Friday, June 12, 2009

Visiting the South - Social Observations from Dixie

I want to take a diversion away from reporting on the site seeing and eating Diane and I did last month in the southeast to offer up some observations about life in Dixie...and how it differs from the northwest.

I'd like to first say that I like the fact that the south is different than the north or the west. More and more, the U.S. is starting to look the same no matter where you go, people are starting to sound the same, regional differences are disappearing and choice of eating/drinking/accommodation is becoming more homogeneous. I love the fact that we were able to  go someplace within our own borders that offered up a different take on America.

With that, here are some of my top observations...

I - Southern Hospitality is Real
People in the south are generally much more approachable and willing to help out a stranger or tourist. Quick with a smile and an eagerness to help out, southerners seem proud of their culture and the cities they live in and they're pleased to talk with you. Up here in Seattle, there's much more of a keep-to-yourself culture that stands in contrast to what we experienced down south. I suppose you get used to what you grow up with or what you're personality type connects with. For me, chalk the friendliness of southerns up as a strength over the northwest.

II - They Grow 'Em Big Down South
There are a lot of overweight people in the south. While I understand and agree that a certain percentage of people simply are genetically predisposed to carrying more body fat than others, the fact that so many southerners are obese is evidence to me that this is not the main reason America is so heavy. No, the reason that Americans - and apparently a high number of southerners - are so overweight is because...get this...they eat way too much, way too many fatty and unhealthy foods, and they do not exercise.

While Seattle and the northwest has big people too, it's not so pervasive and a hallmark of the culture as it is in the south. Perhaps its the diet most people have here, perhaps its because there are so many active things to do outdoors in the northwest, temperate weather or maybe its because more people here exercise than most parts of the country. Not sure. But, the size of the people IS a difference between the northwest and the south.

III - The Southern Male Wears A Uniform
After about two days down south, I realized that most of the men we were seeing were wearing very similar attire. We're used to seeing a pretty eclectic mix of fashion as we navigate our jobs and lives here in Seattle, but it became clear that this was not so down south. Here are some of the "uniforms" I observed so many southern males wearing:
  • Uniform #1 - The Dude. Baseball cap (with sunglasses perched on the brim), t-shirt, shorts, white tennis shoes with ankle socks (or sometimes just flip-flops). To maximize this look, the southern male very often accentuates it with a mustache or goatee. I'd estimate that 30% of guys you see in the south are rocking this fashion statement at any one time. Any time you get near a tourist attraction, bar or casual dining establishment the percentage jumps radically to about 70%.
  • Uniform #2 - The Polo-Phone Combo. Colorful polo shirt, khaki pants, braddedleather belt, leather shoes, cell phone clipped to the hip. This is a major look for the southern male too. I'd estimate you're looking at about 20% of southern males are sporting this slightly upgraded look.
  • Uniform #3 - Just Out of Bed. Rumpled shorts and t-shirt and floppy unkempt hair. Perhaps not a southern specialty, but with I'd say you see about 10% of guys in this type of get-up regularly there.
So, right there that's about 60% of males walking around the south in one of these "uniforms" with some cross-pollination of these three looks too that probably account for another 10%. The other 30% are a mixed bag with more universal looks such as business formal, hipster, bohemian, etc.
What does this say about southerner guys? To me it's perhaps an indication of a desire to "fit in" or there is a severe lack of fashion sense - or maybe both. Any way you slice it, the southern male wearing a "uniform" was one of the most vivid observations of the whole trip.

IV - Southerners Show You What They're All About
I noticed that a lot of people - many more than where we're from - were sporting shirts or caps that displayed a name or logo of some group or entity they were proud of. Most of this was sports-related themes of course, but schools, companies, the military and locations were well represented too.
Also, within the sports-related shirts or caps, there seemed to be a very high percentage of "champions" attire declaring that whatever team they supported had won whatever championship and who they beat. The message here seemed to be, "we're the best...respect me."

Anyway, it just made an impression on me that a large number of people seemed to be making the decision that they would wear clothes that communicated support for something vs. something that may make them look more sophisticated, interesting or cool.

V- Pickup Trucks
That's it. Just pickup trucks. There are a lot of 'em in the south. More than here in Seattle where most people tend to have BMWs, Mercedes, Subarus (or similar), SUVs or perhaps a fuel efficient city car. Sure, the truck quotent goes up in more rural areas here, but overall I wouldn't call the northwest a "truck culture." But it is down south. It doesn't matter if your in a city like Charleston or out in the countryside, there are a lot of pickup truck rolling around. People seem to identify with the identity of the pickup truck - tough, rugged, not gonna take any crap and get out of my way.

VI - History Has A Presence
The cities we visited have a long and much older history than what's out on the west coast. Charleston and Savannah, for example, have a British colonial history, American Revolutionary history, slavery history, Civil War history that, say, Seattle has none of.  I mean, in Seattle schools you learn about the Civil War and slavery. In Charleston you can literally step foot where that war started, visit a former slave market and see what plantation life was like for slaves...all in one afternoon. Throw in the old buildings, cobbled streets and all the thought of all the things that happened in and around them and you have history staring you in the face every day. I really liked experiencing this inside the borders of the U.S. rather than in another country.

Yes, a lot of stuff happened in these cities over the past three hundred years. And, over those years a certain sense of that history settles on the culture there - helping create the social and political and makeup of the region.  Like anywhere, a region's history is reflected in current day culture. In my mind then, it's no surprise then that an area with history built on religious settlement, slavery, anti-Union sentiment and an agricultural economy would today be so very  -politically, religiously and socially. So, beyond buildings and sites, the history of the south has a less concrete but equally real impact on society there.

VII - Women Dress Up
Unlike their male counterparts, women down south tend to dress nicer and make an effort to look good for themselves, their significant others and the public. You may not share any one woman's sense of style, but you can tell they're putting forth the effort...and much more than the guy they're with or hoping to attract.

VI - Some Possible Conclusions
We had a great time down south and I am really pleased to have visited an area unlike home for all the reasons I've described in my other posts. By experiencing different places around the world, you become a more informed and enlightened person.

In thinking about what the common elements of the observations I've made above might be, I'll offer the following. I might be wrong, and I'm no social scientist, but...

It seems that a lot of the social behaviors I observed seemed to be attempts to project "importance," "authority," or "respect." And what could be motivating that? Or, at least more than in other places around the U.S. that I've been? Well, my theory is that many southerners are operating with some level of an inferiority complex and that their behaviors are an attempt to overcome those doubts. This is not something they may even be doing consciously. It's just part of the culture. 

Sure, southerners will say "no way," and they are proud of where they're from. I get that. But think about it. You're talking about a less wealthy, less educated, less opportunity-rich area of the nation with less natural beauty and resources than many other parts of the country. And, it's an area of the nation that was defeated in the Civil War (and believe me, that's still a sore subject 140 years later).

All that could add up to a longstanding culture of inferiority that manifests itself in overcompensating behavior. Well, like I said, it's just a theory. But, it's based on my first-hand observations. If you have a different perspective, let me know.


Swift said...

If southerners had the ability to read your post, I think they would concur with your observations.

Marc said...

It's true that most southern states have the lowest literacy rates in the your comment is both funny and accurate.