Pecan Pie

Social Anxiety from the South

Bless her heart, Tramp

“Someone once noted that a Southerner can get away with the most awful insult as long as it is prefaced with the words ‘Bless her heart’ or ‘Bless his heart.”  This poignant observation comes from Celia Rivenbark, who takes a stab at explaining the particulars of Southern colloquialisms in her book.  We have a way of speaking and interacting that is often difficult for people to navigate. The real, imagined and often implied passive-aggressive behavior of Southern women is a metaphor for how all women treat each other, indeed how all people behave.

I’ll admit, I get really aggressive sometimes when I feel like people are picking on My South™.  See, I grew up here.  I’ve never lived anywhere else.  I get offended when people say I don’t sound like I’m from here.  It hurts my feelings.  I’m offended when people say my manners are fake, that I’m a part of a culture that normalizes female cattiness.

My mother and father sat me down at age four; I have this really distinct memory.  They were still married, orange shag carpet on the floor and the overtly masculine dining table off the kitchen.  I don’t think my little toddler legs could reach the floor; I sat on the edge of the seat to keep from being swallowed into the dark forest of the straight back and curved armrests.  “From now on, you’ll say yes ma’am and no ma’am, yes sir and no sir to grownups.  Do you understand?”

I’ve never done anything differently since.  This, to me, is the way things ought to be.  My boyfriend’s kids don’t say ma’am and sir often, a product of transplants from foreign lands where formal titles do not reside, and it irks me to no end.  I long to hear all people going that minute extra step to show another person that they respect them, well, just because.

Over the past few years, I’ve found myself defending the Southern culture more and more often.  I began to realize that for some people the intricate song and dance of Southern hospitality is confusing, fickle and downright senseless.  It makes me sad that this negative “South” is not the South that I love and want to portray.  Now, granted, there is the Good Ol’ Boy culture, racism, and over-zealous Christianity run amok…and none of those things make me proud.  But, I have always been proud to be from a place that is friendly and open to natives, strangers and yes, even Yankees.  Unfortunately, I’ve learned that some of my fellow Belles are using, or have always used, their syrupy disposition for evil and not for good.

“Bless her heart” is a phrase I use often.  It usually means something along the lines of “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that” or “Wow, that’s really sad or troubling, I hope Bobby Sue is okay.”

Other people hear, “Bless her heart, Bitch.”  It’s a nice way to say something really mean.  It’s Southern bullying.  And bullying is the topic on my mind today.  As with all cultures, be it middle school or below the Mason-Dixon line, groups of people flock together often at the expense of a perceived threat of difference creeping in.  So, people who don’t “get” it fast enough are often left out in the social blizzard.

My dear friend told me recently, “I wish you were a part of my South.”  She knows I am passionate about my home.  It breaks my heart that the hospitality I so embrace has failed her simply because the “rules” don’t click for her.  The specific instance when our well-known characteristics of warmth and well-wishes should be shown (and on a level comfortable to our receiver) instead it was clearly abandoned with gusto.

This shows three specific issues/questions glaring out at me.

1.  Are these instances gender specific?  Are Southern women bastardizing our hospitality in a way that insults those who are from different places or those who don’t naturally acquiesce to the “way” in an attempt to normalize passive-aggressive female behavior?
2.  This also normalizes a bullying culture that is covert.  It’s covert abuse.  Covert abuse works like this.  When everyone else in the room thinks that everything is fine, the victim knows it’s anything but.

3.  We wind up losing out on amazing people in our jacked up effort to circle the Southern culture wagons.
What experiences do you have with Southern culture?  What pre-conceived notions do you have about the South?  If you’re from the South, what things do you want to change and what things do you love?

Written by thelittlepecan

October 6, 2010 at 1:03 pm

Posted in atheism

22 Responses

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  1. I've always wanted to rewrite Scarlett and portray her the way she should have been, a no nonsense woman forging a man's world. I liked her personality in Scarlett much better. Her brains were more important than her ability to manipulate.That's a damn brilliant observation, 'Reta.


