showing respect: north and south

An American friend was visiting Berlin last week and mentioned that he was having a hard time negotiating transactions, that his usual smiles and friendliness weren’t being rewarded the way they are in Austin. He was frustrated. He was confused. I explained my grand theory of respect and he moaned “Where can I read that? It would have been so helpful to know all this before I set out on this trip.” So here it is: what I’ve figured out about how to show and receive respect, and all the nice things that come with it.

Once upon I time I checked into a motel in New Jersey. I’d been living in Austin, TX with my midwestern boyfriend for several years by then. As soon as we walked through the door of the motel, I took charge. Directly and without any niceties, I told the woman at the front desk who we were, what we wanted, how we’d pay and got the whole transaction done in the minimum time possible. As I stood there, room key in hand, while she filed the paperwork, she broke out in a big smile and asked how our trip had been. We chatted politely for a few minutes, until she had to take a phone call, and then my boyfriend and I headed out to our room.

As soon as we were outside of the office he asked me, with an amazed look on his face “How did you know how to do that?” “Do what?” I asked. “When we walked in she was practically scowling at us, and you turned her around. She was smiling and friendly by the end. How did you know how to DO that?” And I thought about it for a minute. “Oh! I didn’t waste a moment of her time. I showed her that I respect her. She appreciated that.” I had never realized I knew that. I probably wouldn’t have noticed in this case, either, except that it so shocked my boyfriend.

From then on, I worked off this theory: In New England, you show people that you respect them by not wasting a moment of their time. Once you’ve established that respect and gotten the business out of the way, they can relax and be sociable. In the South, you show people you respect them by acknowledging your common humanity. A little chit chat about the weather, or some minor detail about your day or each other’s clothing or something, establishes that we are both people here. Now we can get on to our business. These (mutually incompatible) strategies have served me well in the States and I usually have good interactions with people working in customer service positions. Sometimes it can be tricky on the phone, when you’ve only got the duration of the greeting to figure out from accent where the person is from. Usually they are in the south, though, and a friendly interchange paves the way.

One time I was having difficulties getting information from bureaucrats in the Virgin Islands. I called my savvy brother and whined about it. “Are you saying ‘good day’ before you say anything else?” Ah! I tried again and those magic words opened all doors. Again, my belief was confirmed, show respect (in whatever way is appropriate in the particular place) and everything will go more smoothly for you. And that worked, until I got to Europe…

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