The Time My Southern Accent Saved My Skin

“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.

Oh, &#%!, what have I gotten myself into now?!

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.

Don’t you judge ME, Scarlett O’Hara. You butchered innocent curtains.

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.

Ummm… Hi?

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?!

I am redeemed.

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.

Fiddle-dee-dee. I only *sort of* dented your bumper – it looks cuter this way!

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.

As Scarlett said: “Great balls of fire. Don’t bother me anymore, and DON’T call me sugar.”

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44 responses to “The Time My Southern Accent Saved My Skin

  1. There’s a reason I call everyone darling…. darling.
    This was an amusing romp, Jennie — is this what it’s like reading my misadventures? No wonder people love me!
    (It takes a certain kind of confidence — some call it narcissism but I say kiss my grits — to be this brash, darling)
    I’m glad you’re writing more! I wish I had the energy, but it’s been a long week, and I’m trying to figure how to tell the next part of the California Years — which, as you can only imagine, is kind of an intense chapter, considering how the last part ended.
    I always found the double standard that we sometimes make use of slightly embarrassing — like you said — you work at some bar where you’re completely objectified, which goes against everything the sainted Tori Amos taught us in Feminism 101, and yet you flirt and go all doe-eyed and laugh at stupid jokes in order to make better tips, and if the situation calls for it, you play the part of the wilting flower or blushing damsel in order to get out of shit. No wonder we drive men crazy — we can be kind of schizo sometimes!!

    • oh, how right you are, my wise darling owl. parts of me felt squicky about writing this on the same day as one of the outlier collective’s amazing posts on feminism (http://theoutliercollective.wordpress.com/category/a-seven-day-conversation-on-feminism/), not to mention paula deen’s uncomfortable comments about plantation-style weddings.

      but. it’s a true story, and it’s interesting, and (you and i, at least, think that) it’s funny. and being slightly embarrassed by making use of double standards is absolutely worthy of conversation. are we giving in or are we wielding tools? are we eschewing feminism for a night or embracing that femininity is part of feminism? if schizo is the label i have to bear for having a multi-facted and imperfect personality, i’ll drink to that!

      p.s. kiss my grits? are you perhaps from below the mason-dixon line?

      p.p.s. (because i’m nothing if not long-winded) …gloriously good luck with both the submission and the california years! i need you to write more so i can bury my face in your brash misadventures and breath deep.

      • We are who we are, and I think that trying to live according to isms is always dangerous to a certain extent. As a good friend of mine once said: -Ism’s in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, “I don’t believe in Beatles, I just believe in me.” Good point there. After all, he was the walrus. I could be the walrus.
        Believe in yourself, darling, let yourself evolve, and let the chips fall as they may. I think that dichotomy is deliciously daring, and I choose to re-invent myself on a regular basis. If feminism is about choice, then why can’t I be a flirty, sexy temptress one day and a hard working, independent goddess at the same time? My only beef with the hardcore feminists is the demonizing of men. It just seems unfair and counterproductive to me — all men are not rapists, just as not all women are whores. But some are — in both camps — and no one is entirely innocent.
        (See — I also have an insightful, contemplative, philosophical side — multifaceted Helena FTW)

        To the P.S.: No, from much further north, darling — I was just riffing on your Southern-ity
        To the P.P.S. Thank you — I think I’m going to take a detour back in time to a much younger, more naive me and revisit a small town in the West Midlands of England before I muster up the courage to tell the rest of the California tale… but when I’ll do that I’m not sure. Stay tuned, as they say…

      • When i am around my oldest two children who live in NYC and Pasadena CA respectively they begin to pick up a little “Suthrun” after a few minutes with me.I consider my accent moderate, but I know how to pile it on when the time is right!

  2. Man, I need a lilting Southern accent to get me out of trouble. I just moved here a year ago so it may take some time. And I’m pretty sure if my name tag said “Pumpkin” I may contemplate burning the curtains accidentally. 😉

    • 99% of them were nicknames, but i did manage to score the 1 single legitimate *name* that was in the bin. It was “Beulah.” Granted, Beulah is a hideous, old-school Southern name along the lines of “Myrna” and “Josaminah,” but I wore that name tag more than I ever wore “Pumpkin.”

  3. You’re exactly right. I’m not from NC so I don’t have much of an accent but my husband was born and raised here- so he can definitely have a strong one. CAN being the key word. Whenever he is talking to someone in authority or we are at big family gatherings his Southern accent comes out soooo strong haha. He says its def not on purpose either. Funny!

    • Totally! When I’m around my dad, I unintentionally get one thousand percent more Southern. I’m actually really glad to know guys do this in front of authority figures, too – that’s super interesting!

  4. I’ve found that nearly any “soothing” accent works. I.e., Southern, British, Australian, French, and Italian accents work wonders when getting out of a jam. However, ‘brash’ accents like Boston, New York, Russian, or German? Not so much. 🙂

    I was a crappy waitress as a teen (perpetually dropping/breaking dishes), so I can empathize with your plight. I never did burn anyone/anything, though. Jolly good fun, Miss Jennie! 😉

    • I know you’re listing all those soothing accents as examples, but in my head I’m imagining that you yourself can pull all of them off convincingly, and use them as needed to calm the baddies. What a trick that would be!

      I do have one movie scene that pretty convincingly shows how a Southern accent can also be just as intense and unsettling as any other: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNKmmA6_oTQ (The good part starts around 00:57, when the lawyer character takes an asshole Big Tobacco representative to task.)

