The Real, Modern South
I was born and raised in the South. I’ve traveled a bit around the states: as far north as New York and Illinois, as far west as Colorado and California, and to many states between here and there. I’ve met people from many states and from many countries, and had short and long conversations about their homes and mine. From these conversations, I’ve learned that people who have never lived in the South for any length of time still have many misconceptions about the South. Let me introduce the real, modern South.
Let’s start with the Southern accent. Ninety percent of the time, Hollywood gets it wrong. I’m not the first to make this statement, so it’s not particularly bold. Most non-Southern actors who try to speak in a Southern accent end up sounding like someone from the 19th century. The real Southern accent is obvious to someone not of the South, but it’s not Foghorn Leghorn or Scarlett O’Hara. A real, modern Southern accent is usually not the caricature you hear on television or in the movies. It’s a common gag here in the South for one of us to fake the over-the-top accent as a joke.
But we do have an accent. In some Deep South, isolated localities, the accent is so thick even I have difficulty understanding what the speaker is saying. But that’s the exception. The norm is just a warm accent to American English. The Southern accent is gravy on the meat of verbal communication. It gives our language a flavor to make even the most bland of exchanges enjoyable.
The drawl is just a casual, calm, and polite mode of communication. It reflects a time and place where people took their time with one another, on a personal level. You should allow yourself to enjoy the drawl as a sign that someone is not trying to get out of the conversation with you as quickly as they can.
The only specific word I’ll get into here is probably the most well known piece of Southern accent: the word, “y’all.” First of all, note the placement of the apostrophe. It goes between the y and a, not the a and l – it’s a contraction of “you all.” It basically just refers to more than one person. There’s no difference between two people and a thousand people with regard to how you use “y’all.” Saying, “All y’all,” is just a flourish, not a numerical expansion. The only reason I mention this is because I see so many non-Southerners misuse this word in speech and writing.
Probably the most ironic thing about what people think of the South is that it’s not diversely populated. In most major Southern cities, you’ll find as much diversity as in any other American city. Sure, in many small towns, with little to draw new people in, the population is pretty much all native Southerners. The same is true of small towns in every other part of the country — they’re full of regional natives.
But in recent decades, some small Southern towns have drawn in many non-Southerners specifically because they are small Southern towns. More and more people are moving in to take advantage of the more relaxed Southern lifestyle, and the better cost of living. This means you can find many New Yorkers, Californians, and Illinoisans mixed in with the Georgians, Carolinians, and especially the Floridians.
In the major cities, you’ll also find Indians, Iranians, Chinese, Russians, and plenty other nationalities liberally mixed into the populations. I don’t mean just token representatives, either; and they don’t all only stick to small enclaves like a Chinatown or a Little Italy. Non-American natives seem to mix in more thoroughly with the Southern population than they apparently do in other areas of America.
Most native Southerners do like and eat fried chicken, grits, hushpuppies, banana puddin’, and sweet ice tea, but not for every meal, or every day. (Although sweet ice tea is pretty close to a meal staple.) Just as with everywhere else, Southerners like best what they grew up eating around their home dinner table—what Momma used to make. But Southerners also eat pizzas, enchiladas, gyros, moo gu gai pan, and calamari.
Whenever I’ve been to New York, I’ve been told that I can’t ever have had “real” New York style pizza and bagels. Each time, I’ve graciously partaken of the offered culinary enlightenment and never explained that it tastes exactly like the New York style pizza and bagels found in every New York style pizzeria and deli some New Yorker has opened in the South. With all the transplanted New Yorkers in the South, even small towns have at least one New York style restaurant. Bigger cities have a couple dozen such businesses, all run by real New Yorkers.
It’s the same with other cuisine, as well. Just as the South has a diversity of people, it has all the diversity of food because of those people. Even if no native Southerner tried, liked, and ate Thai, Polish, or Mexican foods, the Thai, Polish, and Mexican people living in the South would keep those restaurants working. And just as Southerners are willing to try various other foods, the international folk seem just as willing to try traditional Southern meals.
