Monday, January 25, 2010

You have my permission to not offend me.

Having lived in the South for nearly 24 years, I've long since become acclimated to some of the social differences between here and New York.  The first difference I encountered was in the area of communication.

In New York (specifically, in the city), you can walk around all day spewing obscenities of varying degrees, and it will be taken like ordinary everyday speech.  My old classmate Pam would come for a visit and I'd make arrangements to get as many meals delivered to the house as possible to avoid taking her out in public.  Try as I might, I could not persuade her to clean up her mouth.  "What the f___ do I care what people think?  If they don't like it, they can go hump a tree!"  she would say loudly.
Among certain types of New Yorkers, it is actually a point of pride to turn the air around you blue while in the South or Midwest, and then assert, "Hey, I'm not from the South; I tell it like it is!"  I ran into a person like this while visiting my son in New Jersey a couple of years ago.  He was inspired to go off on his rant when he caught sight of my license plate.  This encounter took place early in the morning, before my first cup of coffee; otherwise, I would most likely have responded with "Well, bless your heart!"  I haven't lived down here that long for nothing.

In the North, however, you can easily get yourself killed by unwittingly using hand gestures.  In New York, just about any such body language is simply a shorthand way of inviting someone to attempt procreation with him/her self.  These gestures include flicking your fingers under your chin, as though checking your shave -- don't do that unless you're with your mother, and she's from Louisiana), and smacking the inside of your elbow and allowing the momentum to send your fist toward the ceiling.  If you don't know what I'm talking about you 1) have lived a very sheltered life and 2) need to watch The Sopranos.  You'll see what I mean.

I caught on within the first week living in Georgia that people down here are unfamiliar with most of the aforementioned gestures, other than the one-finger salute, but they take words very seriously, especially if there is a religious connection.  You don't exclaim, as my mother often did, "Oh, Jumpin' Jesus H. Christ, what now!"   You might describe a troublesome car part as "My gosh-darn fuel pump," but only if you are sure the other person won't be offended ("Dad-gum" is actually a much safer option), and you never, ever use the less euphemistic version of that phrase.  People down here boycotted the Miller Brewing Company because they nicknamed their Miller Genuine Draft "MGD."  And said that on television!  During family hour!

Watch out for that H-word, too.  Remember, down here they believe that it's a REAL place.  A real HOT place.  The Cobb County and Marietta City courthouses in Georgia are within a block or two of one another, so it's not unheard of for people to end up in one when they are meant to be in the other.  Once, while getting a minor traffic violation settled, I witnessed a fascinating encounter.  A man, who had only to open his mouth to show that he was "not from around here" asked a court officer, who was approximately 95 years old, if he was in the correct courtroom.  The elderly gent peered at the ticket and informed the visitor that he had gone to the wrong building.

"Oh.  Well, where the hell should I go then?" asked the clueless Yankee, in what I'm sure he thought was the friendliest manner possible.

All you-know-what broke loose for a minute or so, as the senior citizen informed the rude young man, in his best Foghorn Leghorn voice, that such language was not acceptable in a COURT OF LAW, and he did not know where the young man hailed from, but that he could REST ASSURED that such UNCOUTH behavior had landed countless other young bucks behind bars FOR A CONSIDERABLE LENGTH OF TIME going back a couple of hundred years, and that he had BETTER LEARN to show some respect!  I don't think the Northern visitor had ever heard such a speech (or such a voice); he was rendered mute while frantically trying to reprogram his brain to phrase the question of where to go in a tone that was not offensive or sarcastic.

So watch your p's and q's and H's.

This subject comes up because today at work, one of the gentlemen I work with (I'm the only female out of 14 employees) was having a problem with who knows what.  His computer, perhaps, or a customer.  At some point, apparently, the word "crap" came out of his mouth.  I really didn't hear it.  But nonetheless, he came over to me a moment later and said "Ma'am --" (yes, he generally calls me Ma'am, while I address him on a first-name basis) "-- I'd like to apologize for saying 'crap.'  I suppose you've heard that kind of language before, but I still shouldn't get into the habit of using it."  Never mind that I have heard him say it (and the stronger version of the word) more than once, and also overheard several of his choice little racist quips.  Those, it would never occur to him to apologize for.
So, to demonstrate that there's still more than a little bit of New York still lurking below the surface, I tried in the way that came naturally to assure him that I was unoffended by his language.  I told him I've heard it once or twice, and that, in fact, I come from New York.

That's my shorthand way of saying "You think 'crap' is vulgar?  If I repeated some other words I know, words I first heard from my parents, you'd keel over from a stroke."

That is what I tried to convey.  But it occurred to me, with plenty of alone-time to think it over, that my attempt to defuse the situation might be interpreted otherwise.

First, he might get the impression that I don't respect myself, or that "my mama didn't raise me right."  Second, he might infer that I believe my New York origins make me somehow superior to Southern women. I guess, in a way, I was trying to imply that.  Because part of the New York ethos is, my hide is as tough as an armadillo's.  Nothing shocks me, nothing scares me, nothing surprises me, and nothing offends me. Except hand gestures.  And if you make a gesture at me, I'll blow your head off.    On the other hand, women in the south are raised to be delicate in temperament.  A woman who isn't put off by crude language isn't considered much of a woman down here.  So it appears I was using the wrong approach to defuse the situation and reassure my colleague that I still respected him.  By saying "It's okay to swear in my presence" would tell a fellow New Yorker that I'm not some hanky-waving little weakling.  But it tells a Southerner something different.

I'm thinking of the right words to use next time one of the guys "forgets himself" and fails to delete the expletives.


Kay Dennison said...

Just fake a case of the vapors!!!! LOL

Modern Girl said...

That's really interesting. I grew up in rural Canada, and I grew up with a colorful tongue. I keep it hidden in professional situations, and when I'm around kids, but even on my blog I don't shy away from f-bombs and whatnot.

Now comparitively, the city I'm in now has a much cleaner vocabulary. Everyone is trained to put on a false sense of purity, and to bottle their emotions. When I drop f-bombs around here, especially around work colleges, I know I'm out of place, but in a secret way, I'm hoping it'll be like catharsis, and release them from the repression of emotion they're going through.

It's quite Freudian, I know.

Howard Bagby said...

I know what you mean about peoples reactions. I moved here from Illinois almost 14 years ago and caught on right away. It really wasn't a problem for me because I have never really used strong language that much, but I do watch what I say closer than I ever did in Illinois.

PersonalFailure said...

When I worked at Fleet (now Bank of America), most of the calls we took were from New York City. It was commonplace for people to ask me what their "f*cking account balance" was.

At first, I found this to be wildly inappropriate, but after a while, I realized that if I replied, "Your account balance is one hundred f*cking dollars", they wouldn't find that unusual or offensive at all.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

This is amazing! I had no idea that verbal Puritanism was so rampant in the south. Is it wrong that I really want to come down and swear cheerfully in public?

Shame about the racist comments being acceptable, though.

Volly said...

Barbara: I suspect you could manage to pull it off.

PF: They'd like that and compliment you by saying you sounded like "a real person."

Howard: After the Olympics, Atlanta "went Yankee" and it wasn't such a taboo. But Chattanooga and North Georgia? Fuhgeddaboudit!!

MG: Funny how Canada's down to earth, even out in the boonies. My favorite overheard expression there while visiting was "eh-f_ck?"

Kay: Fiddle-dee-dee!

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