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May 01, 2012


Have you ever read Desmond Tutu saying one of the defining moments of his life was Trevor Huddleston doffing his hat to Tutu's mother: a gesture of respect from a white priest to a black South African domestic worker.

A curious case of fine distinction can be found in Victor Hugo's Toilers of the Sea.
The inhabitants of Guernsey split up the conventional 'monsieur' into three levels 'sieur', 'mess', and 'monsieur'. Even the lowest of these has to be earned and there seems to be not a single person of 'monsieur' rank on the island at the time of the novel. One main character has managed to become 'mess' (by establishing the first steamboat company) but his true and secret ambition is to master the last step. The islanders take the topic so seriously that the titles become in essence part of the name. Before the chapter where Hugo explains it a non-French reader can be easily misled into believing that 'sieur' and 'mess' are actually the given names of the characters.
When I read the book for the first time as a youngster, I was quite puzzled about how such a thing could be of so great importance that it can drive the plot of such a heavy bore* novel (I was naturally more interested in the adventure yarn and especially the big cephalopod fight). It took me a while to appreciate that the book is primarily a (masterful) discussion about respect, self-respect and lack thereof that puts into contrast the actual value of a person and the perception of the environment.

*some might consider these parts also to be quite boring. But as with the Hunchback of Notre Dame the essence of the book is not the action but the author's reflections (another reason why film adaptions og Hugo tend to fall flat or are pure second-rate cloak-and-dagger)

One of the reasons that Japanese probably has a paucity of curse words that translate so blandly is because of politeness. Basically, if you want to insult someone, you basically want to distance yourself from them. The way that Americans are most accustomed to is to try and reduce the status of the addressee. But distance is distance and elevating someone by changing your language from informal to formal has the same basic effect. I think it is telling that you say in relation to elevating someone, you are 'mocking' them, because in English, it is very difficult to use that distancing thru politeness in any way buy ironical, but it is very much something in the arsenal of a Japanese speaker. It is also compounded by the fact that words that don't carry any notion of status differences between the speaker and the addressee often carry them in Japanese. Something like give and receive have different lexical items that tell you precisely whether something is being 'bestowed' on you, or if it is being 'offered up' to you, and you can then add suffixes to further sharpen that meaning. I would love to know how the language is used in exchanges with people who are actually regarded as underclass (the burakumin would be an example of this) but I think it would require native level fluency coupled with an ability to view social relations as a completely neutral observer.

I don't remember who I'm paraphrasing, but that's what made some men "gentlemen" - they weren't gentle, but rather, you had to be gentle to them or you'd get murdered.

When Rep. Joe Wilson yelled out "You lie!" to Barack Obama, while the rude one's utterance at least had the forthrightness of direct disrespect, what I would have given if the President had called up the house lights and enunciated very carefully "In Kenya, they call me Mister Tibbs!".

I harp, but in Southern writer Walker Percy's "Love In The Ruins, the protagonist Dr. Thomas More observes:

"Was it the nigger business from the beginning ? What a bad joke: God saying, here it is, the new Eden, and it is yours because you're the apple of my eye; because you the lordly Westerners, the fierce Caucasian-Gentile-Visigoths, believed in me and in the outlandish Jewish event. . . . so I gave it all to you, gave you Israel and Greece and science and art and the lordship of the earth, and finally even gave you the new world that I blessed for you. And all you had to do was pass one little test, which was surely child's play for you because you had already passed the big one. One little test: here's a helpless man in Africa, all you have to do is not violate him. That's all."

Faulkner's "original sin", but lacking the pith. Percy tried to step out from under Faulkner's towering literary shadow, but there it is.

In other of Percy's novels ("The Moviegoer", "The Last Gentleman", The Second Coming", for example), the white characters and the black characters, the latter mostly still servants of a sort, for the most part retain the echoes of the old caste system daily ancestral discourse, the signals and the winking and humoring, described by Dollard, but Percy has his protagonist's observe that the two really had nothing to say to each other any longer, not yet able to carry on in the smaller talk in their new roles as equals among men.

