Published on October 5th, 2013 | by Matt Haberfeld10
Cultural Differences Between the North and South
My cousins stopped by to visit me in North Carolina on their way from Connecticut to Florida. They have both lived in New England most of their lives, and I don’t think they’ve had a great deal of experience with southern culture. We went out to dinner, and my older cousin was extremely impressed with our waiter and how polite he was, and how hard he tried to make a good impression on a group of complete strangers. I know it’s hard to believe, but it seems that is something of a rarity in New York City where she lives. As I was trying to explain how all southerners are polite like that, I realized just how different it is in the south and how little most northerners probably realize it.
I’m a transplanted northerner, which is the term for a someone who lives in the south, but grew up in the north or the midwest. I grew up in Connecticut and moved to Kentucky at 18 to attend college. Unfortunately, college is a protected bubble of culture, and you don’t get an accurate southern experience because even though you live in the south, students come from all over the nation to attend school. My first real taste of southern culture was trying to get a job after graduation.
One would think that everywhere in the United States is fairly uniform, but that’s far from the case. I spent 8 years living in Kentucky, trying to adapt to life in the south. I’ve now had a good deal of experience with both northern and southern culture, and they are VERY different. If you’ve only lived on one side of the Mason Dixon line, you may not understand the subtle nuances that separate two distinct and linguistically unique people. This article will give you a brief introduction to the differences between northern and southern culture, just in case you find yourself in a strange part of the nation and you need a little help. Besides, we all know that acceptance arrives through understanding.
The Meet and Greet
The stereotype is that northerners are fast and rude, and they don’t care about strangers. Stereotypes are very useful, mostly because no one has the time to meet every single person and pass judgement on them individually. However a wise man once said, “All generalizations are false except this one.”
What is true is that northerners tend to be direct and honest. When you say hello to a northerner, they are wondering who you are and what you want. This increases the likelihood that they will say, “Who are you, and what do you want?” It’s not because they’re rude, on the contrary those are both perfectly legitimate questions for a straightforward individual.
Southerners are completely different when it comes to talking to strangers. You can say hello to pretty much any southerner, anywhere, for any reason, and they will be delighted to say hello back to you and make polite chit chat. If you’re not familiar with southern culture, then you might not realize that southerners are thinking the exact same thing as northerners. “Who are you and what do you want?” The difference is, southerners want to figure this out for themselves rather than just ask. The prevailing characteristic of southern culture is indirect communication.
A Day in the Life
For example, let’s say there’s a crying baby at a nice restaurant. A sufficiently provoked northerner would tell the family to take their crying baby home, and perhaps some other choice words depending on how close to New Jersey they live. A “southern belle” on the other hand would say something like, “Oh my! You have such an active child.” If you’re not familiar with the connotation, you could even mistake it for a compliment. The southern belle is hinting at the exact same thing the northerner comes out and says, but only another southerner would pick up on the subtle meaning.
The reason southerners “speak so slowly” is because every sentence conveys twice as much information. The perfect hollywood example is Val Kilmer’s role as Doc Holliday in Tombstone. This is my favorite depiction of the famous Georgia born dentist, particularly his poker game with Ike, the cowardly bully. After winning 12 hands in a row Ike accuses Doc of cheating to which Holliday replies, “Why Ike…whatever do you mean?” Doc’s polite feigning of ignorance with a hint of sarcasm is enough to enrage Ike. Holliday, calm and composed as ever, teases Ike by saying, “Maybe poker’s not your game. I know, how about a spelling contest?” Ike now furious threatens Doc who replies, “Ike, if we couldn’t be friends…I don’t think I could bear it.”
The language in the movie is sufficiently toned down so that a national audience could appreciate both Doc Holliday’s flowery prose and his biting sarcasm. It’s actually a very good example of both northern and southern culture blended together, but it is only a basic demonstration of either culture taken individually.
