When I learned we would be moving to Texas, one of the things I wondered about the most was just how “Southern” it would be. Of course it’s located in the southern part of the United States, but Texas is also one of those states that I feel is unique. After all, it was its own nation at one time and is larger than many countries around the world. It still owns all of its public lands (more fun facts about Texas are here if you’re interested). But after five weeks here I am definitely feeling the southern influence in the Lone Star State.
The phenomenon that is most giving me the southern vibe is all the “Yes, ma’ams” and “Yes, sirs” going around. I grew up in Alabama. My parents were from the north and my mother, despite her love of her adopted south, actively discouraged me from saying “ma’am” at home. That didn’t go over so well at school where any mind lapses that saw you answering a question with a simple yes or no would invoke a steely glare and a “Yes, what?” As a result of this, every time I would visit the United States after I left, I would find myself addressing strangers with “excuse me, sir.” Old habits die hard.
But suddenly I’ve grown up to be a ma’am myself. And I just can’t get used to it. Traditionally people will address someone as sir or ma’am as a show of respect; for example, when addressing a customer or an elder. I’ve been playing the customer role often lately and when I hear someone say ma’am, I’m still taken aback and wondering a little who she’s talking to. It certainly doesn’t offend me, but it does make me feel a bit old. I’m also quite frequently addressed as “Miss Andrea.” What the? I cannot get used to it. Texans are certainly friendly and charming so I usually just smile and sometimes toss back a ma’am or two myself. But it all feels very weird!
One of the things that has taken a lot of getting used to is the utter politeness surrounding me. I have to admit I kind of love it. People all hold doors for each other – men for women, women for women, women for men – it doesn’t matter. You get the feeling a person would rather die of embarrassment than not hold the door for you, even if you’re a good couple of metres away. I am often greeted with “Good morning” and almost always, “How are you today?” I’m naturally friendly and pleasant myself when going about my interactions with strangers, so I love this. There are few things worse than walking up to a counter with a smile and a hello, and receiving a scowl back. I can count on one hand the number of times that has happened to me here.
Of course, just because someone is being polite and friendly does not mean that it isn’t all just routine and not completely genuine. I get the feeling from time to time that there’s really nothing behind that smile. Less frequently I get the feeling that politeness is a mask for something else. Nothing sinister, mind you, just perhaps making a bigger sale or trying to compensate for inferior service. But how much can you really expect from a stranger? For me it’s enough that a person is making the effort to be pleasant and cheerful. As far as I’m concerned, life’s tough – and smiles really do brighten up your day, whether the person you are exchanging them with is interested in anything beyond that or not. I appreciate the time taken to be in the moment for another person. These days so many people are too busy running around in a robotic state to even recognize the humanity in anything anymore. It’s refreshing to engage with a stranger.
So will I be adopting the southern tradition of addressing everyone I meet with a ma’am or sir? Probably not. Do a quick search online and you’ll discover several editorials about how manners are dying in the south. After all, some of these formalities are rooted in the more unpleasant aspects of American history. But I will embrace the friendly nature of people here. The openness and pleasantness of the average person is fascinating to me. I’ll just have to get over my own insecurities and remember that I’m not ma’am because they think I’m old. It’s just a Texas thing.
Have you visited the South? What were your impressions?