“Hi y’all did ya eat? Well, come on in, I’m sure glad to know ya” ‘Southern Voice’, written by Bob DiPiero and Tom Douglas, recorded by Tim McGraw
If you’re reading this and you’re not from the U.S., find a map, and take a look. Many of our states have more square miles than European countries. This is a big country, land-mass-wise, and although we have the word “United” in our name, we can be anything but. Now take the area of the U.S. and place it over what now constitutes the European Union. Are our differences making more sense now?
Even if you are aware of the differences, and claim to be open-minded, there’s still some push back. Me? I’m a west coast girl, born and bred. California, even. I didn’t even leave this coast to go to college, just moved up north aways to Washington for 4 years, then down to Oregon for another 15, and finally back home to California about 13 years ago. Oh, I’ve visited the east coast. I was in New York for 3 days in 1988. That was plenty (too big, too many people). I’ve never visited the mid-west, but would like to see Chicago (just not in winter or summer). In fact, the only non-west-coast destination I have visited in the U.S. that I really connected with is New Orleans – that was my only visit to the south (and I’ve had people tell me, both Louisianans and not that New Orleans both is, and isn’t, truly Southern).
I mean, really, we can’t even agree if a city is or is not truly Southern? Yes, that’s my country in a nutshell. We have these ideas about who we are, and who others are. Sometimes it’s that we think we do things, and are, better, sometimes it’s that we appreciate our differences. Chicago or New York style pizza? Wait, throw California in there too. Kansas City, Texas or Carolina bbq? Hot dogs, chili, clam chowder – all have regional twists and each thinks they do it the best.
In addition to each regional specialty there are the regional customs, and they can differ as much as say, the English, French and Greek. What is, or is not allowed in each region’s culture can be difficult to understand. (I once got to go to my French professor’s house for dinner, and when we very nicely tried to put our hands in our laps at the dinner table, as we were taught, we were sharply admonished that it was rude. Because if your childhood was spent in occupied France you assume that someone is keeping their hands under the table because they have a weapon.) Being raised in central California in the 70’s meant that my version of Emily Post’s Etiquette came from Sunset magazine and boiled down to “when guests come over make sure you have a drink ready for them”. Nothing was stilted or formal, even when using the good china. The best “nice” dinners were spent with extended family and even if my mother’s beloved Waterford crystal was being used there was a sense of casualness.
The Urban Dictionary defines “Southern hospitality” as such: “Showing graciousness, kindness, and warmth to others. Behavior that is altruistic.” I’m going to guess that regardless of where you were raised in the U.S., you understand the concept of Southern hospitality. If, like me, your first exposure to the south was in school and learning about, among other things, Brown v. Board of Education, or the Freedom Riders, or Letters from a Birmingham Jail, then those images and the notion of Southern hospitality can clash. And that’s okay. If there’s anything history, particularly recent history, has taught us it’s that human beings are complex, massively screwed up creatures, and the actions of a few even if they are a mob, do not define an entire people.
At it’s heart Southern hospitality is about making someone so welcome that you allow them to truly be themselves and know that’s all they need. That whoever they are is not only enough, but that it’s a gift. Come in (“Hi y’all”), let me feed you (“Did ya eat?”), it’s nice to meet you (“Well come on in, I’m sure glad to know ya.”) Feeding someone is the ultimate in hospitality, but I think we’re all aware that it can be done as a chore. Hospitality, Southern or otherwise, transforms a necessary chore into something more – a relationship.
We all have our own traditions of hospitality, and we might not understand others. I’m sure that somewhere in the world someone would be horrified by my yelling over to the neighbor’s husband, while he’s hanging Christmas lights, “Hey, want a beer?” But that’s hospitality too. I have a very elementary-school notion of hospitality: share and be nice. Pay attention. For the past couple of years I take my neighbor a cocktail on Shrove Tuesday. She’s a very devout Catholic. I am not. But I know that she’ll be observing Lent and that this will be her last cocktail for a while. I plan these these things out – and try to make it special. Yes, this is someone I know, but things like this happen all over the world, every day. and every time this occurs it forms a relationship. I spent a month in London in 1989 and one night in the pub that we claimed as “ours” (we had nearly every lunch and dinner there) a stranger heard our American accents and asked if he could buy our drinks. Being young and female, we were immediately suspicious until he explained that after the war he and his wife visited America (I don’t remember what state) and their car broke down. The owner of the shop they took it too invited them in for dinner and to stay the night. It almost seems a cliche, but isn’t it nice that an act of kindness can be a cliche, when so often it’s the acts of violence that seem the norm?
We’re still trying to find common ground within the continental U.S. (and don’t even get me started on the whole Northern California/Southern California thing…) so finding common ground with cultures around the world can seem daunting. It really isn’t. The first step to hospitality isn’t opening your door, it’s opening your mind. You might watch the news and see images from the Middle East and think you have no understanding until you realize that someone, somewhere in Iran, Lebanon or Jordan, is having their friends over for dinner tonight, and they are probably just as excited and are working just as hard at making everything perfect as you are.
In The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, author Claudia Roden, writes
The ultimate aim of civility and good manners is to please: to please one’s guest or to please one’s host. To this end one uses the rules strictly laid down by tradition: of welcome, generosity, affability, cheerfulness, and consideration for others. People entertain warmly and joyously. To persuade a friend to stay for lunch is a triumph and a precious honor. To entertain many together is is to honor them all mutually.
The rituals, language, and dishes offered are different – the meaning is the same. This is what we all share – this is our common language.
“If people are standing at the door of your house, don’t shut it before them” The new Book of Middle Eastern Cooking
Sometimes, just inviting someone in, friend or stranger, is enough. On November 13th, 2015, during the Paris attacks, the hashtag #porteoeverte (open door) was used to identify safe places for people to go if they were away from home. Shared on Twitter and on Facebook, it was the ultimate in hospitality. It’s easy to welcome your friends, harder to welcome strangers, the unknown. A blogger I follow posted it to let her readers in Paris spread the word, and got more than a few spiteful, downright stupid comments along the lines of “Oh that’s smart, let the terrorists know where you are.” In Otto Scharmer’s article “As Systems Collapse, Citizens Rize” he says that one of the automatic responses we might have to a breakdown or collapse is to revert to fear-based behavior – he uses the examples of direct violence or structural violence. Closing your door to strangers who may need your help, and belittling those who open their doors, is structural violence. It’s building a wall between yourself and “others”. On the other end of the spectrum, opening your door, opening your mind, opening a bottle of wine to share, helps to break down those walls. That’s the first step to understanding.
Anne Frank once famously wrote “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Open the door, find out.