The fact is that the subtleties of southern language are difficult to pick up on. If you’ve never lived in the south, you have probably never needed to be so careful in what you say or had to listen so closely to how other people speak. As you can imagine, this puts northerners at a distinct disadvantage in social situations with southerners. For instance, if you live in the north and your boss tells you, “We can’t find fault with your work, maybe there are some other projects that you could be working on.” that’s a good performance review. But in the south, “We can’t find fault with your work” means “We have found fault with something else that you’ve done” and by “other projects that you could be working on” they mean “maybe you should update your resume.”
What’s worse is that a southerner can spot a northerner by what they don’t say when they speak. So in the above example, when your boss can’t find fault with your work, if you mistake his words for a compliment and say “Thank you,” you’ve revealed yourself to be an outsider, and your employment is probably coming to an end in the near future. However if you say something like, “I endeavor to please, sir,” then you’ve demonstrated that you hear what he’s saying and you’ll take care of it going forward. Everything is pleasant on the surface, and from a distance no one would be the wiser.
You can never pass yourself off as a southerner unless you can talk the talk. It takes a long time to learn to adapt to the culture, however once you do the south becomes a wonderful place to live. Everyone is friendly, you never have to say what you’re really thinking, and in the presence of an outsider the conversation takes on a hidden meaning known just between you and your kinsmen. But the culture of the north is not without its charm.
Subtlety Be Damned
If you’re a southerner venturing into the north, you need to develop a thick skin. People are going to say exactly what they’re thinking, and you’re likely to be offended if you’re not used to such a direct approach. But the hardest thing to get used to is the sarcasm. Just when you get used to people speaking their mind, someone goes ahead and looks at you with a straight face and says the exact opposite of what you were expecting. This person is not a liar, in fact they assume that you know they mean the opposite of what they say.
In this way, northerners also use language to judge the measure of a man or woman. Sarcasm is an effective method of figuring out if someone is paying attention to the conversation or is even capable of understanding what is being said at all. It can be molded to every conceivable topic, and the best sarcasm sounds so much like a serious heartfelt statement as to be indistinguishable to the untrained ear. Northerners are just as adept at using language to convery hidden meaning and distinguish kinship, but since the language is so direct, they generally speak faster. In many ways it’s harder to adapt to the culture of the north due to how fast the conversation moves in comparison to the south.
The advantage of northern culture is honesty and efficiency. If you like someone, you tell them that you like them. If you hate them, you make sure they know that too. Unlike the south, it is much more evident where you stand with people, and you’re free to compliment or insult a person without committing an unwritten social transgression.
The southern culture is that of mutually veiled understanding. Rarely if ever will you be insulted or talked down to, or otherwise confronted directly. It’s like living in a spy novel where everyone speaks in code. As a transplanted northerner the first thing you need to learn to do is enjoy how nice everyone is, closely followed by curbing your instinct to say what you are thinking. Confrontational language, sarcasm, and honesty are used far less in the south than they are in the north. If you can handle that, the next step is to train yourself to hear the meaning behind the words. Southerners have a specific objective with most everything that they say, and you need to learn how to discern it. When you understand what southerners are really saying, then you can begin to emulate them. Only then will you truly belong in the south.
However, don’t forsake your northern linguistic talents. If you really need to get your point across to someone, be direct. This will throw them off guard, because they are unaccustomed to it. As long as you’re southern most of the time, the occasional sarcastic comment will be taken with much more weight, which is what you should save it for.
I don’t have as much perspective as a southerner living in the north, but my advice would be to learn to not take things personally. People are going to say things that make you uncomfortable or are downright offensive. Hopefully this will be something that you can get used to. In the meantime, be southern. Speak slowly, use flowery prose, people will think it’s charming. Northerners love people who are polite and thoughtful, because it is comparatively rare up there. However, chances are that most people won’t pick up on your subtleties, so you will have to learn to be direct and honest when you really need to convey important information. I can only imagine that it’s uncomfortable, but then again being an outsider always is.
Hopefully if you have to change your latitude, you will be more prepared than I was. My professional career was set back almost 18 months because I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock, or even aware that one existed. It took a long time to train myself to think and speak like everyone around me, but it was well worth the investment. Perhaps by reading this article you can avoid any…unpleasantries in your travels.