Ah, "Southern Manners"

Any Southerner grows accustomed, over the years, to the New York Times' mode of writing about the South.  They are at turns tendentious and sermonizing; indeed they would be patronizing if they had the wherewithal to be anyone's patron.  At this point, of course, the Times is hardly what it used to be in that regard.

Still, today's entry -- "Southern Manners on Decline, Some Say" -- is an amazing example of the genre.  It starts off with a headline as solidly correct as those topping other newsworthy stories like "Aliens to Come Soon, Some Say," and "Sasquatch is Real, Some Say."  Having thus established its bona fides, the Times reporters will surely begin with an example that shows Southern manners in decline, right?
One August night, two men walked into a popular restaurant attached to this city’s fanciest shopping mall. They sat at the bar, ordered drinks and pondered the menu. Two women stood behind them. A bartender asked if they would mind offering their seats to the ladies. Yes, they would mind. Very much.

Angry words came next, then a federal court date and a claim for more than $3 million in damages. 
The men, a former professional basketball player and a lawyer, also happen to be black. The women are white. The men’s lawyers argued that the Tavern at Phipps used a policy wrapped in chivalry as a cloak for discriminatory racial practices.
So, what we've learned here is that Southern manners are actually still being enforced:  ladies should be offered a seat.  The Tavern at Phipps is a very nice place, according to the standards of taverns -- I've been there once -- and it is the mark of very nice places in the South that manners are enforced.  This is why such good manners are observed here:  the failure to observe them leads to negative social consequences.

Now, an inattentive reader might have thought the Times brought it up to show that the two men at the bar were the ones being rude -- after all, they are the ones who loudly refused to accord with the general standard.  However, for that to be a comment on "Southern Manners," the men would have to be Southerners. The Times doesn't actually tell you anything about them, but I discovered by an internet search that the "former professional basketball player" is Joe Barry Carroll, whose high school team was in Denver, college in Indiana, and professionally played for California, New Jersey, Texas, Italy, Arizona, and Denver again.

So this is no comment on Southern manners being in decline.  Why the headline?  "Two Loudmouths at a Bar Show Bad Manners" didn't get past the editors?  "Professional Basketball Players' Manners on Decline" didn't strike anyone as terribly newsworthy?

(The Times includes a slideshow with this article, the title of the slideshow being "Civility on the Brink."  It's a series of pictures of children at a finishing school in Augusta dancing and practicing correct handshakes.  I'm not sure how that lines up with the title of either the slideshow or the article, but let's keep trying to sort out what is really going on here.)

So far we're not sure exactly what the Times is trying to say.  Are manners on the decline, or are they still being enforced?  The Times quotes a historian who says he thinks things are eroding, offers none of his evidence (if he has any to offer), and then says:
To be sure, strict rules regarding courtesy and deference to others have historically been used as a way to enforce a social order in which women and blacks were considered less than full citizens.
In the Jim Crow era, blacks and whites lived with a code of hyper-politeness as a way to smooth the edges of a harsh racial system....  Since the Civil War, any decline in Southern manners has been blamed on those damn Yankees.
Oh, I see!  This is a celebration of the end of manners in the South, then!  You've come to take credit!

With that sorted out, I can begin to understand what would otherwise be puzzling.  After all, this doesn't seem like it is a remark on "Southern Manners," but on the manners of people moving into the South from outside:
Dana Mason, who teaches second grade in Birmingham, says manners have been at the lowest level she has seen in her 36 years in the classroom. Parents who move South tell her they don’t want their children to learn to say “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am.” Too demeaning, they say.
Oh, I see, demeaning.  I suppose being polite to someone else means showing some sort of minimal deference, and that might conflict with the child's self-esteem.  Much better that they should learn to think of themselves as the most important person in the room, regardless of their accomplishments or virtues!  Indeed, since children taught to think this way will develop few virtues, only this approach can possibly ensure their self-esteem.  And self-esteem is very important!
Manners also helped create the South’s famous “bless your heart” culture — a powerful way of seeming to be polite without being genuine. 
“Manners are often a way of distancing and maintaining space,” said William Ferris, a University of North Carolina folklorist who edited the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture with Professor Wilson. “If someone is polite, you better be careful and consider what that politeness veils.”
Ah, well, better we work for less politeness then.  We want people to be authentic, just as we want them to have self-esteem!

This story is the story of a culture on the brink of a final collapse.  The collapsing culture, however, is not the South's.  The culture on display in the words of the author is a culture that is killing itself.  It has fallen out of order:  and strong and rich as it has been, it will not now long survive.


MikeD said...

That article is offensive on SO many levels. And this is speaking as an Army brat, born in Pennsylvania to parents from New Hampshire and Rhode Island, raised in Virginia, and having lived longer in South Carolina longer than anywhere else in my life.

First they claim "Southern" manners are racist. Then they claim that all manners are a Southern thing (which will come as a shock to my 70+ year old Yankee parents, let me tell you). Then they claim that it's a good thing for manners to go away. Well, if that's how they want it, let me be authentic for a moment...

Those carpetbagging pieces of excrement from the NYT can go fornicate with themselves using rusty farm implements, and furthermore I call the legitimacy of their parentage into question, as marriage between a man and a female dog is not legal. Bless their hearts.

