“Ooh, if I just wasn’t a lady, WHAT wouldn’t I tell that varmint!”
This is a quote from Gone With the Wind, a movie you cannot avoid when raised in the Southern United States. It’s not a bad flick (given that it was released in 1939 and has all the social unawareness you’d expect), but it’s also the font of something else: myself and several generations of young belles have learned from main character Scarlett O’Hara that speaking in a lilting Southern accent will lubricate our graceful extrication from a variety of social jams.
For example: I used to waitress for a seafood joint at a popular North Carolina beach. I wasn’t an especially good waitress (I never could bring myself to ferociously push the overpriced appetizers), but I was friendly and polite and maybe overly conscientious. Example: In this restaurant, the servers all picked up little black pagers at the beginning of each shift and tucked them into our back pockets. When food was ready in the kitchen, we were “buzzed.” I was so hard-wired to respond immediately to that buzzing that I had recurring nightmares in which I was buzzed while taking a pee and never felt the pager go off because my jeans were down around my ankles. I’d wake up panting and grabbing my right butt cheek in desperation.
But, I digress. For this story, the important thing to know about this restaurant is that the most popular dessert was s’mores. Freaking s’mores! Whatever happened to good old cheesecake?! You paid $5.95, and I brought you and your inevitable screaming horde of toddlers a fiery hibachi grill nestled amidst chocolate slabs and graham crackers. (Our owner didn’t know any more than Scarlett does about liability.) Look at the image to the left. Really focus on how small the base of the grill is, and how clearly it wants to give in to its own top-heaviness and fall over, especially since it’s served on a slippery-smooth plate with no anchoring mechanism whatsoever. I imagine you’re already cringing at the horrible scenario you know is coming, so I’ll go ahead and end the suspense: yes, in the process of serving this abomination, I did spill a super-heated metal container of blazing Sterno all over a retired man’s lap. We made eye contact for approximately half a second (just long enough for me to register his cartoon lobster-emblazoned bib) before he began shrieking in panic. Whoops. And then my manager appeared.
The second I opened my mouth to explain, out fell a string of syllables raised on cornbread and sorghum molasses in the deepest corner of the South. My eyes widened as my unfamiliar-sounding words ran away with me. “Oooh, mistah, I am just soooo sor-reh. I hayev no ideah how that happened!” And do you know what? That man, who had been fully engaged in a frenzy of jumping up and down and brushing flaming blue gel off his khackis, stopped, turned, and gave me a big grandfatherly smile. “Awww, shucks. It’s okay, sweetheart.” WHAT?!
Meanwhile, I had mildly burned my arm in a valiant – if ultimately failed – attempt to halt the hibachi grill in its marshmallow-sprinkled fall from grace. As I clutched my wrist and grimaced, still expecting some kind of verbal lashing and/or immediate dismissal, my manager was more concerned with the guest. As he anxiously hovered, helping the man take his seat again, my lobster-styled hero stopped him dead with a pointed, “I’m fine. Shouldn’t you pay some attention to this poor young woman?” The manager blushed beet red and, giving a last wistful glance at the singed carpet all around the table, led me to the back room and the first aid kit. As I was escorted away, I locked eyes with my savior and murmured a breathy, “Thanyk you, mistah, you’re soooo kind,” and may hell freeze over if, at the end of the night, I didn’t receive a 30% tip.
So here’s the thing. I don’t usually speak with a southern accent. I say “y’all” because it’s one of the most useful words in existence, but my mother is from Detroit and I’ve spent most of my life hearing how surprised people are that I’m from the South. (“But you don’t talk like an idiot…”) However. In that moment of sheer “Oh, shit!” dread, some survival-of-the-fittest part of my brain knew I’d have better odds of emerging unscathed if I brought out my inner Scarlett. And my brain was right. I mean, I can’t prove that old timer would have called for my resignation if I’d told him I was “wicked sorry” instead, but I do know that he went from 60 to 0 on the rage meter as soon as he heard my drawn-out vowels. To this day, whether it be a minor fender-bender or a squished toe at a concert, my Southern slips out whenever I sense confrontation. It never happens on purpose – truly! – but it also never fails to calm people down. And it isn’t just the fact that I’m apologizing. It’s the accent. I know because multiple people, who should be angry with me, have commented on how “sweet” it is.
I’m sure the cultural reasoning for why this works is fascinating (and yes, I recognize the privilege behind this entire story). But for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on my curiosity about whether this has happened to any one else. Have any of you discovered some sort of totally unexpected get-out-of-trouble response mechanism? Please let me know!
And, if you’re feeling at all sorry for the restaurant manager whose carpet I burned and whose customer I turned against him with my feminine wiles… don’t. He made all the waitresses wear name tags with fake Southern nicknames on them – he thought us getting called “Pumpkin” or “Sweetie Pie” all night was charming – so he deserved exactly what he got.