And women, but Percy too was a product of his time and place, so another day for that subject.

Don't want to hijack this thread to be one about Walker Percy, but just in case the Count (or anyone else) doesn't know, Walker Percy's was adopted by Will Percy, whose own dealings with African Americans reveal that 'original sin' ran.

With the Mississippi flood waters covering the entire Delta, the Greenville levee was the only high, safe place for thousands of refugees. The vast majority of the people stranded on the levee were African Americans, and they were desperate for food, potable drinking water and shelter. Will, raised by his father to care for African Americans and the less fortunate out of a sense of noblesse oblige and family honor, believed the only decent course of action was to evacuate the refugees.

His decision could not have been more at odds with the views of Greenville's planters. Petrified that once the refugees left, they'd never return, angry planters went straight to Will's father and denounced the decision to evacuate. Will's father sided with the planters over his son and put a stop to the evacuation.

From that day forth, Will Percy's leadership of the flood relief committee faltered. African Americans were virtually imprisoned on the levee and forced to work at gunpoint. Many refugees believed their treatment was comparable to slavery. Investigations would later show that the conditions in the Greenville camp were far and away the worst of any refugee site. On August 31, four months after the flood overran Greenville, Will resigned from his post. He sailed for Japan the very next day.

With LeRoy Percy's death in 1929, Will slowly emerged from his father's shadow, took charge of the family and became a patron of the arts. Over the course of his life he did much to improve conditions for African Americans in Washington County: he paid for the college education of young African Americans; allowed his tenants to buy their own land; protected them from police brutality; and ran his commissaries at cost. But he was never able to treat African Americans as his equals or restore the trust the African American community once had in the Percy family.

Will Percy's fate (or reputation, or both, depending on how one looks at these things) was sealed when he used police to round up African Americans to unload the relief boats and one of them was killed, and Percy had to address the refugees and ended up giving a speech castigating the African Americans for their ingratitude. An excerpt from his autobiography contains that speech that Percy made as well as this passage that strangely combines equal measures of self-awareness and moral blindness.

To live habitually as a superior among inferiors, be the superiority intellectual or economic, is a temptation to dishonesty and hubris, inevitably deteriorating. To live among a people whom, because of their needs, one must in common decency protect and defend is a sore burden in a world where one's own troubles are about all any life can shoulder... Yet such living is the fate of the white man in the South. He deserves all the sympathy and patience he doesn't get. Poor as his result have been they are better than any wise realist could have anticipated.

It is said that race relations in the South are improving because lynching has declined to the vanishing-point and outbursts of violence against the Negro are almost unknown. It should be noted, however, that the improvement, if improvement there is, is due solely to the white man.

The Delta problem is how all these folks -- aristocrats gone to seed, poor whites on the make, Negroes convinced mere living is good, aliens of all sorts that blend or curdle -- can dwell together in peace if not in brotherhood and live where, first and last, the soil is the only means of livelihood. Most of our American towns, all of our cities, have their unsolved problem of assimilation. But the South's is infinitely more difficult of solution. The attempt to work out any sort of one, much less a just one, as a daily living problem, diverts the energies and abilities of our best citizenship from more productive fields. A certain patience might well be extended to the South, if not in justice, in courtesy.

A lady from Georgia once explained this to me. "When we say 'Bless your little heart!" what that means is 'It sucks to be you!'"

Sometimes, what someone says doesn't actually mean what the words say. In fact, it can mean exactly the opposite of that the words say.

"I don't remember who I'm paraphrasing, but that's what made some men "gentlemen" - they weren't gentle, but rather, you had to be gentle to them or you'd get murdered"

I got on a jag of reading about Doc Holliday, for some reason a while ago. He was a Southerer from a relatively well-off slave owning family. He was also consistantluy described by people who knew him--even those who disliked him--as very polite.

