Re-adapting to the Norms of Human Contact in the South

One of the things the South is famous for is its hospitality. Going hand-in-hand with that, it is generally known that people are, on the whole, friendlier here. Random strangers on the street will smile and wave at you, whereas in New York City, if you are walking on the street, your primary goal is to not make eye contact with anyone. Put in your earbuds, even if you’re not listening to anything, and if someone approaches you, ignore, ignore, walk faster, ignore.

I have to say, in my almost 8 years of living in New York, I got pretty good at the eye-contact avoidance, but I could never bring myself to ignore someone who was very clearly talking directly to me. Now, don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t stop and strike up a conversation with them, but if they were trying to hand me a flier, I at least said, “No thank you.” (Still no eye-contact of course.) So, I guess I half-way adapted.

Honestly, I don’t think I knew how good I had gotten at public social avoidance until we moved here. The realization process began when I noticed I was avoiding looking people in the eye. This included both people around me – no eye contact with this person coming toward me in the grocery store aisle – and people who I had a brief contact with, like the guy who apologized for bumping into my cart at the grocery store. (Big social hub, that grocery store.)

I think the first time I noticed something was a bit off I was at a Sheetz and a young gentleman held the door for me as I was leaving – he looked directly at me and smiled. I said, “Thank you,” of course, but as I was walking to my car, I all of a sudden had this feeling that I had just been rude to that man. It was a strange feeling considering I had engaged in the required niceties, but then I realized that I hadn’t looked at him when I said thank you. Do you have to stare people down when expressing thanks for a small gesture? Do you have to make eye contact every time? Are you socially deplorable if you don’t make the eye contact?!!! No, of course not. But when you really want to convey thanks to someone rather than just throwing it out as a formality, you make eye contact. Anyway, while I dragged this 2-second experience into a whole paragraph, the thought process about this experience didn’t take more than 5 minutes, and then I put the situation out of my mind.

That is until a few other things started happening. 

The first time I was purchasing something at a store and the cashier asked me if I had any plans that day, the New York public social avoidance kicked in and I thought why is this person asking me that? I responded, “No,” and just wrote it off as an anomaly.

But then it happened again.

And again.

One person even made the comment that I was “dressed up” when asking if I had plans that day. I was wearing a denim skirt, a t-shirt, and my Rays baseball hat. You be the judge, I guess, but I feel like we will all come out on the same side on that one. This is a level of Southern hospitality or whatever you want to call it that I have not experienced even in Florida, but apparently it is a thing here. 

Then, our neighbors actually came to our apartment to introduce themselves and welcome us. Just to give you some perspective on what a 180 this was, in our NYC apartment, there was a couple who moved in the same day as us, two apartments over from us – we were 1B, they were 1D – and we didn’t end up meeting or interacting with them until the wife and I were both at a Chabad event together 2.5 years later. (On a side note, this is no reflection on how awesome and nice our neighbors in NYC were. You just aren’t knocking on nearby apartment doors and introducing yourself to your neighbors up there.)

Finally, I was at – you guessed it – the grocery store, and after the cashier had rung up all my items, she asked me if I wanted to make a $1 donation to the local children’s hospital. I told her I would be happy to, and that was all she needed to strike up a conversation. She was excited to tell me all about how some of the NICU nurses from the hospital had been there yesterday to talk about their work and get people to donate. She went on to let me know that they even brought one of the diapers they use for the preemies and how small it was. But don’t think it ended there, folks. She then walked away from the cash register and over to the table with the children’s hospital display to get the little diaper and bring it back so I could look at it and confirm that it was, in fact, tiny. At this point, there were now two smiling ladies behind me waiting to get checked out and I was feeling the pull of wanting to move along so everyone could get on with their day, but not wanting to be rude to the cashier. 

And it was at this moment – right at the Publix check-out counter – that I had an epiphany. This was normal here and I needed to re-adapt to the social norms of living in the South. I almost laughed in that moment because of the irony of the situation. This specifically was one of the things I constantly missed about the South while living in New York. If someone wants to take a minute to ask you how your day is, that is okay, and you’re probably not going to get someone piping up to say, “‘ey! Can we move it along here!” This was something I had longed for, but now that I was finally back living it, it felt strange. It just goes to show that you don’t realize how much you can change or become used to your surroundings in 8 years even though you don’t feel like you have changed at all. But, I am happy to report that re-adaption is getting easier every day. 

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