Friday, December 1, 2017

To the Manner Born

I have frequently lamented that the concept of Southern Hospitality is a fictional myth that relies upon old stories and tales of the genteel who take in those as if they are family whenever a new person is met.  That seems to be my experience, the former not the latter.  The South is anything but genteel or hospitable.

The reality is that Nashville reminds me of Seattle, polite to one's face distant otherwise.  The Seattle Freeze was something often joked of, debated about and a part of the legacy of Seattle long before the river of the Amazon ever arrived.   The difference between the Seattle Freeze is the Nashville Way, an unclear vague statement that has something to do with being nice.  The other distinction is that it means smack talking the second you are believed out of earshot.  They don't actually wait that long.  What one knows is a phrase of dismissal, "Bless Your Heart!" is rarely used as it is not the wink, nod or eye roll that those less Southern uses to indicate that you utterly disagree/think they are crazy/etc.

So Southerners launch into a much more obvious way to let you know they find you repugnant, by staring and utter silence followed by the phrase: "I've never heard that before."  In other words assuming you are lying or exaggerating and in turn their ignorance is an excuse or some type of justification for the rudeness that follows.  Well not rudeness just classic Seattle passive aggressiveness only openly aggressive followed by passive denial. An example: "Do you always treat people whom you have never met with such oblivion as if they are invisible or non-existent?"  The response: "I have never heard of that."  "Well you just have and I find people here very unfriendly and seemingly unaware of the basic concepts of social engagement, such as introducing oneself, acknowledging the other person in the room or at least greeting them."  No response, the stare followed by an aggressive remark.  "You are wrong I did not ignore you"  "You hate yourself don't you?"  Or again dead silence.  I see and experience that daily in the public schools from the Teachers to the Students and on the rare days I have an exchange with any of the above I am hopeful, optimistic and then reality sets in.  That is a one-off.

I am overly sensitive now and find myself flipping chairs (okay metaphorically so save the Cop call) when the first sign of the eye roll, the rude remark or comment which is usually from children in the public schools.  The schools here are truly a disgrace and I get that when you are poor, black or an immigrant child the opportunity to lash out and back to model the way you have been treated heightens when a Substitute Teacher arrives.  That crosses county, state and city lines.  Thanks Glenn Campbell!  However, here it transcends the level of disrespect and audacity in ways that even I cannot fathom.  I have heard Children speculate out loud about  my physical characteristics - nose job or not.  If I have cats - no.  If I am a Goth/Lesbian/have kids/Married and so forth.  I am mocked, derided, made fun of and more often ignored as if I am invisible.  That is the one that I am most familiar as the Adults have this down to perfection.  It is nothing one would describe as a part of the infamous Southern Hospitality one is so sure exists.

I do feel much of it comes from fear of the outsider.  They live and breathe and die the Southern Born life and philosophy and they take it with them as one would a chip on one's shoulder and it is one deep chip.

I do point to Bob Corker the Senator from Tennessee as the best example of a Southerner.  Contradicts himself, turns on a dime, thief and liar.  I cannot stress enough that he is the perfect archetype/stereotype/prototype of what defines a Southern man.  The only thing that blew me away was that he is a strict practitioner of Yoga.  That does show he may be the new Southerner - healthy.

Again, I like to remind myself of the reality here and I found this from 2010 where Tennessee was according to CNBC one of the worst States (actually number one which they normally love here)  in which to live.   I would love to know how and when in 7 years it became better?  Oh that is right the other mythical belief that 100 people a day move here.   I cannot wait for the mythical drive in literally drive in with your car to a movie theater one of the many developers have proposed here.  And yesterday taking the decrepit town of Madison (where you can pretty much get Meth driving down the Pike without having to stop the car, just roll stop and your good to go) and talking it up to be the affluent suburb of Green Hills, the richest zip code in town.  Sure I see it happening in the year 2525.  