However that Southern "courtesy" was really a profound disrespect for nearly everyone. The SOuthern gentleman was courteous not because he respect the person with whom he interacted, but out of a sense of pride in himself. By being politie to everyone the Southern gentleman could appear superior to everyone in his own eyes. That is, according to one of the history books I read.

This "courtesy" and "good manners" was often coupled, as in the case of Doc, with a willingness to shoot people over perceived issues of "honor" (vanity? dominance? ego? revenge?)

Well as a Northerner is all look like a lot of self-serving bullocks. It also liked it might be the mindset behind the murder of Trayvon Martin, although people who shoot other people out of a need to feel heroic don't have to confine their targets to people of other races.

Well, I'm wanderig here. any way all that Southern gentleman vanity/honor/faux courtesy crap from Doc's day--is it still around?

Laura, a number of Southern politicians still use the model. For the most part I think it is a tool to draw (false) contrast(s) between themselves (good Southern GOPsters) and their opponents (evil Washingtonians, liberals, Demon-rats etc.). But few manage to keep up the appearance consistently. The mask slips easily (occasionally rising to the level of threats of bodily harm). I guess the gentlemen of old* would look at them with the same disgust as we do at a minstrel show (as opposed to e.g. a good performance of Othello).

*when even monsters had to have some standards

"Well as a Northerner is all look like a lot of self-serving bullocks."

Well, as a Southerner, it all looks like a cultural norm that evolved from a race/class based paradigm to courtesy and good manners being the accepted norm we teach our kids without regards to race or status. At 56 I am still most comfortable in addressing people as sir and maam out of respect, regardless of age, race or status, without a hint of irony. The only time I have ever been chastised for it was when I moved to the north and people were suspicious of someone being courteous.

Very confusing for an old country boy.

But bless your little heart for trying to understand.

Agree, CCDG.

I hadn't realized that the good Southern manners of calling people Sir and Ma'am, Mister and Mrs., also involved being careful *not* to use them for the wrong sort of people. Respect only counted if it was *not* universal.

Now notice that now that we only under rare circumstances address people with sir/madam/mr./mrs., and it's generally people who are of a previous generation that would tend to insist on it. Without a designated "unrespected class", there seems to be no point on titles of respect at all.

I suspect this is where a lot of the hostility to gay marriage is coming from. To many people, marriage might seem like a mutual agreement between two loving people. But if your understanding of relationships is entirely hierarchical, then you view marriage as a means of proclaiming that you have "achieved" something that those who cannot/will not marry have not. In short, marriage for them is a means of proclaiming your superiority to gays and spinsters. If gays can marry, then for them, their marriage really does become meaningless, and they fear that without the designated "unmarriageable class", no one will want to get married at all, in the same way that people eschew titles now that there's no "untitled class."

After doing four years of involuntary servitude, I reserve my sirs and mams for those who have done me a courtesy and rarely anyone else.

CCDG I was referring to historical behavior. Specifically the superficial good manners coupled with the honor/fighting thing which was discussed in a couple history books and a historical novel concerning the post war behavior of members of the former ruling class of the South such as Doc Halliday. One of the stories about Doc is that he shot at several black children for swimming in a swimming hole that he and several friends used--but he was polite to them before he shot at them. The courtesy was a form of self respect, even self aggrandizement, a way of asserting superiority.

I don't see this as necessarily connected to Sirring and Ma'aming people. I ASKED if it was relevant to today's South. I didn't assume it was.
But then I don't see Siring and Ma'aming people as being necesarily connected to good manners either. Seems to me that genuine good manners comes from behaving toward others with empathy and thoughfulness, regardless of what verbal rituals are manifested.
I person with good manners would be willing to share the swimminghole.