    October 9, 2010 at 1:21 am

  2. So I've been thinking a bit about your question since yesterday, and I don't think our culture has been hijacked or bastardized. I think these catty women have always been a part of it. Southern women learned a long time ago that as long as their voices are dripping with magnolias and honey they can say whatever they please, regardless how cruel and face virtually no consequences. To take a fictional character as an example, Scarlett O'Hara has been long epitomized as THE example of Southern woman, despite being catty, manipulative, and frequently unpleasant. Yet, as a society we seem to love her for it, while disliking our neighbors that act the same. At least Scarlett did do some suffering for it – while our neighbors do not. I suspect these behaviors have simply become more common than they once were due to changes in class structure. For a long time, many people in the South were rural poor. There wasn't much to be catty or backhanded about when you knew you weren't going to eat until the crops came in. However, as that changed and women had more things to be catty about, more free time, and a higher social standing than their grandmothers and great grandmothers, more of the nastiness leaked out. I don't claim to know where it comes from, maybe bitterness, maybe an increase in social pressures, maybe they do it just because they can. And it does seem to be gender specific as I don't really know of any men who consistently act in such a fashion. However, for every terrible Southern woman, there are more who are not. You and I could easily get away with behaving like that, but we choose not to because it's rude and cruel, and that kind of bullying has no place in our lives. Maybe the only solution at hand is awareness. The more people are aware that these behaviors are a form of bullying and abuse, the more empowered they become to remove these women from their lives. To let these hateful women know we're on to their game, and won't be manipulated by it. A secret revealed to all no longer holds power. Perhaps then, we can move past at least this aspect that casts a poor light on our culture. That said, I still love the South, and don't really want to live anywhere else. I love the warm, balmy air, the great food, the sweet tea, strangers that smile and say hello. It's not perfect down here, nowhere is, but when you meet those people whose warmth and hospitality is genuine and unforced (and there are a lot of them), you know you're truly at home.


    October 7, 2010 at 2:38 pm

  3. Pants in church are okay down here…unless you're SBC or Pentecostal!


    October 7, 2010 at 12:51 am

  4. Yeah, Portland women often are seen attending church in PANTS, and birkenstocks, which really shocked a Florida friend of mine. Not shocking here. It's the norm. It's just fascinating to me that there are so many different ways of behaving and doing things that are "acceptable" and how often they seem to clash.

    Mother Phoenix

    October 7, 2010 at 12:38 am

  5. Welcome, Kristen!!I welcome kids to call me by my first name, I don't like being called Ms. Berry. I don't mind being called ma'am…I do mind "huh?" or "what?" Too casual for me.


    October 7, 2010 at 12:12 am

  6. First of all, from one lover of soc. to another, your blog is just dripping with all of the fresh considerations and dissections of a new grad…and I think it's great!!As far as the South is concerned, I think of manners, accents, good food that’s not good for you, sweet tea (I may have to reconsider you as a friend because of this one little tidbit alone!), humidity and of course, religion. I don’t necessarily think of any of them as good or bad (except the tea!), but more as a statement of culture as it pertains to that area.If I were doing the same for my neck of the woods (Portland specifically), I would say coffee, rain, hippies, tree-huggers, gorgeous scenery, activism, bikes, and no religion (or at least compared to the south). Again, it’s not good or bad, it just is.When it comes to the whole “yes ma’am”, “no ma’am” thing, I actually hate it, especially when people say it to me. This is just a personal preference, but the older I get, the more often I get younger people calling me ma’am and it just screams, “You’re Old!!” to me. Usually in this part of the country those phrases are reserved for the service industry and not in everyday conversation. Like if I’m getting my gas pumped or going through a drive through, I might have someone tell me to “Have a good day ma’am”. Like I side, in my own mind, that’s a phrase that’s reserved for someone much older than me (or at least much older than I feel) so I’m not a fan; although, I do recognize it as an attempt to be polite.However, consider the source. One, in general, Portlanders are EXTREMELY casual. That goes for their clothes and manners alike. And two, I’m the person who asks the kids at my boys’ school to call me Kristen, not Mrs. Buffaloe when I’m volunteering in their classroom. I guess I’m not ready to grow all the way up quite yet!

    The Buffaloes

    October 7, 2010 at 12:06 am

  7. And Gen, Pat's praises are to be sung for correcting what nature jacked up 😉


    October 6, 2010 at 11:58 pm

  8. Wow. Grammar/sentence structure fail. Sorry about that.


    October 6, 2010 at 11:57 pm

  9. Ah! See, now I am starting to understand. It is definitely customary to address anyone older than you by 6 months by "sir" or "ma'am", but I never felt like I was beneath another person by addressing with a title associated to their age in relation to my age.I can see how it may be seen that way and if it made me feel that way, I probably would not do it.I am also certain that there are some parents who "lay down the law" with the Southern manners and that definitely seems wrong. I haven't said that to my son and I hope that I won't need to give him a directive, but that he will see me lead by example.