And then there’s barbeque (or BBQ). Barbeque style and flavor is different from state to state, and sometimes a single state can have two or more styles. Just as you should try “real” New York pizza and bagels when in New York, you really should try the local barbeque when you visit any Southern state. If you like it, you’ll make a life-long friend of the person who introduced you to it. If you don’t like it, find something about the meal to like: the hushpuppies, the baked beans, the potato salad, or even the slaw. If someone cares enough to introduce you to their favorite style of BBQ, it’s important to them.
Professional sports are watched and followed, but college football and basketball is a religion in the South. The days of intra-family feuds over college basketball are past, but you can expect at least a small amount of smack talk if you bring a love of the wrong team into a brother’s home.
Soccer, hockey, and other such trivial activities are minor thoughts to most native Southerners. Some non-natives have brought their love of these sports to the region, and some of the young folk are growing up with these relatively new sports in the South. But adding all the fans together will still get you third place in numbers, after college basketball.
And then there’s NASCAR. There are 75 million NASCAR fans, and most of them are Southerners. While stopped at a traffic light, behind other cars, look at the rear windows of the vehicles ahead of you. There’s a good chance you’ll see some kind of sticker, (even just a simple number), revealing the owner’s favorite NASCAR driver.
A wonderful thing about NASCAR is how family friendly it is. It’s a sport kids can watch without parental supervision. You don’t have to worry about which driver your child picks as a hero, and you never hear about a driver getting arrested for drug possession or bar fights. If you’ve never seen a race on TV, try it. You don’t have to watch an entire four-hour race, but if you can time it right, catch the last 20-50 laps of any race for an example of what makes NASCAR exciting.
Summer in the South is hot and humid. Winter in the South is cold and humid. Summer days usually reach over 90 degrees, and winter days sometimes drop below 30 degrees. There will be a few to several days over 100 degrees, and a few days as low as 20, but the humidity is always present, to make every temperature more uncomfortable.
Summer in the South can be brutal. With weeks of temperatures in the 90s and humidity levels consistently over 80 percent, you can’t walk across the street without having a little perspiration form on your skin. It’s wet heat. I’ve been to Arizona in July, and can honestly attest that 110 degrees dry heat is more comfortable than 90 degrees humid heat. The difference is very noticeable.
And to make the heat and humidity even worse, there are the bugs. Damn bugs! I think every Southern state claims the mosquito as the state bird.
But contrary to what you see in the movies, we have air conditioning in the South. Every movie and TV show set in the South has at least one woman fanning herself indoors. Not only do we have AC in our homes and businesses, we have it in our cars and trucks, too. The only people I’ve ever known who didn’t have AC in their cars were newly transplanted Notherners who hadn’t yet experienced a Southern summer.
In college, we native Southerners always got a chuckle from seeing Northerner students putting on shorts in April when the temperature got above 60 degrees. And then again when they started wearing tank tops in May when the temperature got above 70 degrees. We don’t consider it good and warm until the temperature hits at least 80 degrees. We don’t consider it “too hot” before 100 degrees.
But then the laughter reverses in winter when our towns and cities shut down due to one inch of snow. Folks from Michigan and Minnesota are regularly astonished that Southern cities can’t handle a light dusting of snow or ice. Southern states only get snowfall one to three times a winter (or none at all), and a real snow storm maybe once every five to ten years. The city of Chicago has more snowplows than most whole Southern states. Real winter weather is uncommon to rare in the South, so our municipalities and states don’t invest heavily in winter weather tools. Many native Southern families have never owned a snow shovel or a snow sled. We’ve just never regularly needed them.
Roads and Vehicles
Personal vehicles are the norm in the South, even in the larger cities with mass transit systems. Southern cities and towns are nicely spread out over their areas so homes and malls and office buildings can be surrounded by beautiful woods and lakes. This spreading out for building means that places are usually pretty far apart. From their homes, Southerners usually have a 15-60 minute drive to work. Rush hour might be aggravatingly slow, but nearly every person is sitting in their own car.
In most places in the South, having your own car or truck is not an option. You just must have your own transportation to get anywhere. But contrary to the stereotype, pickup trucks are not mandatory. Usually, the people who drive pickup trucks do so for real functional reasons -– they actually use them for their design. Otherwise, people have cars, mini-vans, and SUVs. And I’ve never met anyone who had to enter their car by sliding in the window.
