By Hardy Jackson
The South excelled in two things which the French deem essential to civilization: a code of manners and a native cuisine – John Peale Bishop
“It ain’t necessarily so.”
Sportin’ Life, in “Porgy & Bess,”
A while back, an article appeared in the New York Times under the headline “A Last Bastion of Civility, the South Sees Manners Decline.”
In certain circles, it created quite a stir.
Soon, Southerners who read the Times set about doing what Southerners who read the Times are inclined to do from time to time – disagreeing with the Times.
They (we) did this, I suspect, because a decline in civility down here, like, for example, a decline in dirt eating (which the New York Times also reported) seems to suggest (to me at least) that we are becoming more like them.
And y’all know who “them” are.
Back when I was teaching, I would pass out a survey to my Southern History class. I asked students to select from a list of traits the ones that, “all-in-all,” are most characteristic of Southerners. (I didn’t create this. I stole it from my buddy John.)
Every year “courteous” ranked right up there at the top of the traits that my students, most of them Southerners, felt were characteristically Southern.
Later in the semester, I handed out the same survey and ask students to select the traits that, “all-in-all,” are most characteristic of Northerners.
“Courteous” never makes the cut.
Now this is hardly surprising, given my students’ general inclination to think of people from above Mason & Dixon as polar opposites of those below.
Imagine how they would feel if I told them that according to the New York Times, “they”
can no longer set themselves apart from “them” based on our manners?
But it is getting where we can’t.
In Atlanta, (where else) a jury ruled that a bar owner had every right to have a policy that says men, if asked, must give up their seats to ladies.
Is that what we have come to? Have things gotten bad that a Southern bar owner has to tell Southern men to do what Southern men should do naturally?
OK, it was in Atlanta, but still . . .
Once upon a time, surveys revealed that Southern men open doors for the opposite sex more often than men in the rest of the country. They also revealed that when a lady enters the room, we used to get off our Southern butts and acknowledge her presence (a practice, I told my son, that will get you a lot of mileage with the Mama of the daughter you want to date).
But do we still? The Times article makes you wonder if Southern men today feel that manners are really important.
Happily, some still do. Virginia’s Hampden-Sydney College, “The finishing school for Southern gentlemen,” presents incoming students with an etiquette book, To Manner Born, To Manners Bred.
Not a bad idea.
Other colleges should give it a try. High schools too. While we are at it, maybe hand out copies to politicians.
And give copies to the ladies so they will know what they should expect from Southern men.
The best definition of “courtesy” (and by extension “manners”) I have come across was penned by Lord Kenneth Clark. He was not a Southerner, though he did live in the south of England and that should count for something.
Lord Clark wrote: “I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos.”
I’d give up all the door openings and standings up and such for a little more of that.
Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at email@example.com.