Southern hospitality is a funny thing, drugstore to me. Or rather, bronchi it’s funny to me that it’s a thing, drugs at all. Yes, the “people of the south” (I’m referring specifically to the U.S.) are very nice. But in my experience as a traveler, people are “nice”–and not nice–everywhere.
Maybe it comes from the perspective my mother gave to me. She’s a New Yorker. Born in Queens. Lived in New England the first half of her life. To Mom, and subsequently to me, the stereotype that New Yorkers are “mean” is just false, bordering on ridiculous. “New Yorkers aren’t mean… They just are in a hurry. Don’t waste their time, and they’ll do anything for you.” This paraphrased concept stuck with me since long before I began to travel. I live in Philadelphia, now: another big city with a reputation for people being cold, distant, rough, or mean. The truth is, there are nice people and there are jerks and there are law abiding citizens and criminals everywhere. It always amuses me (amuses is the wrong word… too dismissive. Intrigues me curiously?) When people come back from a trip to a new place, usually a big city, complaining about how cold and unfriendly the people were there. Oh? Where did you go? Times Square? Old City or South Street, Philadelphia? Faneuil Hall, Boston? The Strip in Vegas or Hollywood Boulevard? You mean… Where no one local to that city actually goes anywhere near? The nature of the average traveler is one of heightened tension and guardedness. Of mild xenophobia and paranoia. Traveling brings out some of the worst tendencies in many of us; our patience is low and our defensiveness and reactionary nature is high. The problem is that when we go to tourist-heavy places, we are surrounded almost entirely by people who are also on edge, and probably less friendly than they normally might be. This swirling pool of animosity, fear, and tension creates an atmosphere of unfriendliness that then feeds the unfair assessment that “people there are unfriendly.” No. You, the outsiders, are.
It’s hard to overcome this tendency to judge a place based on a small, non-representative cross section. But it’s worth a try. When I visit new places, I’ll do the touristy checklist, but I’ll also seek out the local dives, a city park or two, different neighborhoods where “the people” live. If it’s feasible, I’ll choose an Air B&B over a major hotel, and always a neighborhood gastropub over a chain restaurant. Watching the tourists with eyes to the sky can be entertaining. Watching the locals is an education on who and what the place really is all about.
The other issue we fight is that we tend to take things and interactions at face-value. If someone is frowning, they’re mean. If someone is waving or friendly, they’re nice. (Or maybe they want something). Sometimes the southern hospitality I’ve encountered has been genuine and pleasant. Other times there is a false hollowness behind a thin, unconvincing smile. The same as everywhere else. It’s neither bad nor good, and I certainly have no judgment about said experiences. When you lie for a living, even for entertainment purposes, you tend to sense shallowness and lack of genuineness pretty sharply. All I can do is nod and smile, widely and truly in return, then move along to the next town and the next people and onward to the next great adventure.