      • I can easily pull of a convincing Southern, British, and French accent. Australian is a little more challenging (I always end up sounding British), and Italian is too close to French for me – my French always overrides the Italian slant. Language is super fun. 🙂

    • P.S. I really think that almost every human being and society in general would be better off for some mandatory time spent working in the service industry as a teenager. Thoughts?

      • I *completely* agree. I think every privileged person should be required to spend a full summer in an hourly labor job, be it as a waiter/waitress at a diner, or as a janitor, or in a factory… I think these experiences would go a long way towards building tolerance between and among people.

    • Question that, I do. Thinking I am that to sound like Yoda inviting the confusion of others is.

      Unless that’s the goal… to make them so confused that they just acquiesce to your demands.

  5. It’s true, some Southerners just sound like they’re dripping with honey and sugar that you can’t help but be nice to them. I’ll have to try that one day—because ordinarily, the NY accent really doesn’t evoke kindness in people.

    • One of the few Southern traditions that I really hold strong to is saying horribly mean things in a sugar-coated voice. It’s delightfully good fun.

      However, one of my goals in life is – just once – to *really* intimidate someone. I feel like a different accent (maybe NY) would help me toward that goal. I need to start watching more Russian mob movies.

  6. Jennie, I loved reading your post. I laughed out loud several times. I spent the better part of my childhood in California before my Dad was transferred to the Gulf Coast. For most of my adult life I’ve lived in the South, in various states. I am in contact with people from all over the world, via Skype, and have family and friends scattered all over the U.S., whom I visit from time to time. They generally tell me that I don’t have much of a Southern accent, except when I use certain words or phrases. Still they say it’s very subtle. My friend from Denmark says my accent is ‘elegant’. haha However, when I visit my home state of California, I get ‘odd’ looks as soon as I open my mouth. LOL That’s not just in the Sacramento area, but I’ve experienced ‘the look’ in LA, and San Diego, as well. I doubt what accent I have would get out of trouble in CA. 😀

    Thanks for dropping by my blog and for following. I plan to follow your blog as well, and look forward to reading more of your postings. You are a visual writer, and your wit is awesome. Just superb all around.

    Victoria

    • What a gorgeous load of niceness you left to brighten my Monday night. Thank you, for all of it! I started stalking you based on your comments over at The Outlier Collective, so the feelings are mutual. 🙂

  7. ‘But you don’t talk like an idiot.’ Hilarious. Loved the story. I’m from Canada and absolutely fascinated with Southern accents. There is no other accent in the WORLD that is more addictive. I spent a week and a half in Mississippi/Louisiana and swear I could have come home with a Southern accent if I didn’t stop myself from saying ‘y’all’ every time I was tempted and this temptation last a good four months….I was only there for a week and a half! What kind of drawn out recovery time is that? Anyway, loved the post, made me lol a couple of times so thanks 🙂

    • That is delightful music to my ears. I, myself, find Nigerian accents intoxicating, but I think most of the world is in love with Brits. Thanks for the ego boost for us Southerners (even only part-time ones such as myself)!

      Plus more thanks for recognizing the amazing properties of the word ‘y’all”…your addiction is funny! Did you ever graduate to the level of “ALL y’all?”

  8. This made me laugh! I’m Canadian, so Southern isn’t my natural instinct, but I did pick up y’all from my Southern college roommate and it’s incredibly helpful. I’ve also perfected my faux-French accent for when I just don’tttt feel like it 😉

    • I’m so glad the good word of “y’all” is getting spread far and wide!

      Question about the French accent: are you pretending to actually speak French, like you “don’t feel like it” so you act as if you can’t communicate with English speakers? Or do you mean some other devious (probably hilarious) thing?

      • Oh, I’m so devious. I slip on my “I speak English but only barely French accent” when I don’t want to talk to strangers and after a minute or so of “I sink zat – how do you say? – zis Sherrt? Shurt? that vous are weaRing est tres pretty” they just give up.

        • I’d like to spend a day doing this with you. That is like, my dream date. I wonder if I can convince my marital partner in crime to spend Saturday confusing tourists in our town?

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  10. I have no idea how this slipped through and I’ve just read it! My accent hasn’t gotten me OUT of anything (yet) although it has led to some interesting bar conversations about how…er…attractive a southern drawl is. I can only hope that it will do great things for me when I ship off to Boston. I hope the manager got some flaming hot gel spilled on him at some point, he sounds like a varmint.
    I hope when you quit that job you breezed out with a, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!”

    • If only! But my mother started working there as a hostess shortly before I left, so I kept my Rhett-isms to myself. My consolation is that the (in-his-early-30s) manager’s hair went completely grey within a year of starting his job, so the stress got to him at least as much as the “Sugars” got to me.

      Can I ask where you’re from? Should I just be less lazy and read your (no doubt fascinating) “about” page?

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  12. LMAO! I am a southern girl born, raised and educated (yes, that’s right, educated) in Georgia. I haven’t laughed so hard in a month, and I try to laugh everyday at least once. Thanks for sharing. I do find the accent rather useful since moving to Florida and I can’t help but say “Ya’ll” and “Yonder”. I have been here since 1997 and still haven’t lost the lilt, even though I am well educated and speak “proper” English.

    • I like your laugh-a-day philosophy! Happy to help. 🙂

      “Yonder” is a level of Southern I haven’t achieved quite yet, but there’s still hope…

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