And while I am all for improving cities and towns you can build all the multi use developments to the cows come home but without decent paying jobs with wages that are commensurate with the cost of living, a strong infrastructure that includes roads, sidewalks, lighting and transit as well as schools, there is nothing here to maintain these projects.  The reality is that the largest generic employer is Construction, comprised largely of Immigrant labor - some documented, some not - but almost always transient.  And the reality is that with the current climate going to be tougher to find employees to do said jobs.  Here in Nashville we have had four deaths related to this industry and with movement away from OSHA protections I expect fewer willing to do said jobs when at any time they can be deported.  But each day another spectacular grand plan is announced with even bigger and better uses.  Nashville is sure they are on league to be San Francisco at any moment only with less gays.

But there is one quality that we all can agree, the Southerner is a Bitter person.  The true Southerner hates themselves in a way that is projected upon everyone else then that way they can feel better. I get it but find a new song and try to sing that.  Meanwhile pass the biscuits and sweet tea.  And I have some putty to put in that chip there.

Southern Accents and That Nashville Sound

By Shelley Johansson
The Bitter Southerner

"The accent of one's birthplace persists in the mind and heart as much as in speech."

— François de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680)

“Where are you from?” It’s an innocent, normal question when getting to know a new acquaintance. My answer is “Nashville,” but the response I get from there depends on where I am. If I’m in the South, people chat about the city, its music or their visit there. It’s nice to be from a place that’s known for something. But here in the North, where I now live, the response is frequently “You don’t sound like it.”

The social rules of small talk don’t allow me to express the wildly mixed feelings I have about that statement. What does their expectation say about Nashville, or about the South in general? What does it say about me? What’s with the superior attitude some people have about the South? And I identify as a Southerner – so why, for crying out loud in a bucket, don’t I sound like one?

The Bitter Southerner’s Chuck Reece wrote an essay, “We Are Bitter,” that explains the name of this fine publication and the rationale behind its founding. In it, he told how his pronounced Southern drawl sometimes triggered “certain negative assumptions” when he lived in New York. Upon reading that, my Kentucky-born mother texted me in shouty capital letters, “HE PUT INTO WORDS THINGS I’VE FELT MY WHOLE LIFE. I’M NOT STUPID JUST BECAUSE I SOUND LIKE THIS.” Clearly, the accent issue touches a nerve with a lot of us.

As Chuck noted, there’s often a certain condescension present when people remark about a Southern drawl, or an Appalachian twang. Hell, I sometimes detect condescension when people remark about my (perceived) lack of an accent. Do people from other parts of the country known for a strong regional accent get this kind of reaction? I can’t imagine saying “you don’t sound like it” to someone who just told me they’re from New Jersey but doesn’t sound like Tony Soprano. But is it possible we’re just being oversensitive?

Actually, no. R. Douglas Fields wrote in the Scientific American, “studies have shown that whether you are from the North or South, a Southern twang pegs the speaker as comparatively dimwitted, but also likely to be a nicer person than folks who speak like a Yankee.” Time and again, Fields maintains, it’s been shown that speakers with Southern accents are initially assumed to be less intelligent — and I find it pretty depressing that Southerners hold the same negative stereotypes about ourselves. Being perceived as nice is, well, nice, but cold comfort.

Stereotypes have a way of perpetuating themselves in that people tend to remember the experiences that reinforce stereotypical beliefs, and dismiss or forget those that don’t. So television interviews featuring strongly-accented Southerners expressing less-than-enlightened views are going to stick in people’s minds (even as those of us who abhor that stereotype cringe and groan behind the couch). Nobody denies some Southern folks are ignorant or prejudiced, and that some of them have an accent. But it’s unfair to correlate the two factors.

But that’s not all, y’all, when it comes to characteristics associated with Southern accents. A 2013 survey conducted by found that a Southern accent was considered “sexiest” by a significant margin. Their breathless blurb reads, “When it comes to romance, most of us dream of long lazy days in the sun, epic sunsets and, ahem, rolls in the hay. ... Interestingly the Southern accent proved a particular hit with the men who were surveyed. We’re not sure if they’re after a Scarlett O’Hara or a Daisy Duke, but either way it’s great news for all you single Southern belles!” (Oh, spare me.) An online survey by some dating website is a far cry from scientific evidence, of course, but the stereotype of the honey-tongued Southern belle is pretty familiar. I guess sexy is a better attribute than dumb-but-friendly – on the other hand, stupid plus sexy equals bimbo, at least if you’re a woman.

