Last spring, my friend Dick, a history professor here, was riding in a Long Island airport limousine when it stopped to pick up another passenger, an elderly lady burdened with luggage and confronted by a garden gate that wouldn’t open. After watching her struggle for a while, Dick’ got out and gave her a hand. When they were settled in the car the lady thanked him. The driver (who had watched everything from behind the wheel) said, “He’s from the South.”

I find that a delicious story, not least because Dick is a Midwesterner who came to North Carolina via Harvard and Oxford, and he’s about as Southern as—oh, say as T.S. Eliot. That story suggests how careful we should be about generalizing, but it also tells us that, despite all the incursions of northern folks and northern ways, people still think Southern manners are different.

And of course they are different. Just the other day, a student was telling me about her new neighbors, a Jewish couple from Los Angeles, who were mightily offended when a new acquaintance asked them casually where they go to church. In the South, this is still a standard gambit, no offense intended, just a way of figuring out who you’re dealing with. “We’re Jewish” is a perfectly satisfactory response. But apparently Angelenos feel it’s none of our business.

But, you know, Californians have their own intrusive ways. Last year, for instance, when we were living out yonder, people often asked what I do for exercise. Now I find that question offensive. For starters, it’s embarrassing: coughing a lot is about the extent of my exercise program these days. Besides, I tend to agree with Robert Frost:

After babyhood self-improvement becomes a private matter. Physical mental or moral, please attend to it where I cant see you if you care to avoid my disgust.

(That’s the old New Englander’s own punctuation, or lack of it.)

Anyway, Southern manners really are still different, and Southerners usually think they’re better, too. Not everyone disagrees. But, as I wrote last month, some northerners dislike about Southerners the very same things others admire, and that even goes for Southern courtesy and friendliness.

Sometimes the problem is just that Yankees aren’t used to it. A student from Philadelphia told our campus paper that when he first came to North Carolina, “everybody was almost too friendly to me. I didn’t know how to react to it.” Another northern student agreed: “It ain’t easy for a boy from the Bronx to be yessired by cops and cashiers and smiled at by total strangers.” This lad was especially nonplussed by a convenience store clerk who “thanked me with an earnestness that would have been excessive if I had offered to donate a kidney to her sickly grandmother.”

Most immigrants come to like this sort of thing, in time. But a few newcomers observe that manners disguise Southerners’ real feelings. (That would sound familiar to the Japanese, of course. They’re polite, too, and they get called “inscrutable.”) “Southerners are more apt to say cordial greetings to each other, but that’s about all,” a kid from Illinois told the paper. “It’s a very superficial friendliness.”

Some northerners who have figured this out like it anyway. A graduate art student from Boston observed that Southerners’ greater friendliness “works two ways.” “Some of them are friendly,” he said, “and some of them are but really aren’t. It’s just sort of a politeness.” But, he added, “that’s fine because it makes things easier anyway.”

A Massachusetts businessman, recalling the years he spent in the South, agreed. “A lot of northerners thought the Southerners’ friendliness was phony—saccharine, sugar-coated,” he said. “But I didn’t care. I’d rather people be nice to me than not nice. If you’re going to be the new person in town, the South is a good place to land.”

But a few transplants seem to be really annoyed by what they see as our lack of integrity. A department-store executive relocated to Georgia from Ohio complained that Southern graciousness “does not come across as politeness but insincerity.” And a woman from Philadelphia told a North Carolina journalist, “It’s all epitomized by the neo-Southern Bitch. She dresses so damned cute. Who’s she think she’s fooling? It’s all just fluff, and flirt, and manipulation.” The journalist, a Southerner, commented that there was “definitely no fluff” to this woman. “She would not flirt or manipulate: say the wrong thing, and she’d simply rip your ears off.”

But she may just have resented the response of northern men to “fluff, flirt, and manipulation.” Most like it. A Boston boy, for instance, said that Southern coeds are “a lot more refreshing. . . . Down here they have a sweeter image and I like that.” A graduate student from St. Louis added that Southern college women “don’t come on as hard. They’re much less aggressive in their relationships.”

By and large, northern women tend to like the manners and style of Southern men, too. A pharmacy student from New Jersey told the student paper that “Southern guys are more polite and they’re more apt to do things like hold open doors. I enjoy it. I’m liberated but I’m not going to get pi—ed off-if some guy holds the door open for me.” A student from Pennsylvania agreed, adding, “They don’t seem to forget that you’re a woman, and that’s nice.” (Well, maybe, but a little later the same woman was saying that “men are much more chauvinistic in the South.”)

Outside the South, though. Southern manners can get you in trouble. Last year I was talking to a couple of friends on a corner at DuPont Circle, in Washington, when a sorry-looking black wino edged up to us and stood there, not saying a word. My friends, city boys, ignored him. I tried to, but finally I just couldn’t stand pretending that the guy simply . . . wasn’t there, so I made eye contact, knowing perfectly well that it was a mistake.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said, “but can you help a homeless individual?” (In D.C. even the bums use the approved euphemisms.)

Well, the “excuse me, sir” did it. This guy’s mama had raised him right. His manners (and mine) scored him my pocket change.

He and I understood each other perfectly well, but more often problems arise because of misunderstanding. In Southern Ladies and Gentlemen, for instance, Florence King writes about the trials of a Southern woman in New York:

When you rattle off a standard Southern thank-you—”Oh, you’re just so nice, I don’t know what I’d do without you!” the Northern man believes you! He believes you so much that he follows you home.

I know what she means. I’ve actually had a similar experience. On an international flight a couple of years ago, I’d been talking with a cute little Japanese-American flight attendant, and was startled to be asked for my phone number. Now, all I’d done was chat (honest). I didn’t want to be rude, but I’m happily married, so I just made up a number.

Besides, he wasn’t my type—which is female, for starters. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist telling it that way.)

Anyway, these days more and more Southerners have to deal with non-Southerners, and being misunderstood may in time make us as curt, abrupt, and no-nonsense as New Yorkers.

But that would be a shame. Our manners have served us well, and not just by making everyday dealings with strangers more pleasant. As W.J. Cash recognized fifty years ago, in The Mind of the South, manners are one reason the “yoke” of class has “weighed but lightly” in these parts.

More about this next month.