- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 23, 2005

SAVANNAH, Ga. - At a cozy corner table of Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, Andreaand Roland Lemke sit elbow to elbow with complete strangers as the manager rings the bell at 11 a.m. and asks for bowed heads.

After the blessing, the Lemkes help pass bowls of fried chicken, creamed corn and collard greens around a table shared by men in suits and tattooed college students. After lunch, they carry their own dirty dishes to the kitchen.

At this popular Savannah eatery, a $13 lunch doesn’t just come with Southern hospitality. The customers are active participants.The Lemkes, recent transplants from Milwaukee, still are getting used to it.

“They’re incredibly gracious people,” said Mrs. Lemke, who retired a year ago with her husband to neighboring Hilton Head Island, S.C. “The first thing we noticed about the South is your presence is always acknowledged. Things can be terribly cold and hard in the North sometimes.”

Despite the negative stereotypes of English-mangling accents and entrenched racism, Southerners are proud to be pigeonholed for one trait: their manners.

Not everybody thinks a Southern upbringing gives folks an edge in etiquette. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that although 55 percent of Southern adults think they are more courteous than people in other regions, only 35 percent of Americans outside the South agree.

The Lemkes became believers after moving into their gated community just across the Savannah River. Whether riding in their car or hiring contractors to work on their home, theirs clearly wasn’t a Wisconsin welcome.

“As you’re driving down the street and people are jogging or walking, they all wave. And I don’t even know these people, for crying out loud,” Mrs. Lemke said. “I’m always addressed as ‘ma’am’ or ‘Mrs. Lemke.’ It drove me crazy when I was dealing with contractors. They never called me by my first name, even though I’d given them permission to do so.”

It is impossible to measure whether Southerners honestly have bragging rights when it comes to courtesy, but regional historians say the South definitely has a distinct culture of manners that grew from its small-town, agrarian settlements and flourished among the slave plantations of the 19th century.

Slavery established a Southern caste system of gross inequalities in which slave-owning white planters, poorer white farmers and black slaves saw rules of decorum, largely adopted from the English gentry, as essential to getting along.

“You had social classes, races and genders that were well-defined,” said Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. “Manners were what made the social system work amid all the possibility for conflict.”

Social courtesies, even if only surface-deep, played a key role in the racially tumultuous century between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act.

“After the dissolution of segregation, Southern manners have lived on as the benign part of more than 300 years of injustice,” said Edward L. Ayers, a Southern historian at the University of Virginia.

Today, the region’s reputation for graciousness has become a mass-marketing vehicle. States use the promise of Southern hospitality to promote themselves to tourists, who spent $149 billion — 27 percent of U.S. travel dollars — in the Southeast in 2003.

Travel South USA, a group promoting tourism in 12 Southern states, asked focus groups in Toronto in January to give their impressions of the South. It hoped to find a unifying theme for diverse destinations from the West Virginia mountains to Louisiana’s bayous.

More than anything, the Canadians thought of Southerners as gracious hosts, said Fran Poole, the industry group’s marketing director.

“A lot of us would like to get away from some of the stereotypical Southern things, but they still think of us in very stereotypical ways,” Miss Poole said. “So why fight that impression? Let’s use it to our advantage.”

Charleston, S.C., has boasted for a decade about its distinction as the nation’s best-mannered city. Etiquette guru Marjabelle Young Stewart has bestowed that title on the coastal city each of the past 10 years, based on letters from people gushing over its graciousness.

“Their manners match the beautiful weather,” said Mrs. Stewart of Kewanee, Ill., author of more than 15 etiquette books. “When you hear Charleston, oh — they’re so soft, so gentle.”

Ironically, the importance Southerners have placed on courtesy also might have made them more prone to acts of violence.

The South’s reputation for courtesy and its killing rates aren’t contradictory, said Mr. Ayers, author of a 1985 book, “Vengeance and Justice: Crime and Punishment in the 19th-Century American South.” Southerners tend to be thin-skinned. Insults a New Yorker would shrug off would be fighting words in Birmingham, Ala.

“We’re, if anything, very sincere. We really mean it when we say ‘ma’am,’” Mr. Ayers said. “We just take words very seriously, both of respect and disrespect. And that’s where a lot of this violence comes from.”

As the South catches up with the hectic, high-tech pace of a more homogenous America, is the region losing its grip on graciousness?

Lydia Ramsey, a Savannah consultant who teaches business etiquette across the country, thinks so. After eight years of instructing engineers, accountants, professors and charity workers in basic manners, spotting flaws and faux pas has become second nature.

“I can’t help but notice people with extremes in dress and table manners,” Mrs. Ramsey said over lunch at a crowded cafe, her fingertips resting on the edge of the table. “That guy behind you practically has his chin in his bowl.”

Growing up in Augusta, Ga., Mrs. Ramsey and her brother were drilled in details of decorum — how to shake hands, how to hold a knife and fork — by their physician father. She recalls him noting on a hot July day: “I saw Mrs. Bell downtown on Broad Street, and she wasn’t wearing any stockings.”

Etiquette lessons during Mrs. Ramsey’s upbringing often revolved around the family dinner table. She suspects our fast-food culture is partly to blame for slouchy manners in the South and elsewhere.

“I don’t know what the correct manners are for eating out of a McDonald’s bag,” Mrs. Ramsey said. “We’re holding on a little better in the South. But people are rushing around, not paying attention to things. I hear people say, ‘I don’t have time to be nice,’ and that’s unfortunate.”

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