Story Beth Mitchell
First, let me state that I have lived in Canada for most of my adult life. In fact, in many ways, I am Canadian — I have Canadian citizenship (though I still have U.S., too); my family was raised here; I’ve had my career here; I love a cold, sunny day, with crisp air and crunchy snow; and I think our maple syrup and lager are the best anywhere.
I share this information because it’s important for you to know that what I am writing in no way reflects any negative perceptions of Canada. Canadians are without a doubt among the most tolerant, respectful and polite people in the world. It’s said that if you barge full force into a Canadian, the response is likely to be a sincere “Sorry for being in your way!”
Moving to Canada was a great adventure for me, but I had a few concerns about how I would fit in to this very different culture. My husband is Canadian and thus was there to help smooth the transition, but I worried about whether I might encounter some myths and perceptions about people from the South. Would they assume I was a redneck? Would they expect me to be a Southern belle? What if they literally couldn’t understand me or laughed at my drawl?
Instead I was openly and warmly welcomed — part of that instinctive Canadian acceptance and inclusiveness. In virtually no time, however, I realized that I was somewhat of a novelty, as there were few people around here that sounded anything like I did; and I often approached situations in unique ways. Indeed, a few defining moments helped me realize that my mama “raised me right” and that my Southern roots just might work to my advantage.
Often when I spoke with a clerk in a store or a server in a restaurant, I would be asked to repeat myself because they had not listened to what I said, but rather how I said it. Both the accent and the relaxed tone, so typical of the Deep South, triggered an image of a gentler and more caring world. In delivering somewhat harsh news, such as failing someone on an exam or restructuring services in an organization, I was perceived as compassionate and supportive — enhanced because of the drawl — and had people thank me for my feedback.
The impact was further heightened with the addition of those idioms that are so liberally sprinkled through a true Southerner’s conversation. Once, in the midst of some very tough union negotiations, I commented to the head of the bargaining unit, “Bless your heart, I know you are just trying to do the best for your members.” For me, it was a simple phrase; but later our human resources consultant told me she felt it was the turning point in helping the union to understand that management wasn’t all bad, that we appreciated their passion and their role; and we were able to reach a resolution shortly thereafter. My colleagues continually commented that I was able to broker agreements by providing a calmer, friendlier position because of my Southern ways. My mother always said “You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” and she thus “raised me right” again.
In other situations, the Southern art of conversation served me well. At events with dignitaries or formal work occasions, I found it relatively easy to engage in chit-chat — all the while recalling my mother’s teaching me that it was expected that I would introduce myself or talk to Mrs. So-and-So, who “asks about you every time I see her.” The idea that you would not do so was unacceptable and frankly rude. My peers often marveled at my lack of intimidation, though I simply saw it as somewhat like a sorority rush party or a huge family gathering in which I was greeting cousins I had never met.
Finally, my Southern roots have never been more evident than in my understanding of hospitality and the importance of being gracious. If someone is new, then it’s your duty to make them feel welcome. If someone is leaving, then we need to have a proper farewell celebration. And heaven knows that you had better send a handwritten note if you want someone to know how much you appreciate what they’ve done!
In hindsight, I realized that I had nothing to worry about when I moved to Canada. Instead of encountering any bias against me because of my background, I found benefits and opportunities to teach others about a way of life that comes naturally to me because my mama “raised me right.”
Always in my head and my heart, being Southern is forever my secret weapon.