    October 6, 2010 at 11:57 pm

  10. Maybe I shouldn't have said people aren't deserving of respect, but, to me, sir and ma'am do make it seem like I am putting myself BELOW the person I'm addressing. So I guess I should say I will not assume someone is above me just because they happen to be older or whatever. Whenever I see these words used, it seems to me to be younger people addressing older ones…or lower employees addressing people with higher positions. This is just the impression I get. Maybe it is just because we don't use these to address people up here much, so its more foreign.


    October 6, 2010 at 11:44 pm

  11. Patrick always talks about how he "made me right" by Southernizing me. I grew up in Pennsylvania and now live in Florida. I know, I know… "it's not really the south," but we do have a lot of Baptists and Sweet Tea if you catch my drift.Honestly, though, I love love love the South. The people are nice, the food is delicious, the weather is even deliciouser, and it just pretty here! I have yet to be confronted with the super catty Belles blessin' my heart. I have been privy to some borderline shittiness, though. Ugly babies seem to get their hearts blessed A LOT.The one thing I did have issues with was being on the receiving end of the Southern policy of referring to all elders as "Sir" and "Ma'am." Where I come from, these were used only sarcastically. If you were being respectful, you said "Mr. So-and-so" or "Ms. Whoever." When I was a substitute teacher I first encountered this behavior. I had a very hard time adjusting to it.


    October 6, 2010 at 11:44 pm

  12. I think part of my issue when it comes to children is that I do see many children lacking respect for themselves…and in turn, for others.Respect comes in a variety of forms. If I moved up North, I would need to acclimate myself to what was "polite" there, though I doubt I'd ever lose my accent or manners. Children learn to respect from their parents, mostly, or none at all…which is a huge issue for me because I do think all people are deserving of respect on a basic human level, no matter what I personally think of them. Otherwise, I'd be a death penalty proponent.And thank you, I'm so glad you're here!


    October 6, 2010 at 11:41 pm

  13. Above all, I think it is important to recognize that even in the United States, there are diverse cultures, and sub-cultures, each with their own (often complicated and convoluted) rules of conduct. I'm an Oregonian. You never hear kids saying "yes ma'am" or "sir" here, unless they're from the South. It simply isn't done, and was never really done here. We're the Wild West.But without that expectation, the polite talk which in some cultures is central,it becomes obsolete in my own culture. We get respect from our children in other ways. It works for me, for many people.My son would never speak rudely to an adult, but it would never occur to him to say "ma'am" or "sir". But he is very polite, very kind, and it would be a mistake to take the behavior of a different culture as rudeness, especially from a child.There is a huge difference between catty women saying one thing and meaning something entirely different and children or anybody who means well but doesn't fit into expected social/cultural "norms". Oh, and bravo with this blog. It rocks.

    Mother Phoenix

    October 6, 2010 at 11:32 pm

  14. I see using ma'am and sir as being polite. Not a class thing or being better as another. But, that was how I was raised. My family was also very strict growing up, but in general not with just one thing over another.Alana, I think that people do use the sweet, often "syrupy" as you put it, way of the South to be mean. I've said it many times in passing that you can say whatever you please as long as you follow it with "Bless [his/her] heart". I probably have done it a few times myself, doesn't make it right though. lol. What to do about it? I guess you can only call people out on it. Let them know YOU know what they are up to. As always, I enjoy reading your blogs 🙂


    October 6, 2010 at 10:59 pm

  15. I hate to think that I'd scare anyone off from meeting me based on the culture that I was raised in and my acceptance of it, but if you won't hold that against me, Becky, I won't hold your conspiracy obsession against you! (Hope you'll see that as just a bit of ribbing between friend.)


    October 6, 2010 at 10:26 pm

  16. @ Becky-I don't think it demoralizes them. I didn't feel demoralized. I did often feel like I had little say over my life as a child, but that had more to do with the fact that my parents were really strict than it did to do with manners.However, I really think you have sort of a dichotomy in your response. You say that people are not automatically deserving of respect, but at the same time that consideration should be made whether or not people come across as rude. I think all people are deserving of respect and me treating them with good manners, even if I feel they are being rude, is giving them the consideration they deserve as a human being. When the boyfriend's mother treated me terribly, I still called her ma'am. Why? Because I felt that said more about me than her. I reasserted to myself that I respected me and that there was integrity in the way I treated others no matter how they treated me.


