Featured Image: My town sits right next to the Okefenokee Swamp.
By Abigail Grimes
There’s no hiding my accent. Even if I try to, I still use words that most people here don’t use. “Y’all’ll,” I said, on one of my first days here, realizing, even as I said it, how out of place I sounded. “What?” someone replied. “Y’all all,” I said. This was the first of many times I would say something and immediately realize it stood out.
I never really had to explain my voice before. I had also never felt like I needed someone to explain so much to me. Within my first few weeks at Yale, I had accumulated a terrifying mound of questions about how to live in the North. The ones that haunted me most were about conversation. I wondered why everyone talked so fast, like they were trying to make a joke before the subject changed, and sometimes, they just didn’t respond to things someone said as if they weren’t particularly interested. People from the Northeast spoke especially fast, and the way the said “can” grated on my Southern ears, like it had an “h” and an extra syllable hidden somewhere. Other words sounded pinched off and the laughs interjected in conversation seemed harsh.
I was told before classes even started that I couldn’t pronounce the name Ben right. I said b-i-n, not B-e-n. I’m told there’s a difference, but it’s one I have never heard.
I had been told that Yankees were rude by everyone in my hometown, Waycross, Georgia. I knew everyone in my town, and they all knew me. We were right next to the Okefenokee Swamp Park, where alligators waddled across dirt roads and sunned in ditches. Everyone was very concerned that I would be going up North, in part because of the cold, in part because of the politics, and in part because of the manners. I thought this meant that “please” and “thank you” and “ma’am” and “sir” were used less commonly in the North, or that people didn’t care as much about eating neatly or writing thank you notes.
One of my favorite things to do when I’m home is to look for gators along the side of the road.
I didn’t think it meant that I would feel like everyone hated me, or that I would be brought almost to tears in conversations that, to people from New Jersey and Massachusetts, seemed perfectly pleasant. People would often respond to invitations to dinner with a curt: “no.” They brush past you in tight spaces without looking back—not even saying “sorry” or “excuse me.” Before coming to Yale, I can only think of a handful of times this ever happened to me. Sometimes, I left conversations hoping that the person I had just spoken to—a Northeasterner, a Midwesterner—would never meet the wrong person in the South. My god, I would think. They would get hit.
After the first few days of pre-orientation, I finally asked a fellow Southerner, “Do you feel like everyone is sorta mean? Like, always?”
He did, and as we talked, it became clear that being a Southerner in the North is inherently hard. In the South, there’s too much family, connection, and hierarchy to ever be blunt or curt. If you’re not particularly friendly to the woman in the waiting room in the doctor’s office, you’re probably being rude to a friend of a friend, or your cousin’s friend from high school. But you also don’t want to be rude—there aren’t people all around. You don’t see a hundred people a day. You want to talk to the person in front of you.
Peaches from the farmers’ market.
In the North, just walking down the city streets, there are so many people that you couldn’t possibly remember all of their faces. You won’t ever see the person who you bumped into again, and even if you did, you probably wouldn’t remember. If you look irritated at a stranger on the street, it won’t ever matter. They won’t turn out to be your sister’s roommate’s best friend, or your waiter the next time you go out to eat.
I don’t think anyone is ever trying to be rude. It’s just different. As my friend Morgan from Cordele, Georgia, put it: “There’s this clash of a slow-moving and overly pleasant southern culture against the rushed, demanding, and oftentimes harsher atmosphere at Yale, and the Northeast at large. Southerners are a minority at Yale, and to blend in we learn new rules of when to greet strangers, and friends, not to take offense at the lack of niceties spoken to us, and how to navigate a space very different from the ones we grew up in.” Southerners are often the ones who have to learn to be different at Yale. Southern students make up only 11.5 percent of the class of 2022 and Northeasterners, 30.2 percent. Sometimes, when someone speaks to me in a certain tone that I can only hear as harsh and they can only hear as normal, I still feel like I did my first few weeks at Yale—hopeless and sad and wondering why no one could take a second to be kind. I didn’t want to have to learn to be okay with what hurts me, I wanted to stop being hurt.
Another Southern friend of mine sees accepting the brusque mannerisms of the North as a sort of exchange for the higher density of politically tolerant views. “At the most surface of levels, things are just different here. I came to campus by myself […] I vividly remember a ticketing agent at Penn Station cursing at me as I fumbled with my receipt […] A woman screamed at me for slowly negotiating a broken escalator carrying 100+ pounds of cargo. I wanted to cry.”
As my friend described, “In what I believe is a common experience for many southern students at Yale, the intellectual and political liberalism of the Northeast promised escape from a very different reality at home. That escape is purchased at the price of polite expectation, of kindness for the sake of kindness…”
It seems to be a common feeling among Southerners that coming to Yale requires sacrifice. Proximity to your family, people who speak the same way you do, and the climate you grew up in is traded for a prized education. A slow, relaxed pace is exchanged for a sea of calendars and overlapping events. The way you’ve come to speak and the interactions you think are normal and comfortable vanish, and you are left with words spoken quickly, in a tone that stings—and yet these words are from someone interesting. A well-known professor, an accomplished peer, someone from a culture very different than yours—someone worth speaking to, nonetheless.
Even the sunsets are different in New Haven.
As I learn to navigate conversations at Yale, I see something to hold onto. While I’ve learned that Californians speak slowly and calmly, like Southerners, and that people from the rural Midwest also know a lot about livestock and 4H, I’ve also learned that to Northeasterners, a Southerner is really, really nice.
This was new for me. Few people in my little high school would call me friendly. To people who didn’t care for me, I was harsh, intimidating, stuck up, a “feminazi.” (Behind my back, of course. No one in the South would say that to your face.) To friends, I was “actually nice,” “nice after a little,” and “only intimidating at first.” Southern girls are supposed to be especially bubbly, and I guess I just never met that standard.
But at Yale, I could. The only time anyone has ever told me I was intimidating here, it was because I can be “chatty.” At home, my voice was just an angry and different one. My politics and interests didn’t match South Georgia, so I wasn’t really anyone to be listened to—an outsider with wacky opinions, not part of the real debate.
At Yale, I fit in a little more, precisely because of what made me different in the South, and conversely, I stick out because of the qualities that made me belong at home. The crucial difference is that here, I stick out in a good way.
There’s so much I’ve been able to do with that Southern friendliness—I’ve met so many people through pleasant little conversations, I’ve gotten help with bluebooking, internship advice, and even a free ticket to the Harvard-Yale football game.
When I came to Yale, I didn’t expect to find Northeastern mannerisms harsh, but I also didn’t expect so many people to find me friendly. I don’t feel quite so sad anymore when someone brushes past me or doesn’t respond to something I say. I’m not the only one who has had to adjust, or the only one who has felt like everything they knew is suddenly turned on its head. At Yale, everyone has some little strength they carry from where they’re from. Northeasterners already know the lay of the land and can help everyone learn how to keep warm. A lot of West Coasters have introduced me to good music and reminded me to slow down when life gets too busy. We can all take care of each other the way we know how—and no matter how fast we talk.
Abigail Grimes is a first-year in Pauli Murray College. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.