For a long time (Edwardian, Victorian, Regency)in England "good manners" in the upper classes were more of an indicator of the well-mannered person's sense of inate superiority than an actual display of empathy or consideration toward others. People of the upper classes invested a lot of time and care into raising their children to display certain behaviors as class markers, including knowing how to speak to servants and "inferiors" politely but with the correct degree of distance--distance as in higher position on a hierarchy. Also how to speak to other inferiors such as tradesmen, white collar professions who didn't have the right ancestors, the new rich who didn't have the right ancestors, etc.

They even spoke openly of "breeding", referring to themselves with the same language one could use to discuss horses or dogs. All that controlled, politie behavior came from a very rude sense of being better that everyone else and was used to show why the political and economic systems of the time should favor them to the detriment of others.

I don't think that all this has much to do with the South now, although i don't live there and have little knowledge one way or the other. However I do think it has a great deal to do with the role of Southern graciousness before and after the Civil War. During thse historical eras displays of good manners by the people with the most economic and political power were used to bolster a sense of inate superiority which was used to justify the continuation of systems which favored them and abused many other people.

Mark Twain's depictions of Southern life are full of references to this dynamic. There's also references to lower clas white people engaging in psuedo-aristo displays of politieness as a means of social climbing or, ont he other hand, revealling their lower position by being uncouth. It's all agaisnt the background of a society that was profoundly corrupted by a very rude
of behavior: racism.

Which is not to say the northern Robber Barons with their pretentions to European-style aristo behavior were any better really in their attitudes toward other Americans. They may have had a parallel sense of the need to display politie behavior tro show the inate superiority which justified their Robber Baron behavior. When I read Edith Wharton books, I wsn't thinking about this and it's been years. It wouldn't surpise me, though.

Of course our modern Robber Barons, such as the Koch brothers, do't use their manners to claim superiorty to justify abusive ehavior; they claim the inferiorty of others and lie about their desire to institutionalize abusive behavior!

Laura, I was being alternately defensive and, in my last line, witty.

I think this:

Specifically the superficial good manners coupled with the honor/fighting thing which was discussed in a couple history books and a historical novel concerning the post war behavior of members of the former ruling class of the South such as Doc Halliday.

was a more generic American, dating back to European, cultural phenomenon. Or shorter, not so much just Southern. The courtesy and manners of duels, for example, in the aristocracy far preceed the south. Although I can envision the original Southern intent in mimicking this behavior.

I was primarily responding to the question, manners, courtesy and, extended, less clearly defined gentility, are expectations in the South. It is true that not having them is still in some ways considered a class marker. The difference between poor and poor white trash, or new and old wealth are examples.

I was raised in a culture where, paraphrasing, being poor didn't mean you had to have no class. There was an open recognition that, for example, rich people were as apt to be as classless as anyone else, and uneducated and poor didn't mean uncouth.

Today, I see it as marker of self respect, rather than vanity etc. Despite the trials and injustices of life, one can be courteous and civil and demand respect as an individual by providing it in return.

(I am not rereading this so you should take it as a train of thought in a discussion rather than something I have spent hours thinking through, which means I am fine to have some of this challenged and continue to think through it some more)

I think that your take on manners is accurate, Laura. I wasn't raised to say ma'am or sir to everyone, and I don't care whether people use the terms or not. I do confess by being appalled by bad table manners, especially when they're displayed by someone I am associated with - to me it's a sign of "bad upbringing," and my attitude probably stems from some of the class-based history that Laura recites. Still, it's part of my psyche.

But back to the ma'am and sir business, I live in the south and many people I know (regardless of race) have taught their children to address people that way. It makes absolutely no difference in terms of who people really are, how genuine they are, etc. - it's just a matter of whether they were exposed to that custom. In that sense, to me, it's a charming regionalism and nothing more.

It's interesting though to understand why "manners" matters, and the dark side of Emily Post.