And I didn't even cuss once.

Dad29 said...

O Tempora......

dellbabe68 said...

The Times looks at every other geographic area in the US as a sociology experiement, and that area's inhabitants as subjects to be studied (and pitied).

I once supported a soldier from Mississippi whose family and he came to visit in NY. Two comments:

One, my soldier was one of the most polite people I'd ever met, and I learned that his Mom "raised him to never let a woman touch a doorknob." And two, several times as I manically dragged them around the city to see this site or that, I had to remind them not to "mosey." lol. It could have easily been a Seinfeld episode.

Absolutely decent people. The City was good to them, I'm relieved to say. Two people argued about buying him Starbucks (he left with the groups' beverages for free and the twenty someone slipped in his hand to buy them), and we got moved to the front of the line at Carmines (forgoing over an hour wait).

Anonymous said...

I would be interested in a comparison of rural or small-city Georgia behavior vs. that of metro Atlanta. In the four years I was in ATL, I met only three natives of the city as compared to hundreds of people who had moved from more northerly climes. I suspect that a lack of civility in big-city ATL is a combination of big city impersonality plus some Yankee Yuppie laziness.

Which leads to the question of why people in large cities lose their manners. Anonymity?


douglas said...

Certainly, the number of potential interactions in an urban setting is inhibitive to some social interaction (saying hello to everyone you make eye contact with, for instance), add to that the anonimity factor and it certainly erodes the level of common courtesy. You also have to add in the cultural elements- in my pretty heavily liberal neighborhood, children address adults by first name (only excepting if they don't know it), have no compunction about interrupting an adult in conversation with another adult, are often heedless when an adult other than their parents asks them to do or not do something (and sometimes even the parents- go figure, right?) and generally think they're entitled to do what they want when they want to. Funny thing is, they're generally nice enough children, and do well in school, and things like teasing a kid for being a nerd or their ethnic heritage are unheard of almost, so it's not a nightmare, but respect for authority and empathy are problematic to say the least.

If I could figure out how to start over professionally somewhere that's 'cursed' with a more polite culture (even small towns in California are much better), I'd seriously be thinking about it.

Grim said...

I'd be OK with it if the piece made sense, I think; but what's so strange is the competing assertions:

1) Southern manners are declining.
2) Southerners still hotly enforce manners even in popular bars in Atlanta.

1) Southern manners are racist.
2) Therefore, the enforcement of Southern manners in this context is evidence of the decline of Southern manners. (Surely that couldn't be true even if they were right about all their propositions!)

1) Southerners are less interested in manners.
2) Slideshow from a popular finishing school!

I'm sure that the bartender would have asked me to stand up for a lady, the same as the two men in question. The only reason it hasn't happened is that I stand up without having to be asked. If you want a color-blind society, part of what that means is being held to the same standards as everyone else.

So, good news: you're accepted as a man like any other. Now, stand up like a gentleman so the lady can have a seat.

Grim said...


I'm glad to hear that your folks took care of the soldier boys from Mississippi. I don't know the restaurant you mention, but I've only been to NYC once in twenty years, and twice in thirty.

dellbabe68 said...

You gotta come back! We can have a Grim's Hall gathering at a Brazilian BBQ place in midtown. Great for groups. Best Brazilian BBQ I've ever had, including in Brazil.


We can tour the Intrepid, THE MET!, Central Park, have a feast, see where George Washington bid farwell to his troops, and where he delivered the first inaugural address, where Alexander Hamilton lived, Ellis Island (when we did immigration right), so many things! The Cloisters!! I will plan the entire thing. Let's pick a weekend in '12 and everyone meet in NY. We can see the Armor Hall at the Met, the Greek and Roman galleries, the American Wing (sculpture), hear a lecture at the Historical Society!

Grim said...


That is a kind invitation, but I regret that at the moment I don't have the liberty to accept it. I'm afraid my plans for the spring are still up in the air, and I am not free to promise to be anywhere in 2012 as at this time. If that changes, however, I might enjoy such an opportunity. Thank you again.

dellbabe68 said...

You let me know when you can be out this way, and we will plan some serious cultural intake and fun.

Texan99 said...

NY Times in Sad Decline, Some Say.

htom said...

So many things wrong both in the bar and in the story ... why were the men even seated before the ladies? How was the person doing the seating allowed to have that as a choice?

Tain't Southern Manners, unless Montana and Wyoming and the Dakotas have suddenly become "Southern"!

Grim said...

They have been, htom, since the Civil War; a great deal of the population is made up of those who went west because the Southern economy was destroyed, along with the South's industry, and the manner in which the South's agriculture was made subservient to northern banks. So yes, the mountain West is largely Southern, culturally.

htom said...

So that's why I feel so "at home" down in Dixie, even though I'm a Yankee!

E Hines said...

why were the men even seated before the ladies?

This isn't clear from the cite. It may be that there was some time between the men's arrival and seating and the women's arrival, for instance.

How was the person doing the seating allowed to have that as a choice?

How could there not be a choice? It isn't courtesy if it's a requirement; it's just a rule--regardless of whether the "choice" is made by the seater or the seatee.

Eric Hines