Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What Happened to Courtesy?

When I moved to Texas, in 1999, I remember being so enthralled by the courteous people. Everyone was so... nice!  I knew that my outlook on this was somewhat askew, having come from California where being polite makes you suspicious, but I also knew that to call a society that was appalled by the idea of not saying please, thank you, ma'am, and sir anything but courteous was to do them a great disservice. Say what you want about the south, these people understand courtesy. . . at least on the surface. They understand the value of being polite to your fellow man. . . even if they could care less. They know the meaning of neighborly courtesy. . . for the most part.

As I integrated into Texan culture, and anyone who thinks that there's no culture shock moving from California to Texas is out of their minds, I grew to realize that some of the courtesy was superficial. Of course it was, I mean, no one's nice all the time, right? While it never hurt anyone to nod and smile at a passer by, or say hello to the guy behind you in line, the courtesy really stops at small gestures. Anything bigger than that becomes tradition, which they fiercely cling to, often times not understanding why they're doing it.

Take the holidays for example. From California or not, I've always known the meaning of family togetherness at the holidays. I love to spend the holidays with my family, who're genuinely happy to see me and spend the holidays with me, too--for the most part, I mean, my sister and her husband aside. There was rarely anything fake going on around the holidays with my family, even when we had to go to my Grandma R's house.  Even though I'm sure my Grandpa was never happy about all of the company, there was always a sense of family togetherness. Was it always realistic happiness at being together, of course not, but for the most part it was the holidays and everyone tried to put aside their animosity or unease, or whatever, and enjoy the time as a family.  Here, things aren't like that, at least not in my experience. I've rarely met people so invested in looking like they're happy to be together, when that's often the most distant thing from the truth. The divergence is stunning.

Of course, not all southern people are phony. That's ridiculous.  Some of them, I'm sure, have genuine family experiences. This is just my experience.  The point, though, is that southern hospitality isn't always as rosy as I thought it was when I moved here. The longer I've lived here, the more difficult its become to see the southern culture as genuine. And where once people were nice, or at least pretended to be, I think people are getting ruder! Literally, people in the south are becoming more like the people in California; disinterested in a friendly nod and smile.  Matt says it's not just me, that people are becoming more rude.  That the south's reputation for being a place filled with friendly people is more a myth than it is a reality.

I mean, every time we go to Wal-Mart this point is driven home.  People would sooner run you over than let you pass in a cross-walk, and that's just one example, but I was thinking that maybe it's just Wal-Mart. You know, people are cranky at Wal-Mart, I get that, I'm cranky at Wal-Mart!  But it's not just there, it's everywhere.  Recently, its been the people who work at my university. My financial aid counselor has always been rude to me, but I've been able to chalk that up to the fact that we've only communicated via email and maybe she's just succinct.  I have my doubts, given some of the things she's said to me, but still, I try to give her the benefit of the doubt.  But this morning I had an incident with an administrative assistant in the registrars office that made me rethink even how my financial aid counselor has treated me.

I walked into the registrars office with my problems course form, which I have to use to enroll in Thesis hours because it's a special course, and out of courtesy I stopped in at the administrative assistant's desk to be sure the woman I needed to talk to was available. First, she completely ignored me, and when she finally did bother to notice me her attitude was terrible. She gave me a blank, "what?" stare and when I told her that I needed to register for a class she said, "and you can't do that online?"  She didn't even bother to find out what I needed and why I wasn't able to register online.

I was so taken aback, I raised my eyebrows and looked her right in the face. Then, I smiled and said, "no, it's a problems course, I can't register online" and I sort of lifted my forms to indicate that I had to file them.  She said, "oh, so you need to register for a problems course, you should have said that, not that you needed to register."  Wow, what a bitch. I mean really. That is registering for a course and while I can understand people being in a foul mood now and then, this particular woman seems to be in a foul mood all the time. Every time I've seen her she's been nasty... just like my financial aid counselor.

At this point, I'm feeling like people in Texas are no different than people in California, in terms of attitude. Everyone's a jerk these days. Why can't people just be civil with one another and not assume that everyone around them is a dumb shit who doesn't know anything. Because you know that's what that woman thought of me this morning, that I must have been some sad, lost undergraduate who had no idea where I was supposed to be. Just like assuming everyone around you is dumber than you are, that woman wrongly assumed a lot about me. Not only am I not an undergraduate, but I work at Tarleton and have been attending school there since 2004, I know the drill, and I know that in order to sign up for Thesis hours I have to take forms to the registrar.

I suppose there're two cliche morals here: 1) Don't judge a book by it's cover, and 2) Treat people the way you want to be treated. Sad, too, because I really enjoyed living in a culture where people understood the meaning of courtesy.