I’m from New York, where people value honesty, sincerity and individuality. Up there, you’re expected to tell it like it is and to be yourself. Southerners, on the other hand, value polite formality. Here there are rules about what to say and do, and when to say and do them, and with whom you say and do them, and what you wear when you say and do them, on and on. Learning those rules has been a fifteen year journey that has been difficult and confusing. Fortunately, my awesome Southern wife has helped tremendously. Over the years I’ve learned enough that not only can I manage reasonably well, but I have come to appreciate just how liberating polite formality can be. Here’s a recent example.
We went to a family funeral last week. After the funeral, there was a reception at the home. At the reception there was food. All of these are things that would happen in the North. What was different about this was that not only did a group of women bring the food to the house and set it up, they stayed. At the home. During the meal. They weren’t family or friends of the deceased, but rather a group of friends from church. They organized the entire meal, set it up, then stayed and did all the little things to make sure guests and hosts got to visit with one another. Up North, having friends be at your house serving food would create, at the very least, a little anxiety. The hosts would be worried about how the servers were doing, would want them to feel welcome and included, and would do at least a little fussing over them. That didn’t happen here. They weren’t ignored by any means. They were most definitely thanked, and the hosts were certainly concerned with their well being.
But there was no anxiety.
That’s because everyone knew the appropriate way to thank these people, and it wasn’t by fussing over them or making sure they made conversation. It was with verbal thanks, a hug, and later the vital note of thanks. That will suffice, because that’s what formality dictates. That’s how you say ‘thank you,’ and everyone knows it, including those being thanked. They felt appreciated, the hosts and guests felt loved and supported by their work, and everyone could feel good about the whole experience without hardly any anxiety at all. Well, as good as you can after a funeral.
The problem with the informality of the North is that people seldom know where they stand. Without rules, it’s difficult to tell if you have served someone well enough, thanked them enough, or really done anything enough. It’s all individual, and that’s more confusing than if there are rules. What I’ve learned is that rules simplify communication. You have to know the rules, obviously, which is where I’ve struggled in the past. But once you know the rules then formality really does make it easier to have relationships, and it’s something I’ve come to appreciate about the South.