Over the last 27 years, I’ve lived in four different states. I made my most recent move a little more than a year ago when I moved from Kansas to North Carolina.
However, I was raised primarily in what author Colin Woodward calls “Yankeedom,” a portion of the upper Midwest (that also stretches into New England). As a (proud) Northerner, I was a little ambivalent about what I might experience in North Carolina.
Here’s what I’ve seen over the last year.
Author’s note: This post is based entirely on my experiences. Some of you might have had different experiences or disagree with my conclusions, and that’s great! But I can only speak to my own perceptions. Also, I think it goes without saying, but I will regardless, of course I’m biased. I admit that. I grew up in town northwest of Chicago for 18 years. For me, the South might as well have been a foreign country.
I think language/dialect is the most obvious difference that I’ve experienced. Before, when I watched TV shows and movies, I would see Southern characters depicted with what I thought were clearly very broad approximations of a Southern accent. Surely, no regular person would willfully talk like Foghorn Leghorn, right?
It absolutely threw me off-kilter that 75 percent of the people I interacted with had some form of twang or drawl. I’m used to it now, but, for a little while, it was like I was living in a cartoon.
But it’s more than just the superficial sound to a person’s voice. People down here have a whole different way of talking. Everything’s just a bit more homespun.
The most obvious example is “y’all.” I heard it every once in a while in college–mostly from students originally from the South or more rural areas–and occasionally when I lived in Kansas. I hear it most days here, and I’m still not used to it. Personally, I refuse to say it even though it’s much quicker than saying “you guys.”
Frankly, I’m afraid, if I say it and return home, a guy with a mustache and Chicago accent is going to bust me in the knee cap with a pipe wrench for being a traitor.
My irrational fears aside, I swear I’ve never heard the word “baby” more in my life. Everyone is “baby” here. It’s the go-to pet name for couples. It even extends to families, as in, “you look sick, baby” when talking to a child.
There are also little turns of phrases that seemed so very foreign to me when I moved here. For instance, when it rains while the sun is still out, people say “the devil is beating his wife.” I’m still not sure how that seems like a normal thing to bring up casually.
I had heard of Southerners’ propensity to say “bless his/her heart” before saying something passive aggressive or flat-out terrible (but in kind of a loving way?), and I can confirm that’s true. Also, until I lived here, I wasn’t aware you could “love on” someone.
Other popular expressions I’ve heard include “god/lord help,” “fixin'” and “right, fast/quick.”
4. Regional Products/Chains
It’s funny to think how naive I was when I left for college. The first time I needed groceries I asked where the nearest Jewel was. Some of you might know that Jewel is a supermarket chain mostly restricted to the Chicagoland area. Somehow, it hadn’t occurred to me that grocery stores are primarily regional by nature.
After college, I thought I would cease to be surprised by regional products/chains. No such luck apparently.
I had no idea what the hell a Dollar General was. Had you asked me a few years ago, I would have legitimately said “George Washington” (get it?). For the record, it’s like an even lower-rent Wal-Mart.
I also found a delicious beverage by the name of Cheerwine. Essentially, it’s cherry-flavored pop (which people don’t say down here, by the way) that you could also use to dissolve nails. I’ve found Southerners seem to have an affinity for super, saccharine drinks (e.g. sweet tea).
The South also offers more fast-food fried chicken options than the Colonel. I’m not kidding when I say there’s a Zaxby’s right next to a Bojangles in my town. I’m not entirely clear on why they seem to have been named by a clown.
There’s also some sort of meat product called livermush that looks about as appetizing as it sounds.
3. Southern Hospitality
“Southern hospitality” is a term used to refer to Southerners’ warm and sweet demeanor. I would have to agree with the stereotype, albeit with a few caveats.
It’s definitely true that people will greet you warmly here and want to chat with you. The majority of people I’ve met genuinely seem concerned about making a good impression. You definitely hear a lot of “sirs” and “ma’ams” in everyday conversation. There’s also the prevalent quirk of addressing some as Mr. [insert first name] or Miss [insert first name].
There was a part of me that didn’t believe it at first. I’m often skeptical (hence the journalism degree), and it just seemed like it might not be 100 percent genuine. Additionally, because I’m an insecure artistic type, I thought I might be missing something. Perhaps the people I was interacting with were secretly judging me?
My instincts weren’t completely unfounded. From what I’ve experienced, it’s been so ingrained to be a gracious host that some people won’t speak what’s really on their minds. Sometimes people go so out of their way not to rock the boat that any issues between two parties never get resolved. At least, not face to face.
It leads to a lot of passive aggressive talk behind closed doors and gossip.
There also tends to be the perception that Northerners are rude or less than gracious. Naturally, I disagree but can see how that stereotype might come about. I think it’s related to two things.