Certainly manners can be used to separate and even to insult, but it's also instructive to consider how Americans of the 18th and perhaps later were often considered in polite European society to be "rough-hewn, but charming frontiersmen" despite their lack of conventional manners. The question of how the outsider interacts when he doesn't know the rules is kind of interesting - if you don't realize that you're being insulted in Japan, does that change the interactions? Similarly, if you decide to ignore insults and simply continue along obliviously, does the insulter lose points? The whole thing about manners and social interactions, with their local and specific rules seems to be just one more of the tribal recognition rituals we all like to have, whether it's Shriners or people from the same club or the old neighborhood. Sure sometimes there are unspoken rules about how and when and why to use phrases for either good or bad effect, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

There were quite large differences in Europe too. And to a degree it even survived WW1 and the end of nobility as an institution. It is part of my dislike for Austria and its* inhabitants (as if the accent was not bad enough). Even today it seems to be an essential part of 'good' upbringing to install a fine-tuned class detector with default reactions based on the readings (and always ready to change behaviour in split-seconds if the reading turned out wrong). In other countries the old elites usually kept to either 'always rude' or 'always (over)polite'. Often public officials (and certain types of clerks) followed the same style.

*deliberatly chosen pronoun

Laura, I think that social Darwinism and the whole notion of bloodlines is something that so permeated Western (and American) society that it is a bit unfair to use that as evidence against the South.

MrToad wonders if the insultee is oblivious to the insult, does it mean that the insulter loses. If it is just a situation where it is the insulter and the insultee, perhaps, but usually, the insulter is playing to an audience of his or her peers, and the remark is delivered to draw on their agreement.

Going back to Laura's comments, the amount of time that we humans have lived with the possibility of not taking family and tribal relationships into account has only been a tiny fraction of the amount of time of human recorded history, and no one is born to be able to take care of themselves makes it entirely understandable why these sorts of things are imprinted on us.

As I was wandering through my day today I kept thinking of politely-behaved ruling classes of various periods of history so I am tip-toeing up tpo a generalization: people who benefit from a system that serves their interests to the detriment of the interests of others are goig to want to justify this inequity to themsleves. Therefore they invent a narrative about their own superiority and invent markers to show their superiority, manners being one of them. I'm thinking of cultures as various as the Samurai and the Aztecs.

A couple of notes: I recognize the use of manners to show self respect rather than vanity. That's a real phenomenon.

I also tried not to suggest that the SOuth was EVIL EVIL EVIL. I do think slavery was worse than pre-labor union factory labor but not by much.

I am goig to venture on some spectrulation here. Both the North and the South have had ruling classes. (Still do!)Both classes have had narratives about themselves that justified thier abuses of power against other people in order to protect their position. Possibly both used manners as markers of their superiority. You sure get that impression from watching that movie about the guy who developed Facebook!

Here's my speculation: the historical influences are different, with the English aristocracy being the influence on the SOuthern ruling class and the Social Darwinism which has its roots inn the Calvinist doctrine of predestination beingthe influence in the NOrth. (Not that Southerners are never Calvinists or Northerner never wannabe English aristocrats.)

That's a possibility Laura, but the use of manners and politeness seems to also be a way to prevent the strongest from running over everyone. There is a large measure of self interest, in that it pays to be polite because when that person is declining, they can demand that same politeness returned. I agree that it can be a way of enforcing a certain hierarchy, but by prescribing (and proscribing) the ways people interact, it serves the purpose of permitting people who may not function well in a race to the top.

CCDG wrote above:

"At 56 I am still most comfortable in addressing people as sir and maam out of respect, regardless of age, race or status, without a hint of irony. The only time I have ever been chastised for it was when I moved to the north and people were suspicious of someone being courteous."

Yes, but Dobe, Maynard and I remember your manners as an ingratiating young man toward northern girls originating in a more desperate longing:


One function of the 'manners' has also been to have a high entrance bar. The system of etiquette was highly elaborated and it took years to learn it. The inferior classes would simply lack time and means to do so. This gave those that mastered it both a sense of superiority and an easy way to spot intruders. World literature is full of stories about people playing that game. And a few even make the effect on the players themselves the topic ([i]Pygmalion/My Fair Lady[/i] and [i]Great Expectations[/i] as two prominent examples).

