Growing up my father and I would stand behind our chairs at the dinner table until my mother sat down. When my friends came inside I waited by the door to close it behind them. At snack time I was expected to toast their Pop-tarts and pour their chips into a bowl. That’s what a host does. That’s what a Southern host does at least.
I didn’t know anyone else who did this at their house. When I would visit friends I would stand awkwardly in their kitchen afraid to touch anything, knowing someone would get in trouble if I did. I wasn’t sure if it was me (at home) or them but I knew pouring my own milk wasn’t allowed.
As an adult I have found that my Southern manners still carry on. I don’t like to show up to someone’s house without a gift. I clean for days before a visitor’s arrival and I shy away from discussing controversial topics.
In my house you could discuss anything. We regularly discussed politics and theology at the dinner table, but I was discouraged from ever bringing up these unseemly topics outside the house. Regardless, in high school and in college life was one giant debate. Every class, every meal was a discussion on racism, sexism, politics, literature, film, science, life. These were atmospheres that encouraged discussion and it was a time of life filled with an endless passion for new ideas.
These days I don’t often find myself debating tough issues very often. This summer though, our grad school intern from Tufts University and I would spend hours every week (over beers) discussing issues of racism, poverty, religion, sexism, empowering women, gender, education and so on. She’s not the only opinionated, passionate person I know, so why all of a sudden was I in these discussions? Easy. She’s a Yankee.
Southerner manners dictate that we avoid these such topics. When necessary, controversial issues are spoken of delicately and with so much tact and sugar than no one knows what you believe. Your audience should be left in a fog of dismay and confusion. They think you may lean right or left but upon reflection…now that they think about it… they’re not sure after all.
This is the way I was raised, intentionally or otherwise. This is the way many of us south of the Mason-Dixon line are taught to interact in public. We lack much of the “who cares what other people think” attitude. We care a lot and we care most about avoiding conflict and controversy.
I was disappointed to realize that my Southern manners are a factor in why I no longer find myself in passionate debates. That I’ve grown so wary of conflict I avoid these conversations altogether. I don’t often think to even bring them up (except to complain about politicians). While I still believe that there is an appropriate place and time for tough topics, the bigger problem is not talking about them at all. We can only benefit from discussing ideas that are different from our own because such discussions are meant to make us validate and reconsider our own beliefs. If you can’t validate them, then perhaps it’s time to reconsider.
I’ve also considered shying away from controversy and allowing people to simply share their beliefs without discussing them a sign of restraint and tact. Now I think it’s time to reconsider.