Great Jehoshaphat, southern gentility is reported to be on the decline! Perhaps you’re thinking that in these uncertain times, this news is hardly worth mention. But if you believe, as I firmly do, that social graces are what separates us from the animals, you are nervous.
Gentility on a micro level makes our days less, something to endure and more, something to celebrate. Having a door held open, versus slammed in one’s face, makes if not the entire day, at least a moment, less stress inducing and more gratitude inducing. When a person moves out of the doorway (of an elevator, bus, train) they are communicating (for a split second) “I am cognizant of not living in solitary.” It is our nature to want to be acknowledged, if even just physically. No one wants to be ignored (as we learned from Fatal Attraction.) At the root of boorish behavior is self absorption. “The world exists to tend to my needs.” It is not difficult to spot the trajectory of such a perspective. If we scratch the surface of a political scandal or corporate malfeasance, wouldn’t we find this mindset? I think we’d all agree that the root of any ponzi scheme is a desire to have the world attend to the orchestrator’s needs. Most of us are not global economic leaders, but like recycling, don’t we want to do our small part? Giving a pregnant woman your seat is the pebble in the lake of decency.
I am not entirely naive about the origins of southern gentility or how it can be quite manipulative. It’s just that I’m okay with that. Our culture is experiencing a political correctness frenzy. We feel compelled to put preposterous positive spin on everything, no matter how misleading. So why not employ that same smiley face/have a nice day rhetoric in being kind to strangers, or for that matter, friends? I’m going out on a limb and suggesting that the old south is not familiar with the term “frenemies.” Do you remember Melanie Wilkes referring to Scarlett as “spirited” bless her heart? Scarlett had said unkind things about dear Melanie and was rabidly after Ms. Wilkes’ fiance. What in the world would today’s Melanie post on Facebook? I shudder to even consider.
Helping a tourist, complimenting a stranger’s scarf, holding an elevator door, making funny faces at a crying baby, demand a level of awareness. It is hard to text, drive, drink from a sippy cup AND let someone merge into your lane. It is equally difficult to talk on the phone, drink from a sippy cup, push a double-wide stroller, and notice the person in front of you has dropped a glove. So if removing our plastic bubble as we go through our day is not realistic, how about doing so just when engaged in intentional social interaction? Why don’t we start with remembering that social interactions, large and small, are not about the individual, they are about the group. Throwing oneself a celebration (nuptial, birthday, etc.) means one is a host. A good host makes his/her guests feel comfortable and welcomed. A good (and even not so good) host does not invoice his or her guests and always expresses gratitude for their presence. Like accessorizing, civility is what separates us from the animals.