There are many things I love about the South. Southerners are fiercely patriotic. We’re neighborly. We’re storytellers without equal. We’re unabashedly and unapologetically faithful. We’re proudly hospitable. But here’s what I love just a little bit better than all the rest: We believe mightily in courtesy and manners.
Now, this isn’t to say that only Southerners are well-raised, or that all Yankees and other non-Southerners are rude. That would be untruthful, because I have met some extremely discourteous Southerners while I know some beautifully well-mannered Yankees. My husband and his father are two of the most courtly gentlemen I have ever met, and they are entrenched in Yankee-ness going all the way back to the Mayflower. You can’t be Yankee-ier than they are. And you can’t find anyone more gentlemanly than they.
My husband rises from his seat whenever a woman enters the room. He helps her with her chair, gets her jacket or opens the door. My father-in-law always speaks with gentility when I am in his presence. I hope that people outside of the South still are being raised like these two fine men.
But here’s one thing I know for certain: Where I come from, children still are being taught courtesy, especially when it comes to their elders.
The other day, my sister, Louise, brought home the preacher and his wife for our family’s usual Sunday dinner. The two of them and my husband, Tink, and I were at the table when Jon, a 13-year-old family member, arrived. Jon normally is a bashful child. That comes from his father’s family, for his mother’s family — our side — has never been shy to speak.
With presence and without encouragement, Jon walked into the dining room and said, “Hello, Preacher Joe.” He walked straight to the table, stretched out his arm, shook the preacher’s hand firmly and looked him in the eye.
“Good to see you,” he said, and then turned to the preacher’s wife and said, “Hello, Miss Phyllis.”
He smiled, firmly shook her hand firmly and looked her in the eye, too. We all smiled broadly with approval.
He isn’t the exception. Every teenager or child of each friend of mine calls me “Miss Ronda.” They all say “yes, ma’am”, “no, sir”, “please” and “thank you.” This is the case across the South from the Carolina coast to the Mississippi Delta. Of all the things I adore about the South’s manners, what I admire most is that we respect our elders by calling them “Miss” or “Mister” combined with their first names. This, of course, is for the ones to whom we are close. Otherwise, we use their last name.
Another young family member, a preschool-aged girl, dropped by the dinner table and Miss Phyllis asked her a question. Bree tilted her head and asked, “What?”
“Bree, don’t say ‘what’,” I corrected her. “Say, ‘Ma’am?’”
She smiled shyly, then repeated as she had been instructed. We also use “pardon me?” in such instances.
My niece once said, “There’s one thing about it — my children are going to be courteous and treat others respectfully.” So they do. It’s a worthy parental pursuit.
Sela Ward, the television actress from Mississippi, wrote in her lovely memoir, “Homesick,” that it has been hard on her to raise her children in California, where children are raised to be casual and even call their teachers by their first names with no “Miss” or “Mister” attached. She, like many Southerners, love the respectful, gentle manners of the South.
Good manners can rub off, and even the well-trained can improve. Despite age, you can learn and change. Tink came in one summer day and, referring to a nearby neighbor, said, “Miss Brenda’s grass needs cutting. Her mower’s broken, so we need to cut it for her.”
And, just like that, my Yankee husband slipped into a patented Southern sensibility. Bless his sweet heart.