    October 6, 2010 at 9:25 pm

  17. I think culture is culture, i don't think say "yes maam and no maam" is bad, nor do I think not saying it is bad. you can be respectful with or w/out that. It's a matter of the culture you are in.Personally yes sir and yes maam is very weird to me. It feels too discplinarian. yet because I grew up in a Bangali/American household, it's weird for me also to call people older than me by just their names, or people my parents age as their names–I want so say auntie Amy or something lol.I love a lot of things about southern culture. I love the friendly atmosphere that you can't find on the coasts. I love the accent 😉 (it doesn't sound dumb to me either, i don't get people).I don't like the fact that everything is slower down here though. I'm too fast for that ;)Everything has it's good and bad. :)Awesome blog Alana!


    October 6, 2010 at 6:42 pm

  18. Sorry that posted twice…LOL


    October 6, 2010 at 4:29 pm

  19. For one, I am totally against forcing kids to do the "yes ma'am, no sir" crap. It demoralizes them…makes them think they have no say in anything until they are older (and, of course, its even more wrong to me to say these things as an adult). People do not deserve automatic respect. They must earn it. And I hate anything that implies any person is of a lower class than anyone else and must bow to those above them because of age, education, position at work, whatever. I think kids should question adults. I would never treat my kid like I am STILL treated by my family…as if I am too young to have thoughts and therefore, my family is always right, no question. I won't raise my kid like that. I want her to question me. I actually consider it dangerous to make kids think they are inferior to adults and shouldn't question. It opens them up to being taken advantage of by certain adults when you're not around.Second, the importance of "politeness" down there completely destroyed my relationship with my dad and his whole side of the family. Last time I was down there (Texas), I ended up spending the entire time crying in the bedroom and I totally gave up on even trying to talk to them because I didn't have the "correct" manners when I talked, so all I got was bitched at every time I said anything. They didn't give a shit about what I was trying to say, even if it was a genuine apology, because I forgot to do some stupid politeness dance first. I'm sure the south is absolute hell for autistic people…I can't even imagine. I think people should just treat each other as if they're on the same level, no matter who it is. Its sad that we can't. We shouldn't have to walk on eggshells with people…and when people require that of me, I don't associate with them anymore. I also had some friends down south at one time too, who I just ended up not even being able to communicate with because they were so set in their ways that they judged everything I said or did. (Mind you, this is Texas and Oklahoma…I have never been down by you.)It actually makes me nervous to meet you considering you said you agree with just SOME of the "southern hospitality" politeness rituals. Its hard enough for me to do the little I'm required up here…things I've been raised with all my life and still don't understand and always screw up. To go somewhere else and be judged for politeness rituals I'm not even familiar with would just plain terrify me. You might understand because you know me, but that's not the point. I shouldn't have to go around telling people I have a mental disorder in order to prevent them from automatically hating me. We should just accept each other, polite or not. We should be able to be open with each other, not hide our true nature in order to impress…just like that blog by "single dad laughing" said. If this could actually happen, the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum might not even have to be considered a disorder. The disorder is all in how OTHER people see me. I am not autistic when I am alone :)I do agree that sometimes the way people say "bless her heart" or whatever ritual phrase they use, is just a sugar-coated insult. That happens up here too…although people are generally more accepting of difference up here, especially with religion. Some people give off the vibe that they do genuinely mean what they say…I am pretty good at sensing personalities like that. Others seem to imply "bless your heart, you're not as perfect as me" LOL


    October 6, 2010 at 3:58 pm

  20. First of all, thanks for being here!Second, I think I'm trying to determine whether or not our culture is being hijacked by people with less than admirable intentions because they can get away with saying mean things in a back-handed manner. Obviously, not everyone who uses Southern manners is really being sweet. Some of them are being downright mean! What do we do about it?


    October 6, 2010 at 2:34 pm

  21. Born and raised in the South, I say "yes ma'am and no ma'am" (or sir) depending on the person. I was talking with my boyfriend's Mom on the phone one day and I said "yes ma'am". She laughed and said "I haven't heard that in a long time". You see, they live in New York, but she is originally from the South…in fact, the low country of South Carolina. Why does it have to be a "Southern thing" to have manners and show respect for another person? This bothers me. It also bothers me that people think that my accent means that I am less intelligent then they are. I am not slow. In fact, I'm probably smarter than they are. Just because I say "y'all" and not "yous guys" means nothing. A lot of things irks me, but these are two that I will list. I also love that in the South, you can wave at complete strangers and say hello and not get a strange look, most of the time. :)I think we are just a more friendly group of people. But, that is just my $.02


    October 6, 2010 at 2:24 pm

  22. It insults me to no end that people think that Southerns are lest intelligent yet Northerners do not hesitate for a minute to send their children to our colleges!


    October 6, 2010 at 1:54 pm

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