To the manor or manner born.

All manure, if you ask me ;-)

"because in English, it is very difficult to use that distancing thru politeness in any way but ironical"

This seems wrong to me. I've seen people decline to use a first name and stick with e.g. Professor Moriarty in a way that clearly indicated polite dislike, rather than irony. The "excess" of courteous formality sharpened the dislike quite perceptibly.

Back to the subject of "Sir" and "Ma'am"

A few years ago I had an experience involving students,a new treacher, and the teacher's insistance that the students address her as "Ma'am". She sais that she was from the South and raised to believe that "Ma'am" was just a matter of courtesy.

The kids were not Southerners and did not see it that way. They were raide to address her as "Mrs." plus last name. They reacted about the way I would react if I got a boss who expected me to courtsy.

All of the kids objected, but it was the black kids who just could not handle "Ma'am." I don't recall anyone bringing up racism, but I think the term did havde those sorts of connotations: the big white house, the Massa and his lady, all that Gone With the Wind stuff.

That's true Laura, but that is at the onset when the people are locating themselves in a social space. 'May I call you Jim?' 'No, please address me as Dr. Smith'.

In Japanese, you can sometimes hear someone who has used a more relaxed form of address shift into a more polite form precisely to make it clear that they are not happy with something the person did. I don't think you can do that after you have already established your locations in social space in English.

In German the 'du' (informal 'you') is traditionally offered. It can be politely declined to keep the distance. To withdraw it on the other hand is equal to a declaration of war.
At school the official rule is that up to 9th grade the teacher uses 'du' and the kids 'sie'. From 10th grade on the teacher has to use 'sie' too.
Interestingly, a single drawn out 'Sie!' is an insult and a 'sie' before an insulting word is far stronger than a 'you' in the same situation.

"I don't think you can do that after you have already established your locations in social space in English."

You can, but it tends to be more emphasized in tone and shift.

For example,

"John, please quiet down."
"Mr. Jones, if you are done discussing your weekend plans?"
"John Juniper Jones, you will stop your jibber-jabber!"

A bit silly but I'm feeling as such.

That's an interesting counterexample. However, I think the two examples are from a superior (either a teacher or a parent), so they have a bit more scope to move people below them into the categories they want, especially children and students. My intuition is that this would sound very strange if you were a college teacher and had some older students, and you generally addressed them on a first name basis, and the older student was not paying attention, and you wanted to use a shift in address to deal with it.

I'm trying to imagine an episode of "The Sopranos" set in the south as described. Thus Tony Soprano has been disrespected...

"Bless MY little heart?! No, bless YOUR little heart, MISTER Calipari!"

lj: Pertaining to your comment above regarding Will Percy --

--- read Walker Percy's essay "Stoicism in the South", collected in "Stranger in a Strange Land", which is a sort of gentle condemnation of his Uncle Will's values regarding race and a challenge to the South as a whole to let the old honor-soaked Roman-Stoic ethos (which was the root of their resentment of Negro -- in the parlance of the time -- insolence and ingratitude when rights demanded were not granted) go.

Instead, from Percy's Catholic Christian point of view, these rights were sacred and must be accorded to each individual. Whether the squires had their honor satisfied by being thanked for their generosity was beside the point.

Walker Percy, while defensive regarding the South's sins if confronted by northerners (things are more complicated then they thought), all the same worked (as did his brother) to combat the Citizens' Councils and the idiotic restoration of Confederate trappings (the flag in schools, for example) in public life.

Percy hated Franklin D. Roosevelt, believed abortion to be murder, and was acerbic in his novels regarding homosexuality (his Uncle Will's "bachelor-hood" notwithstanding), but he had no use for "peckerwoods" and demagogic false prophets.

A complicated individual.

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