In 2014, the Oak Ridge (Tennessee) National Laboratories got unwanted national publicity on NPR and elsewhere for planning a six-week “accent reduction class” that was supposed to help participants “feel confident in a meeting when you need to speak with a more neutral American accent.” Oak Ridge, a federal research facility founded in 1942 to develop the atom bomb, employs a lot of highly educated scientists, many of whom are from out of the area. The class was cancelled due to complaints from employees who were from the South and proud of it, but still, the fact remains that somebody thought this was a good idea.

I’ve asked several of my closest, non-Southern friends how they perceive my accent. The consensus is that the Southern accent is detectable, especially when I’m telling a story, but that it’s not immediately obvious. The most thoughtful response I got was this: “I don't think you have a paradigmatically thick Southern accent, but it’s hard to tease out the accent from the whole package — which is pretty Southern. But I do think the Southernness comes through more than occasionally.”

Like most anybody, my accent shows up a little more when I’m self-conscious, excited or tipsy, but I agree that it’s on the mild side. I’m not sure exactly why that is, but it doesn’t have anything to do with how my parents sound. My mother, a native of Louisville, has a much stronger accent than mine – perhaps because her mother grew up in Jackson. I can (and often do) still hear my Nana’s gentle voice in my head – so lovely, a classic, soft Mississippi accent.

Maybe it’s because I took a lot of theater classes in college that involved voice work (but then again, if college had any effect, it might have been to strengthen my accent – I went to Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, where the student body was overwhelmingly from the Deep South). I’ve made my living in communications, sometimes in a role where I speak on mic or on camera, and in that capacity I suppose it’s better if people are listening to what I’m saying rather than how I’m saying it. I even teach public speaking as an adjunct at a local community college these days.

I guess it’s possible I once had a stronger Southern accent than I do now, and somehow – consciously or not – trained myself to sound more neutral. But then again, I’m not sure I could. I know what it is to have an accent you can’t change, as I learned to speak Swedish when I was 25 – I cringe when I hear my strong English-speaking accent and know exactly what’s wrong, but my tongue will not bend to change it. Obviously some people are able to alter their accents or even adopt completely new ones at will, but not all of us are Meryl Streep. But the thing is, Swedes love listening to my accent – and I get that, because I like hearing accents myself.

Frankly, it bugs me that in this country we seem to value accentless speech, that we expect everyone speaking in a public capacity to sound flat and unidentifiable. Accents are much more interesting to listen to than so-called Standard American English, and much more revealing about the person speaking. Years ago, a boyfriend of my sister’s called my parents’ home when I was there for Christmas and said, in the strongest Long Island accent I ever heard, “Hel-loh, I’m callin’ fa Heath-hah.” I giggled and asked him to repeat himself, and he laughed back and good-naturedly obliged. I liked him the more for his accent, and although that was the first time we’d ever spoken I felt like I knew him a little better than if he’d sounded like some TV reporter.

As a college student traveling in northern Scotland, I stopped an elderly gentleman for directions to Loch Ness. He was struggling to understand me, though he clearly wanted to help. I was charmed, but couldn’t get a word he said. At some point one of us was struck by the absurdity of the situation – two native English speakers, colossal failure to communicate — and started to snicker with embarrassment. The longer we carried on, the funnier it got. By the end of the exchange both of us were doubled over, roaring with laughter. He wound up writing down the directions for me as we wiped tears from our eyes. That encounter became one of the most memorable experiences of the whole trip. In the right circumstances, differing accents can connect strangers, even if communication suffers.

I understand why people expect a Nashville accent to be strong – country music, our claim to fame, is supposed to be twangy. But today’s Nashville sure ain’t country in the rural sense. It’s one of the hottest, hippest cities in the nation – a far cry from what it was like when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, before Garth Brooks and the other hat acts brought country back into mainstream popularity. The downtown entertainment district – which was full of peep shows and downright unsafe at night when I was a kid – is rocking every day of the week, with authentic honky-tonks like Robert’s Western World and Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge holding their own against the influx of new, more tourist-oriented establishments like the Wildhorse Saloon and the Hard Rock Café. We even have NHL hockey and NFL football these days, and downtown condos are sprouting up everywhere.

