As Americans continue their flight to the South from the regions that they’ve already ruined, I continue to monitor the low-intensity conflict between Yankee settlers and Southern natives. This public service is needed, I think, because we just don’t know much about what’s going on. Foundations and government agencies tended to see Southern migration to the north as a problem, so we have some studies of the north’s Bedford-Stuyvesants and Little Harlems. But now that the migration is going the other way, nobody with grant money to give away seems to be worried about it.

Not that it isn’t a problem. To begin with, it raises questions of etiquette. What do you say when someone tells you he comes from Boston? “I’m sorry”? In the 1850’s Joseph Baldwin suggested that the polite response was to pretend that you’d never heard of Boston, but that probably won’t work anymore. It’s been in the papers a lot.

In some parts of the South, of course, the question no longer arises, because nearly everyone comes from Boston, or someplace like it. A Chapel Hill friend of mine was present when two of his new neighbors discovered they were both from New Jersey. “Oh, yeah?” one of them said. “Which exit?”

But when cultures do collide, some degree of misunderstanding is almost inevitable. There’s a great scene in the movie Sharky’s Machine. Burt Reynolds, an Atlanta vice cop, says to Vittorio Gassman, the white-slaver villain:

I’m gonna pull the chain on you, pal, and you want to know why? Because you’re [messing up my city. Because you’re walking all over people like you own ’em. And you want to know the worst part? Because you’re from out-of-state.

At the very least, natives are going to grumble about folks who don’t know grits from granola. I’ve been collecting clippings on this subject for some time, and I have enough now to draw a few conclusions.

For instance, it’s clear that humor is one of the things that translates least well. A while back the New York Times interviewed a woman from the Bronx who was teaching at the University of Texas. She said: “Texans have no sense of humor. They can’t tell when they’re being kidded.”

Funny thing: when I was in school in Boston, we Southerners used to say the same thing about Ivy Leaguers.

This can lead to misunderstanding. You know the National Public Radio program “Car Talk”? (Two genial brothers dispense automotive advice mixed with bad puns and insults? That one?)

The hosts are absolutely typical Boston-Italian wise guys (maybe smarter than a dozen others I’ve known, that’s all), and they habitually practice what someone once called “participatory listening”—what we in the South call interrupting. Consequently, “Car Talk” usually sounds something like a two-man McLaughlin Croup, which can be disconcerting if you don’t understand how to keep score. South Carolina Public Radio once dropped the program because listeners found the chatter intolerably rude. (Later the program was picked up again: either South Carolinians are learning, or there are more Yankees in the Palmetto State than I thought.)

Those of us who are bilingual have an advantage here. One twenty-year veteran of doing business in North Carolina remembers telling the president of a New England company that he, the veteran, would be useful to them because he spoke both Yankee and Southern. He says: “They just laughed and brought down their own Yankee personnel man. He lasted less than a year; he didn’t know the ‘language’ nor understand Southern ways.”

In one of these letters I suggested that a great remaining regional difference has to do with how criticism is understood. It seems to me that when northerners criticize they do it forthrightly: they often mean no harm, and sometimes they’re even trying to help. When Southerners criticize, we either do it very indirectly, or we intend to give offense.

One businessman from Ohio, now in Georgia, complained about this. He told U.S. News and World Report, “If [Southerners] think a guy is an SOB they’ll apologize before they say it. I wish they’d call it like they see it.” But, as someone said once, Southerners will be polite until they’re angry enough to kill you.

This difference in manners can work to the disadvantage of northerners who come South. As Henry Steele Commager once observed, “The South is still, to some extent, a family affair; every criticism of the South is taken as personal.” Commager was a Yankee who did understand: Southerners don’t appreciate criticism, even if it’s well-founded. But some newcomers don’t see why they should stop complaining about things they don’t like—and sometimes what they don’t like is Southerners.