Dirt roads in the South are a rare thing. Nowadays, the only places you’ll find dirt roads are the driveway to a farm or in newly carved-out roads for “coming soon” neighborhoods. Even the smallest towns have paved streets. Even the most sparsely populated counties have paved highways running through. It’s highly unlikely you’ll find a crooked sheriff chasing good ol’ boys in a mock race car for running moonshine across county lines.
The whole red state/blue state division is meaningless, really, when the difference is less than ten percentage points. A lot of people like to paint whole regions as one political persuasion or another, but that’s not only unfair, it’s downright ignorant –- and this is true for all American regions.
In the last couple of presidential elections, the difference between the votes for the two major parties was relatively narrow: in the 2000 election, the difference between Dem and Rep in 5 Southern states was single-digit percentages; in the 2004 election, 3 Southern states were that tight. And though the differences might have been wider in other Southern states, it wasn’t so much that anyone could consider a victory a landslide. Compare this to states in the other American geographical regions and you’ll find it very similar.
The point here is, the old assumptions about politics in the South are loosing their accuracy. Don’t assume you know a Southerner’s political leanings anymore than you’d assume a Northerner’s, Mid-Westerner’s, or a West Coaster’s. Even a 60-40 split one way or the other doesn’t give good odds for guessing someone’s political affiliation.
The South has some very well respected universities. We have people from all over America and the world flocking to these schools for the good learnin’ they can get. But that’s no secret. The real reason I have an “Education” section in this article is mostly to talk about our elementary and high schools.
There are six Southern states ranked in the top 20 for SAT scores in 2011. Of course, many states, (not just Southern ones), could do much better. Most kids graduating from Southern high schools do know how to read and write and calculate at an appropriate level. Many Southern high school graduates go on to colleges — it’s not just other states and countries filling our respected universities.
I went to city and county elementary schools as a child, and a county high school as a teenager. I went on to a Southern university, too. I also educated myself on many subjects beyond what I took in the schools, and I never came across any basic information that was taught wrong in my college, high school, or grade school classes.
Over the years, and as recently as 2008, I have heard and read several people stating wildly wrong “facts” about education in the South. For instance, some people actually believe Southern children are taught that the South won the Civil War — and that the Civil War is called the “War of Northern Aggression.” This is not true. Southern children are taught the same information from the same text books as children in the other 50 states.
Southerners think about the Civil War about as much as anyone else in America thinks about the Revolutionary War. Southerners hold no more animosity toward Northerners about the Civil War than any American holds against Britain for the Revolutionary War, or Texas does against Mexico for their war, etc. We just ain’t hung up on the thing like some people outside the South think we are. Really.
The effects of the Civil War and its aftermath are so long passed that even Atlanta has long since gotten over Sherman’s march. The problems that Southerners talk about nowadays are usually less than 20 years old, some as much as 40 years old, and a rare few as much as 60 years old. It’s unheard of in normal culture to hear a gripe about anything over 100 years old. The Civil War is just ancient history to most people.
Mentioning it and asking about it doesn’t bother anyone down here. Heck, it’s likely a typical modern Southerner won’t know any more about it than you will from out of the region. If a Southerner does know a lot about it, it’s probably from a purely academic view point than any kind of passed-on cultural philosophy.
Southern hospitality is a real thing, still. If a non-Southerner comes to visit, you’ll find the people friendly and open. If you come to stay, it’s expected that you’ll adapt to our lifestyle rather than try to change us or tell us how it’s better “back home.” If you don’t allow yourself to completely experience the Southern culture, you’ll never learn just how wrong you had it “back home.”
Southerners love to share a greeting, a smile, our food, our style, our homes, and anything else to anyone who shows they can appreciate it. Southerners will say “Hello,” “Good mornin’,” “Have a nice day,” and we’ll mean it, sincerely. Take it as a genuine expression and you’ll quickly come to understand the Southern lifestyle.
Also, Southerners generally have a good sense of humor about themselves. We don’t mind if you call us rednecks, hicks, rebs, etc., so long as we know you’re joking. But like anyone else, if you use such words as jabs and stabs, even behind a false smile, well, we can loose the hospitality faster than you can say, “Damn Yankee.”
In general, Southerners are just folks, like everyone else in America. Though there still are cultural differences, quirks, stereotypes, or whatever, they’re generally faded and muted compared to what many people outside the South still think. Come on over, sit down and drink some sweet ice tea with us.