Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Well bless my heart!

posted Mon, 07 Aug 2006

At boot camp this morning, Kevin asked, “Did you go to Rice?”

“Yes,” I answered, puzzled. “How did you know that?” Then I realized I was wearing a visor that says “Rice” on it. “Oh! My hat! I’m not very smart in the morning,” I joked.

Roberta chimed in. “I used to work with a guy who said one day, ‘I don’t understand why everyone here seems to know me and I don’t know them.’ We had to explain to him that his name was on his uniform, bless his heart.”

In the South, ”bless his heart” is the license to say anything you want to about someone and have it not count as being mean. “He just cain’t hold his liquor, bless his heart” or “she looks just like her uncle Bubba, bless her heart” would be considered malicious statements that translate as “he’s a drunk” and “she’s as ugly as sin” but as long as you soften them with “bless his/her heart,” you’re OK. Note that you say this about someone.

I don’t think you’re allowed to say it to someone’s face, but I’m not from here and I don’t know all the rules. I don’t remember if anyone’s ever said “Bless your heart” to me, but now I’m going to be on the lookout for it. If someone does, I will know to be insulted. If it happened, I probably thought, “Well, isn’t she sweet! What a nice thing to say!” And there I was, being figuratively slapped in the face while the speaker smiled sweetly at me the whole time.

Who knows what unspoken social code – a code specific to the South – probably specific the Memphis, maybe even the neighborhood I live in – I had broken to merit such treatment? I’ll never know. It’s not like there is a handbook they give you when you move here – “The Rules of Living in The South.” You just have to fumble your way through and find an insider friend, like Leigh from Alabama, to be your guide and even she doesn’t know the Memphis-specific rules, because as she says, she’s not from here, she’s only lived here for ten years.

Tony, who is from Arkansas, said that his mama and her friends felt completely free to gossip madly as long as they prefaced the fest with, “We need to pray for…,” as in “We need to pray for Wanda. Her husband done run off with another woman to Florider.”

“You’ve never heard such talks as they would have,” he said. “Anything was allowed as long as they said, ‘We need to pray for’ first.”

There are more direct ways of condemning behavior. “Bless his heart” and “We need to pray for” are reserved for things that are more out of someone’s control, like inherited traits, or things that happen to someone. But deliberate actions, like bad manners, require a different turn of phrase. That’s where “she doesn’t have any home training” comes in. You would use this phrase for someone who talks throughout a movie, who lets her cellphone ring in church or who doesn’t bring anything to a potluck.

Again, it’s not something you say directly to the offender; it’s something to be said to another observer of the situation or later when you are telling the story to a girlfriend or your mother. Then you drop your voice and say, almost apologetically, “She just doesn’t have good home training.” There can’t be any indignation in telling the story, indeed, there must be a note of sorrow. How distressed you are that this person doesn’t know any better than to conform to the proper rules of society. Obviously, it’s not her fault. She wasn’t raised properly. Her mother didn’t teach her. This is sad, sad, sad. We must pity her, not condemn her. But everyone understands. She’s a jerk and is not acting right.

Megan in Minneapolis writes that the vocabulary is a bit different up Nort, but the subtext is the same:

For example, if you cut in front of a Minnesotan in line at The Gap, the victim is likely to smile primly, wait until you leave the store, and then say something to the clerk at the cash register like "Some people's children Eh?" The translation of which, is understood by all parties to mean: "Did you get a load of that guy? What a freaking a-hole!" And then people nod their heads in agreement while going about their business.

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