In the South, learning how to be a lady begins in childhood. Having grown up in Georgia, I remember from the time I could walk out of the door on my own, my mama always sent me off with the same two words—and those words were not “Have fun!” No, indeed. Her parting farewell was always: “Be nice!”
But being nice can be tricky, especially when from a young age you were also taught you should always tell the truth.
When my granddaughter Maggie was barely 4 years old, she was invited to accompany her mother to a ladies’ tea. The hostess graciously asked Maggie if she would like some punch. “Yes, ma’am,” my granddaughter answered, using her best manners just as her mama had advised.
After watching Maggie take a sip of the pink punch, the hostess then asked, “Well, how do you like it?”
There was a pause while my granddaughter sought an answer. She wanted to be nice, but she also knew she was supposed to tell the truth. Finally she replied, “Not my favorite.” Her answer brought laughter from the ladies. They knew it took years of practice to master the art of being nice without telling a boldfaced lie.
By adulthood, most Southern ladies have perfected this art. Say, for example, your best friend invites you to see the kitchen she has worked hard to paint a high-gloss sunshine yellow.
“Oh, no! Oh, no-o-o!” is your honest-to-goodness opinion. The brightness of the walls is almost blinding. But your friend is clearly delighted with the color she has applied. So to be nice, you employ the Southern sidestep.
“Wow!” you exclaim as if impressed, all the while scrambling in your purse in an attempt to find your sunglasses.
“Do you think it’s too bright?” asks your friend, a slight frown of concern across her face.
You release the grip on your sunglasses, knowing another step to the side is needed. “I truly think this shade of yellow reflects your bright and happy personality.”
Your friend is so pleased that you get who she is—it’s one of the reasons you have been friends for so long. “Thank you,” she says. And glancing around at her kitchen walls, smiling with joy, she adds, “Don’t you just love the color?”
There is a pause before you come up with an answer. Then you tell her, “I have to say that I honestly do.”
Technically, it is the truth. You did have to say it, because you love your friend and sincerely want her to be happy.
And because your mama taught you that you are always supposed to be nice.
Text by Ann Dorer
Illustration by Judy Jamieson
Former editor and consummate Southern lady Ann Dorer shares her reflections on life in our beloved region. For more of her thoughts, see her essay on Becoming a Southern Lady and previous post on her granddaughter Maggie’s pre-k graduation. Browse exclusive place cards that feature Judy Jamieson’s beautiful artwork in our online shop.
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