All that growth has negatives as well as positives, of course. When I was born, the city had three tall buildings downtown, as immortalized in Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” album art. Today, downtown is growing at a ridiculous pace. Cranes litter the landscape, and they cannot pour concrete fast enough. My sister drove me around town when I was there last Christmas, and some places are borderline unrecognizable. Nashville is grappling with the problem faced by boomtowns everywhere – what happens when the people who make the city what it is can’t afford to live there anymore? It’s pretty scary, but my point here is that a lot of folks are coming to Nashville from somewhere else.

But I would maintain that Nashville’s always been a more cosmopolitan place than its country image might suggest, for the same basic reason – the recording industry draws a lot of people. To my ears, the accent of those who have grown up in Nashville hasn’t changed, at least not yet, despite the city’s dramatic changes. It’s true that our country image has evolved considerably, as the industry has evolved. The city has always been Music City USA, but the emphasis on that slogan has grown right along with country music’s popularity. We’re a generation or two from when “Hee Haw” was Nashville’s major on-screen entertainment export, so it seems silly that people should expect me to sound like one of the Honeys.

I do suspect that TV and movie depictions of Southern accents are partially responsible for setting unrealistic expectations. Those of us who know what the South really sounds like often suffer through the mangled enunciation of some actor sporting a fake Southern accent that’s more out of place than an ill-fitting top hat. And all too often characters from the South are depicted with ridiculously exaggerated accents. I enjoy primetime TV’s current, soapy depiction of my hometown, “Nashville,” in part because the location shots are impressively authentic – the show is shot in Nashville, not on soundstages, and it’s obvious. But some of the characters are portrayed with strong accents indeed (to be fair, not all of them are supposed to be natives). In any case, I find the accents on that show entertaining, but I’m not sure I’d call them representative.

I’ve lived out of the South for more than 12 years now, so it could be that my accent’s changed slowly over time. Accents can be fungible things. When I first met my Swedish husband when we were 18, he spoke British English, because that’s what Scandinavians are taught, starting in fourth grade – it is, after all, English. Today, almost 30 years later, his accent is quite American, with a trace of Swedish lilt present. It’s not uncommon that people who move adopt the regional accents of their new homes, at least to some degree. We all want to fit in. That could be what’s happened, but I think Southern accents are beautiful, and if mine had been more pronounced I’m pretty sure I would have been deliberate about maintaining it. Heaven knows I love it when I have the opportunity to chat with someone who has a Southern accent, because it sounds like home.

But it would seem inauthentic, borderline ridiculous even, to try and cultivate a stronger accent. I do have language itself as a good fallback position, as my vocabulary can be pretty Southern when I want it to be. Apparently that holds true when I write in casual settings – or maybe it’s just that the Southern part of my identity is clearly communicated, one way or another. I was a member of an online message board for years with women from all over the country before I had the chance to meet one of them (a Pennsylvanian) in person. After chatting for awhile, she confided that after hearing my virtual voice for so long, she was surprised to find my actual voice didn’t sound as Southern as she had expected.

What I actually say when someone responds, “You don’t sound like it,” after finding out I’m from,has everything to do with the tone in which the remark is delivered. If there’s a hint of a sneer, I’ve been known to dryly observe that virtually everybody in downtown Nashville who’s wearing a cowboy hat is a tourist. If they sound friendly and curious, I’ll smile and tell them what I believe to be true – that my slight accent is not atypical of Nashville, and if I’d grown up in a rural area of Tennessee I’d probably have more of a twang. No matter what I’ve said, the person almost invariably responds, “I’ve never been to Nashville, but I’d really like to go.” No kidding, on either count.

I reckon I shouldn’t overthink it. Like most of the comments people make about others, “you don’t sound like it” says much more about the person uttering it than it does about me. At best, it reveals a lack of knowledge of what the real South sounds like, in all its delightful, subtle variations – including, y’know, me. At worst, it could mean they assume Southerners tend to be uneducated and unsophisticated, and that my lack of accent indicates I’m an exception to that timeworn stereotype. Of one thing I am certain, though – it sure as hell doesn’t mean that I’m not Southern. Perhaps the best response to that remark is look them in the eye, smile proudly and say, “Ain’t that a shame?”

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