The Southern Ritual of Speaking

You mean there's pressure to uplift other folks and show my family's values just by speaking to people?
You mean there’s implicit pressure to uplift other folks and show my family’s values just by speaking to people?

People who spend significant amounts of time below the Mason-Dixon line know that “speaking,” engaging others in basic conversation, is a must.

As a child, speaking seemed like an interruption. A social chore. Can’t I just get more helpings or come play with the kid I actually came here to see? I vividly recall speaking to people, out of duty or to disarm them of preconceptions, when I would rather not have.

As an adult, I see people need and seek validation. Conversation is by no means a cure-all. However, speaking is a fundamental acknowledgment of another person, and his or her validity, in a moment. Conversations mark our connections with each other. They can foster a sense of community and demonstrate where our interests converge.

People matter. And people need to feel like they matter.

Further, speaking does not have to be exhausting. Walking into a space, making eye contact with the people there and offering a generalized greeting suffices. If elders are involved, due deference is warranted.

Doing so shows that your formative years were spent under somebody worthwhile. Speaking shows that you’re not “too good” engage people in conversations, which often prove mutually beneficial. People internalize hierarchies and often resent folks who, as collective wisdom describes it, read their own headlines. Speaking can show you’re level-headed.

Speaking opens doors. “Good morning, y’all” can segue to family values, personal goals, professional aspirations and more. The person you’re speaking to might be able to help. You might be able to help. Either or both of you could know somebody. The more speaking we do, the smaller the world becomes.

I make it my business to speak to people when I see them. Yet, seeing people can prove tricky. In typical westernized Millennial fashion, I plug in constantly and scroll devices until my wrists hurt.

Headphones mute external conversations. I customize Spotify playlists to match moods, promote a conducive reading environment or to let artists sing, rap or play their way through notions I identify with, but am not ready to discuss. I know some of my cyber friends’ proclivities better than people I see in the real life. Social media should augment, not replace, in-person connections.

This post is not to say every person is owed conversation. Speaking and street harassment intersect. Harassers often know that people, especially southern women, participate in a communicative culture.

Patriarchy tells them whatever their age, race, weight, height, tooth count or station in life a woman owes them a chat, and answers about why if she is not into it. Some aren’t above implicit and explicit pressure for women to engage them. Men have physically presented themselves in ways where my instinct is twofold:

1. Acquiesce and 2. Hightail it away from Sirs Creeperton.  Force is contrary to speaking’s spirit.

Through speech we orally affirm others. Their speech back creates a conversation, reciprocates the affirmation, and conveys the message both participants matter. While speaking is a nice touch, we should also focus on becoming the kind of people with whom we’d want to connect.

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