One, people from New England or Chicago or Detroit or Cleveland, etc… will say what’s on their minds. Often, loudly. They’re less concerned with pleasantries and more concerned with expressing their opinions, even if they ruffle a few feathers. It’s not that they’re rude, it’s that they don’t want to deal with any pretenses.
Two, you have to understand that, outside of metro areas in what Woodward calls “Yankeedom,” many of the forefathers of these places were Calvinists and Lutherans. However, in the South, evangelical Baptists and Methodists are more common.
The difference being, Calvinists and Lutherans are taught to be quiet and keep their heads down. You do what’s right without making a show of it. On the other hand, there is some sort showmanship to Southern hospitality due to the evangelical presence in the region. Hell, I even saw some of it at a funeral I attended recently. A funeral.
Essentially, Northerners are either too loud and opinionated or they exhibit a reserved demeanor that is mistaken for aloofness. It’s a no-win game. Unfortunately, for me, I seem to shift between the two–never hitting that Southern sweet spot.
2. Religion and Politics
In the interest of self-preservation down here, I typically give religion and politics a wide berth. I’m probably someone who FOX News would paint as a typical godless, secular, liberal, socialist, elitist–or, if you kick it old school, a pinko commie.
Simply put, the climate here is a lot more religious and lot more conservative than to what I’m accustomed. I moved to North Carolina from Kansas, so I’m not exactly shocked. But, during my time there, I lived in Manhattan–a university town. It and Lawrence were bastions of liberal thought in a very red state.
Right now, I’m living in an area that seems to be very much behind the current governor, Pat McCrory. He’s someone who, ideologically speaking, I disagree with almost completely. Going over his legislative track record, I groaned at almost every major decision he’s made. Again, in the interest of self-preservation and future employment opportunities, I’ll stop there.
It would be cheap and easy to paint everyone here as racist, sexist and homophobic. However, whether you want to accept it or not, that stuff happens everywhere.
Lest you think this list is made up completely of gripes, I saved the best for last.
The food down here is amazing, even if it’s not the healthiest in the world. Who doesn’t love a barbecued pig? I mean besides vegetarians, who don’t really count anyway.
Seriously, if I didn’t want to live past 50, I would eat pulled pork every day. And the sauces! There are distinct regions of barbecue here that all come with their own sauces. Luckily, I live in an area where most barbecue joints offer the different styles, including eastern (vinegar and pepper), Lexington/Piedmont (vinegar and tomato) and midland South Carolina (mustard and vinegar).
Then there are Southern soul food standards. I’ve been lucky enough to experience authentic dishes such as fried chicken, collard greens, green beans, baked mac n’ cheese, hushpuppies, cornbread, biscuits, grits and gravy. I didn’t have much of taste for these things before I moved here because I was only familiar with low quality knock offs. After having the real deal, there’s no turning back.
Those of you familiar with geography might be aware that North Carolina has a coastline. That means fresh seafood in addition to barbecue and soul food. I ate the best piece of tuna and the freshest shrimp I’ve ever had at, essentially, a shack by a dock–not at an upscale sushi restaurant in the city.
People here also seem to have an unnatural attachment to their neon, vaguely citrus flavored pop. Seriously, at my local Wal-Mart, half the aisle is dedicated to different varieties of Sun Drop, Mountain Dew and Mountain Lightning (Wal-Mart’s generic brand).
You have to know about the beer, too! Due to the abundance of regional produce breweries put blueberries and peaches into their beers. I know, I know…it seems unnatural. It seems weird. Until, you have a cold SweetWater Blue on a warm summer day. It really hits the spot.
Speaking of booze, you remember the religious stuff I mentioned earlier? Well, it’s affected the liquor laws and the general perception of alcohol. Unlike Illinois or Missouri, hard liquor isn’t sold in grocery stores or gas stations. It has to be sold in government alcohol beverage control stores, or ABCs.
You also have to wait until noon on Sundays to buy alcohol, which must be some sort of penance for religious folks. The only thing worse than getting up for church on Sunday morning is getting up and not being able to slam a few bloody marys before Minister Whatshisnuts’ sermon.
Among certain people (read conservative religious), there still seems to be a stigma attached to alcohol, too. Much like Kansas, where I lived previously, the temperance movement is still going strong in some areas. A co-worker told me that people in her town will go to the ABC in a different town just so someone they know won’t see them.
I guess I can deal with some inconveniences buying booze if it means I get to keep cramming ribs and pulled pork into my maw, though.
And those are some of the many things I’ve experienced during my Southern sojourn. At times it’s been difficult to be so easily marked as an outsider. When I look back, though, I’m sure I’ll remember this time fondly.