The Sweet Candor of Southern Ambiguity

Being from Texas, somehow isn’t necessarily considered from “The South,” but I don’t see why not. Houston is give or take six hours to Mexico, and about an hour and a half from the beach. So, you can’t get much more “south” before you either speak Spanish or…I don’t know…mermaid.

If “the American South,” brings up images of taffeta dresses, and horse drawn carriages you are seriously mistaken. If it brings up images of rednecks in pickup trucks, trucker caps, and “plumber’s butt,” you are…only half mistaken.

In general, we are very modern people. But, we do hold on to a few things from days gone by. Southern hospitality is one of them. We work hard at delicacy in our speech. It’s not that we don’t speak our minds. By all means, we do. But we do it in layered nuance, talking around the concept and letting the listener figure it out. Since other southerners do the same thing, we all understand each other. But when we meet someone from other regions, we can have everything ranging from a miscommunication, all the way to sheer culture shock.

Not only are we not used to people being so blunt, but we are so used to listening for nuance, that we wonder, “If they say THAT to my face, then what else could they be thinking?” And of course, usually the answer is…nothing. They said exactly what they thought, and that was it. Simple. But, we southerners do enjoy the sweet candor of ambiguity.

Take, for example, the northerner I was doing a project for. I was assigned to call him shortly after he signed up for our firm’s services and do a check-in, and then explain a new project I would be working on for him. I didn’t really know exactly what “check in,” meant in this scenario, so I figured I’d throw out my line, and let him take it from there.

I casually asked, “So I wanted to check in with you, and find out how you are feeling about things.”

“What do you mean?” His reply was quick and hard.

I thought that was pretty self-explanatory, so I simply rephrased the question, “What do you think of your experience so far with us?”

“What part?” He threw at me.

I had no idea. I just wrote press releases from my home office. If he had a complaint, I planned to shoot my boss an e-mail and that was it. Otherwise, I was just using the exchange as a polite way to lead in to what I needed to say.

“Well—I,” I stammered for a moment, finally I just rephrased the question a third time. “We just wanted to check in with you, see how things are going, how you feel about our services.”

“Which part?” His voice rose with annoyance.

I didn’t know. It just sounded like the right thing to say. Now I wished I would have said something else. But, I couldn’t back out now.  I rolled my eyes and cleared my throat. I wasn’t going to let him push me around. “Basically, I’m asking for feedback,” my tone changed to a professional annoyance.

“Oh,” he said. “Yeah, I’ve got feedback.”

Oh, great, I thought.

He started talking about some things and I politely listened for anything that needed forwarding to my boss.  To his credit, some things were good. Some…not so good. In fact, he wasn’t happy not to see immediate results. Ah, yes! I knew how to answer this one. I explained that marketing takes about 90 days to start to affect your bottom line.

He interrupted me. “I know all about that. Yeah. But, when I give you feedback,” he shot back. “DON’T DEFEND THEM. I’m just telling you.”

His voice was so laden with disgust, I could almost see his face twisted in anger.

I almost hung up on him.

“Okay,” I said, my tone placating.

He went on for a few minutes, and I could feel my blood pressure rise. He talked about the importance of an event for next month. He threatened that if we didn’t get results on this event,  he was going elsewhere. This wasn’t new, he made sure to mention this. At least twice. Every time I talked to him. I saw an in-road here to get control of the conversation back.

“Yes,” I said. “And that’s what I wanted to get with you today about.”

At that point, I took control of the conversation, letting him have as little air time as possible, and used all of those tricks they teach you in retail on how to deal with angry people. By the end of it, he was calm, and I decided to deal with him by e-mail as much as possible.

And you know why it went this way? Because he wasn’t from the South. Here’s how a Southern person would have handled the conversation:

ME: So, I wanted to check in with you, and find out how you are feeling about things. [Nuance, I can’t think of a better way to open this conversation, so I’m asking a question I’m not really qualified to ask.}

OTHER SOUTHERNER: [Picking up nuance] Great. Everything’s good. We like [some part of service] but we would like to see more of [another part of service]. {Nuance A: I’m not sure how much you are qualified to discuss, so I will just give you a bare bones statement and go from there. Nuance B: I’m not too happy, but I’m giving it to you in a ‘sandwich compliment.’]

ME: Okay, that’s good feedback. I’ll forward that to my supervisor for you. [Nuance A:  Please don’t tell me any more than that, because I’m just a peon.

Nuance B: I deciphered the sandwich compliment, and I am genuinely sorry to hear the negative feedback, so I’ll do the only thing I know to do. You seem like a nice person. I really do hope they correct it for you].

OTHER SOUTHERNER: Thanks. We’re all really excited about this conference coming up, we have a lot riding on it. [Nuance, this is a big deal, and we’re counting on you to get results…or else.}

ME: {picking up nuance, and thinking:  Ohv#$&@!! I need to do above and beyond with this one. I can’t be responsible for losing a client!! Uh, reach for disclaimer] Okay. Well it can take about 90 days for a new marketing plan to take effect.

OTHER SOUTHERNER: Yeah, and they did explain that to me when I signed on.  [Nuance: I know, I was just telling you]

ME: [Picking up on nuance} Great. I will definitely let them know in the office. They are doing a lot of exciting stuff for you. [Nuance:  I have no idea what they’re doing for your conference, but I am sure they’re doing…something}

OTHER SOUTHERNER: [Picking up nuance] That sounds good. [Nuance: Why are you really calling me?]

ME: [Picking up nuance] So, let’s talk about this new project.


End results: The project gets discussed. Afterward, I e-mail my boss that they are “Having an issue with….What can we do about this?”

Southern hospitality. It’s all in the way it’s said.

DISCLAIMER: I typically don’t discuss clients. But, I think a little anonymous public shaming is in order for those occasional unprofessional professionals who think being at the top is an excuse to treat others unkindly. 



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