it's true. Good father, too, and good grandparents. "Sit like a lady," my paternal grandmother used to tell me when I was very young, and not only do I remember that and abide, I also don't wear skirts that are too short as to be construed as unladylike.

Here's the fact: There are lovely, polite people everywhere. There are rude people everywhere. There are smart people everywhere. There are dumb-hick people everywhere.

Yes, there are impolite people in the North. There also are impolite people in the South. In the same way my local friends don't appreciate stereotypes of uneducated Southerners who eat possum, go barefoot to the grocery store and kiss their sisters, nor do I appreciate the stereotype of the heartless, heathen, hateful Yankee witch. I know, not everyone thinks that way. But some people do. When I get notes at the paper reading "just send her back," I have to wonder where good manners are coming into play there.

Next, as much as I respect good manners, when they get to a point of being disingenuous, they're hard to appreciate as much. It's like false modesty. I can only be addressed by so many terms of endearment from one stranger before I wonder how much affection she really has for a random woman who crosses her path.

Connected to the notion of manners is the notion of chivalry. And while I've had more doors opened for me here than above the Mason-Dixon Line (though I haven't noticed any other women thanking the gentlemen), I can also say that the most genuinely chivalrous men I've met have been closer to home.

Like the man who sat down in the lobby of my parents' apartment building without being asked, when I had to go home to change shoes. That's just one example.

Of course, as a friend pointed out, there's been more opportunity for chivalry to be offered to me at home. I never had any experience dating Southern men. Perhaps I should go undercover as a single lady and let one of them show me his charm. Or if he's really a gentlemen, or not.

I'm not criticizing any display of manners or etiquette. I wish we were still more of an Emily Post society (she's from Baltimore, by the way, like my mother). But there are certainly more important social issues to worry about here. Like obesity rates, perhaps, or teen pregnancy. Or intolerance. And I do criticize the assumption that some people don't have them, without evidence to the contrary, as well as a prioritizing of social niceties over genuine listening.

"Manners," Post once wrote, "are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter which fork you use."

Contact Holly Leber at hleber@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6391. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/hollyleber. Like her on Facebook at facebook.com/leber.holly