By far the most common observation about the South is that people are slower here. One of our students, from Boston, told the student newspaper about his first dealings with a Southern country storekeeper: “He talked too slow, I had to stop and slow myself down to understand him. He kept asking me, ‘What’s your hurry, son?'” Just so, the migrant wife of an IBM executive, a woman who has lived in Texas for ten years, told the New York Times: “They tell me I talk too fast, I walk too fast. They just want me to slow down, and I can’t.”

The Jackson Clarion-Ledger quoted a Princeton psychologist, originally from the Bronx, on his first months as a grad student at Duke: “I thought I had landed on a different planet. There’s a tremendous difference in speed and tolerance for delay. For the first few months, I would want to help waitresses take my food to the table. I mean, I’d try to make people’s lips move a little faster.”

I know what he’s talking about. I well remember when I was a graduate student, in the 1960’s, waiting for take-out coffee at the 116th Street and Broadway Chock Full O’ Nuts. The black waitress, obviously just off the bus from South Carolina, was probably moving about as fast as she’d ever moved in her life, but it wasn’t fast enough for the growing line of customers, who began twitching and muttering with impatience. Finally, one woman stormed out of the place, announcing to the world at large, “I marched on Washington for These People, but I’ll never do that again.”

When I got to the head of the line, I shook my head and said, “Some folks are sure in a hurry.”

The girl smiled gratefully. “Sure are.”

Just two Southern kids in the big city. (By the way, you may have encountered that story before—my sister swiped it and used it in a novel—but it happened to me, and it’s true.)

Anyway, getting back to the Yankee psychologist at Duke: this man now thinks Southerners may have the right idea about taking it easy. So does one of our students, from Pennsylvania. “It’s not that rush-rush style like up North,” she told the Daily Tar Heel. “Even my walk looks different when compared with Southern students. They just take their time to class and get there when they get there. Meanwhile, I’m running the four-minute mile.” She envies her Southern friends. “It’s the way life should be lived, to enjoy each moment.”

A New Jersey woman, now in North Carolina, says much the same: “I can appreciate the slowness. It’s no wonder more people drop dead from heart attacks up North.” And a woman from Ohio, now a Georgia housewife: “You just don’t see pushing and shoving here. I hope we don’t lose that comfortable, friendly pace.” Obviously, some migrants like what they see as the Southern way. That may even be why they came here.

But others find “that comfortable pace” harder to take. Another student, from Illinois, complained: “I’m a very active person and when I came down here almost all the people I came in contact with gave me the impression of being very lazy. They weren’t enthusiastic about much of anything and it was very hard to get them excited.”

And the Wall Street Journal quoted one Yankee businessman on doing business in the South: “You go out to visit these CEOs who talk very slow, very deliberate. ‘Well, sir-r-r, we’re ve-ry interested in long-term valuuuuue.’ I want to say, ‘Come on, guy, spit it out. Talk. I want to get home by next year.'”

Sometimes the speed of Southerners’ speech leads northerners to too quick conclusions about the speed of our mental processes. Barbarians at the Gate, the best-seller about the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco, tells about the culture clash between a new Yankee management team and the old tobacco town of Winston-Salem:

The newcomers, Northerners almost to a man, stood out painfully at Reynolds. “It’s not the end of the earth,” they joked of Winston-Salem, “but you can see it from here.” They mistook gentility for weakness, slowness of pace for lack of acumen, and Southern accents for dim-wittedness. “They would treat brilliant people as backwater rubes,” recalled [one] ad executive.

You can always find a few migrants who are willing to share their conclusions. One man, more outspoken than most, wrote The State, of Columbia, South Carolina, “If it were not for us d–n Yankees, South Carolina would be 54th in the nation.” And a visiting New York student won no friends in North Carolina when he volunteered to the Tar Heel, “You know the trouble with Southerners? They’re stupid.”

Enough war stories, though. The point is that the famous Southern “pace,” admired and envied by some migrants, evokes annoyance or scorn in others. That’s true of nearly all stereotypical regional differences: it’s true of Southern conservatism, for instance, and even of Southern friendliness and politeness.

How can you dislike someone for being friendly and polite? You might well ask. I’ll write about that next month.


You can read Part II here.