I just spent a week in the South visiting friends and Crayton’s family. We had fun, but the trip made me realize that despite being a Southerner by marriage for eight years, I still don’t know how to conduct a proper conversation.
Strangers — the waitress at Waffle House, the lady at the gas station on the way to Charleston, a woman planting flowers in front of her home — would ask me, “Hi, how are you?” I’d answer “fine” and then think… wait. Did they really want to know how I am? Did I answer correctly? Does not coming up with some sort of Southern witticism make me sound like a Yankee? (Or, what I truly am, a Southern California girl?) Crayton would answer as if he was born knowing the answer: “Hi, how are you doing?”
In Greenville, SC, it took him less than five minutes to ascertain that the guy behind the rental car counter was a Clemson fan. At a restaurant in Charleston, a guy in the men’s bathroom commented to him about the weird angle of the sinks, and Crayton replied, “Well, whatever gets the job done.” He’s full of these little sayings. So is his family.
While visiting his grandparents outside Greenville, I listened a lot. They did most of the talking, and it hit me that with a small arsenal of pleasant replies, you can propel a conversation forward in a genteel way. These replies include:
- Well, how about that.
- I’ll be.
- Isn’t that something?
- I know you had fun/enjoyed that (or any sentence that politely repackages what the talker has just said to you).
I have not attempted to use these with my own family, because I think they’d laugh at me and hang up the phone. But I’m keeping them handy for the next trip South. And I’ll continue to observe and take notes, because if a Southern woman approaches me in a restaurant bathroom — example: “Wasn’t that just the biggest meal?” — I want to know what to say.
On Tuesday, once I was home in New York, I was about to enter the elevator of our building when I saw my neighbor, a woman with young children who lives across the hallway. She was near the staircase and called out, “Hello!” through the lobby.
I called back: “Hi, how are you?”
She said, “Just fine, thanks!”
I couldn’t resist continuing the conversation, so I called out, “Okay, bye!”
She may be a Southerner by marriage, but she’s getting there.