How to Act Like a Damn Lady: A Modern Take on Southern Manners
There are many societal norms of the past that are best left in the rearview mirror. The days of socially acceptable road trips inside cars filled with cigarette smoke and with children sans seat belts need not make a comeback. I think we can agree that allowing women the right to vote panned out all right and that none of us will be commuting to work via horse and buggy any time soon.
I've often wondered if are there any tried and true old-timey ways of doing things that could make us better people in this mixed up modern world we all live in. Perhaps there are a few relics of America's bygone eras that could be useful today, specifically the concept of manners.
So I called my grandmother to find out (also to be a good grandchild). Now, my grandmother is 86 years young, lives on her own, drives a boat of a car, and will call you if you’re too slow to respond to her latest move on Words with Friends. She also happens to be the kind of lady who could run a charm school in the Deep South, something I learned at a young age when faced with lessons about proper fork placement and how putting your elbows on a table was akin to a great evil. I was also told that a nice, polite young lady does not wear black clothing. That last one didn’t stick too well.
I asked my grandmother for some basic charm school pointers to see if they stand the test of time. What could I apply to my daily life in Dallas to become a prim and proper Southern lady? How could this possibly go wrong? (Spoiler: easily.)
1. Always be mannerfulAdmittedly, I have no idea what this means. What one person thinks of as nice could really ruin another person’s day, but I say “please” and “thank you” a lot so I think I’ve got that covered. I’m really mannering my ass off over here. I think this was a veiled way of reminding women back in the 1950s and 60s that things like speaking up, having differing opinions, or being anything other than a genteel wilting daisy was gross and unpleasant and would result in being branded an old maid.
2. Walk with a book balanced on your head to perfect your postureRather than risk smashing my Kindle, I tried walking around with a few different books, because, ya know, what the hey? I thought a copy of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Bitch would give off an air of “please leave me alone because I’m a feminist who is wearing a book as a hat.” Then again, this experience is supposed to be about growth and stuff, so I switched it out for a copy of The Power of Positive Thinking. It still fell off my head constantly.
3. Looking your best is a courtesy to othersI assume this is my grandmother’s passive aggressive way of telling me that I should probably at least TRY to put some makeup on in the morning and drag a comb through my hair. Fine, I’ll do it. But I’m not going to like it.
4. Pin the boy you’re going steady withApparently, this was a thing. A girl would put her lapel pin on the letter jacket of the fella she was going steady with, which was pretty much the equivalent of changing a Facebook relationship status. The only real problem I see with this is, who the hell wears lapel pins these days? I’ll tell you who, politicians running for office with their little American flag lapel pins. No, thank you (see, I say "thank you").
5. Nails must always be polishedSure, sure. I can polish my nails. You should probably know up front that me polishing my nails looks eerily similar to when my 5-year-old niece polishes my nails. It’s messy people, and manicures ain’t cheap.
6. Small exercises can lead to a well-proportioned figureThis advice dates from the days long before Jane Fonda workouts, P90X or CrossFit. I decided to Google what consisted of a workout back in the '50s and '60s, and all I could really find was a belt machine that, I guess, just jiggled your fat into oblivion. Then there was a list of light exercises that included lying on your side and slightly lifting your leg, nothing that seemed to make any sort of real caloric impact. So I’m chalking up the housewife figure of the 1950s more to “pep pills” and chain smoking. But to show that I actually did try a little, I laid on my side and lifted my legs slightly for ten reps while watching Netflix. I now have six pack abs, I’m pleased to report.
7. Always dedicate 15 minutes a day to letter writing, correspondence, and thank you notesYeah, writing... like on paper. Not texting or tapping away on an iPad or laptop but on actual wood pulp formed into a sheet of paper. And what are you to DO with said sheet of paper? Put it in a glass bottle and throw it out to sea? Romantic, but let’s be honest, impractical. I ended up writing some stuff on some bar napkins (mostly things like, “My dearest fartface”) and just handed them to strangers. Surely, this is not what my grandmother had in mind.
8. Only cross legs at the ankles, never the kneesOk, this one is pretty solid. As a lifelong knee crosser, I actually tried this for a week. It’s weird to try to break the knee-crossing habit, but I’ll be damned if you don’t automatically feel tons daintier with one simple ankle crossing change. Of all of these rules, this might be the one that actually sticks. I endorse this.
9. Never grasp a handrail, only touch lightly with two fingersOk, this is just getting bananas. I mean, seriously, this is a straight up safety issue. If I’m grabbing a handrail, chances are I’m doing so because it’s: A) dark, B) the stairs are steep, or C) I’ve had a few cocktails. Most likely, a combination of all three. If it comes down to me looking genteel, or me having to end the night at the hospital after Jimmy Fallon-ing down the stairs, you better believe I will wrap my legs around that rail for dear life and slide down if I must.
10. Never wear jewelry over glovesThere's enough material to do a whole sub-article on glove etiquette alone. Gloves were a HUGE deal back in the day, and there are all kinds of do’s and don’ts related to this, apparently, very divisive accessory, such as: when you should wear them, where you should put them when you aren’t wearing them, what color they should be, and many, many more rules that I just don’t have the stamina to go into. Frankly, my biggest takeaway from this was that I’m super glad we don’t wear gloves for fashion anymore. Who knew the art of glove wearing could induce such stress?
(Photos shot on location at the Texas Theatre, Oak Cliff. No, the ghost of Lee Harvey Oswald was not there. Thanks to human model Krystal Johnson, doggy model Zooey Pee Wee Pickles the Super Rescue Dog, and photography Suzi Paparazzi)
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Amanda Cobra's hometown is one of seven US cities that calls itself the "Watermelon Capital of the World" and she grew up participating in events such as watermelon seed spitting contests. Follow her seed spitting exploits on Twitter @amandacobra.