In the 1956 film “Good-bye My Lady,” Walter Brennan says to a fellow Southerner: “Had a tourist here once – a Yankee that got bit by a snake. Snake died.” It must have been fate that compelled me to watch this outdated, random movie on a Saturday morning while preparing to write this article. “Good-bye My Lady” contains several such jabs that made me laugh even though it is not a comedy and not even about Yankees. I hear quips like this every day from people who don’t realize that I’m a Northern transplant and not native to the South. So, after sixteen years in Chattanooga TN, and ten years previously in Atlanta, I would like to offer my top five tips for a successful transition into Southern living. By the way, to Southerners, a Yankee is anyone not from the South, not necessarily someone from the Northeast.
1. Visit the tourist attractions in the area. The locals may not take advantage of their amenities, but they love to hear compliments from outsiders. Talking about your experiences may spark a memory, perhaps of a forgotten class trip or a special outing with a grandparent. Create a bond with your neighbors by being an attentive audience while they recall fond childhood memories. Expressing appreciation of your surroundings and not the desire to change them may soften the distrust that Southerners sometimes feel for Yankees.
2. Be aware that Southern pride is alive and well. Southerners don’t realize that Northerners have moved on, or that people west of the Mississippi couldn’t care less. Candice moved south from New York in eighth grade and when asked by her new teacher who won the war, the North or the South, she chose the wrong side. Her teacher thought she was being smart, but Candice says the history of the Civil War wasn’t taught in her Northern school and she had no idea what it was. Be respectful of the history around you from fighting over the Rebel flag, to the annual Civil War re-enactments, to the preservation of key battlefield sites and monuments.
3. Be prepared for drop-of-the-hat road closures. The South is not equipped for snow and ice. Those of us who grew up in the North are amazed at the way weather can shut a city down and hold its citizens hostage. We never even got to take a snow day growing up. Chains for our tires, plenty of snowplows, and enough salt to ruin the finish on everyone’s cars kept the local governments and businesses running. Southerners are not used to measurable accumulations of snow or the temperatures that come with white winters. As Chattanooga meteorologist Paul Barys says “Why do you think Yankees move South?”
4. Become familiar with products that cater to Southern tastes. Ever heard of buttermilk, potted meat, or boiled peanuts? Southerners are not weird; they just utilize a different set of taste buds than Yankees do. It’s like the difference between Yankee Magazine and Southern Living. A nurse supervisor from Boston who transferred to a southern hospital became alarmed when she spied a white, powdery substance in an employee’s pocket. She had never seen a packet of Goody Powder, but it is a staple in Southern headache management. FYI: Grits are good with butter and pepper, greens are similar to kale and spinach, and unsweetened tea is a rarity in the South. Any type of carbonated drink may be called a Coke, and almost anything can be deep fried, including the Thanksgiving turkey.
5. Anticipate the inquisitiveness of your Southern neighbor. Avoid misconstruing friendliness for nosiness. I was slightly offended when I first moved into a neighborhood and a man walked over only to ask me what church I attended. Now I don’t blink when I’m asked where I plan on being buried and I’m not afraid to reciprocate. Don’t feel squeamish when talking about medical interventions, illness, divorce, cheating spouses, or anything else of a highly personal nature. Sharpen your skills in tabloid reporting and interviewing and you’ll fit right in.
Finally, embrace the Southern culture, including the lingo. I still say “you guys” instead of “y’all,” but “hey” slips into my greetings instead of “hello” as if I was Southern born and raised. I have simply learned to assimilate, and so can you. Remember, as the foreign invader it is up to you to break the ice. On a positive note, at the end of “Good-bye My Lady,” Walter Brennan makes one final observation. He tells his friend that once you get to know a Yankee, he isn’t that bad after all.
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