Dana Mason, who teaches second grade in Birmingham, says manners have been at the lowest level she has seen in her 36 years in the classroom. Parents who move South tell her they don’t want their children to learn to say “yes, sir” or “yes, ma’am.” Too demeaning, they say.
But she and others point out that manners are on the slide everywhere. Mrs. Mason blames a faster pace of life and the demise of the home-cooked family meal.
“You don’t need to know all your social graces to sit down at McDonald’s and eat a burger and fries,” she said.
Keepers of Southern civility maintain that manners will always be a defining characteristic of the region.
One of them is Dorothy McLeod, 70, of Augusta, Georgia, who has spent decades teaching thousands of children ballroom dance and etiquette through her program, Social Inc.
Mrs. McLeod attributes the slide of civility on the stress of families with two working parents and children who have not been held accountable for their actions.
But she is undaunted.
“I will not give up,” she said, firm in her belief that Southerners still want to raise children who are kind and well-mannered.
“They must,” she said, “or my classes wouldn’t be full.”
I tell you what, I am thrilled that my children will be raised in a culture where the “yes ma’am” and “yes sir” habit we’ve inculcated in them is supported by the culture. Really, I am a hoary fundamentalist on that point. If Yankee parents don’t want their children to be brought up saying that, then hey y’all, move your butts back across the Mason-Dixon line. This thing goes very deep with most Southerners. When I was a kid, it was an occasion of family shame if a child failed to observe this social grace. Black or white, rich or poor, to say “yeah” to an elder was a sure sign that you had been badly raised, and caused others not to think bad of you so much as to think what a shame it was that your Mama and Daddy didn’t teach you better.
I wonder, though, to what extent the cultural value of respect for elders encoded in that habit is passing in large Southern cities. I would count it a great loss if it went away, not only because it is something that makes Southerners regionally distinctive, but more importantly because it is a small but important way to stand athwart the ongoing vulgarization of American life and say, “Stop!” But I know it gives Northerners the hives. A friend who teaches in a Northern university once mentioned to me that he had a black student from the South who addressed him as “sir,” and this really put him off. I suggested that he try to be tolerant of it if he could manage, because that student was raised in a culture where this kind of thing goes much deeper than he, the professor, can imagine. For the kid to stop saying “sir” to his professor would require him to pretty much violate his conscience. It would at least be an emotionally difficult thing for him to do, because all his life he’s heard from his mother that showing respect for one’s elders requires this form of address.
Then again, it’s true, this student is studying up North, and he should respect the customs of the place. Still, it would be nice if we all defaulted to the more courteous practice.
I know, I know, Southern manners can conceal nastiness, injustice, and even cruelty. They can be a highly polished form of lying with a smile on one’s face. Yet I much prefer them to the alternative. The code of manners provides a way for people to navigate difficult social situations without resorting to violence, verbal or otherwise. They are not only beautiful, they are useful.
UPDATE: And another thing: What Northern parents who think “ma’am” and “sir” demean their children don’t understand is that to the contrary, this habit ennobles them. It shows them to be young people who respect others. Of course it also reinforces hierarchy — in this case, almost always a hierarchy of age (that is, only the most formal young person would say “yes sir” to someone his own age, and then only in a setting in which the two are strangers; even then it would be archaic; a younger person still says “sir” and “ma’am” to a significantly older person with whom they are intimately familiar. The difficult thing is trying to decide if a 30 year old should address a 50 year old that way. It’s one of those things where you just kind of have to feel your way through it. You can never go wrong erring on the side of courtesy, though.