February 2016

What is a Southern Gentleman,exactly?

Author: Courtney Hampson

If we put any faith into stereotypes, all Southern gentlemen would be named Rhett, Ashley, Wilson, and Huntley. They’d wear seersucker and bow ties and speak with a drawl. Their charming smile would slide slowly from one side of their mouth to the other, starting as a smirk, and quickly enveloping your entire being.

But that is only if we put any merit in stereotypes.
“He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”

That excerpt, from The Great Gatsby, in which F. Scott Fitzgerald describes Gatsby, easily could have read, “He had a great smile.” But instead, Fitzgerald chose his syrupy words to accurately depict a man in a way that only a Southern woman might appreciate. Indeed, she may swoon. Gatsby was, after all, autobiographical in nature for Fitzgerald as he, too, fell in love with a Southern belle after returning from the war.

Likewise, Rhett Butler perfected the art of making a Southern gal blush: “No, I don’t think I will kiss you, although you need kissing, badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how.”

But, is that what makes a Southern gentleman, a gentleman? His way with words? His ability to maintain his manners, while still making you weak in the knees?

The literary and movie references to Southern gents could go on for miles. I mean isn’t Jake Brigance the reason all Northern girls want to migrate South? Brigance, John Grisham’s character in A Time to Kill is all sweat and sex, as he valiantly defends Carl Lee Hailey, who is on trial for murdering his 12-year-old daughter’s rapist. He is charming. And strong. And smart. He sweet talks his assistant. Struts in seersucker. And sweats in the Mississippi heat like it is going out of style. Now that is a Southern gentleman.

My first encounter with a Southern gentleman was on the day I moved from the North to Bluffton, nearly eleven years ago, as I was barreling down Interstate 95. Nine hours into the journey, somewhere outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, I heard the moving truck emit a noise that made my pulse quicken and my blood pressure rise. The truck barely coasted across two lanes and came to rest on the side of the road with a shudder. And there I sat, perched nervously on a cooler, in the blazing afternoon sun, contemplating my decision to move 800 miles from home on a whim.

Just after 6 p.m., a Southern gentleman arrived, and moments later broke the news: The truck could not be fixed. But he offered to tow me to Bluffton. Incredulously I asked, “Wait! You are offering to tow the 26-foot moving truck 300 miles?”

At 10:30 p.m., I arrived in Bluffton, escorted by a man who quickly transitioned from stranger to savior. As he prepared for his return trip to Raleigh, I attempted to tip him. The gentleman declined, and when we insisted—the gentleman obliged saying, “Today is my wife’s birthday. I’ll stop and get her some flowers on my way.” And this was my introduction to the South—a true gentleman who gave me my first dose of Southern hospitality. Something tells me that his wife understood why he got home late that night, because she had married him for just that reason. This doesn’t happen everywhere, I guarantee you.

Since then, Southern gentleman have crossed my path in various forms. My first Southern friend and colleague took on the Jersey girl as a challenge, when no one else was really interested. He made me hunt. And listen to country music. And one day I came into work, and he had flipped all of my office furniture so it faced the other direction. His quick wit was a match, but his manners always got the best of him as if going toe-to-toe with a Jersey girl broke his sass-o-meter (yes, it is a thing). He is kind. And true. And sometimes just calls to ask, “Are you happy?” He’s a gentleman.

And then there is my first mentor here, who proved that there are Southern men who aren’t a part of the good ol’ boys’ network. Oh yes, it exists, but he didn’t let it impact my career; instead, he continued to push me along. And, five years later, I find myself walking into his old office sometimes and just wishing I could sit down in that chair and spill my guts, just one more time. He would slowly slide the box of tissues my way and just listen.

But, it isn’t just about the man they are at their core: men who respect their moms and quote their grandmothers and know exactly how to treat a lady. It’s how they hold the door and say please and thank you in a dialect that makes every word sound better.

And sure, they look good in seersucker and linen, a bowtie hanging untied at their necks. Their shoes have no socks. Their shirts have monograms. And sometimes their pants are embroidered with crabs or labs. They have grass-cutting clothes and church clothes. Game day clothes and boating clothes.
And when they meet you, they give you the up-down in the most obvious way, but it never comes across as aggressive or inappropriate. Instead, you are flattered. They compliment you, their voice dropping an octave so only you can hear. And they blush when you compliment them. They cherish you. And cheer you. And the first time they call you darlin’, you wish you’d shown up here sooner.

And when he smiles at you, he smiles understandingly — much more than understandingly. It is one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it that you may come across four or five times in life. It faces—or seems to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrates on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understands you just so far as you want to be understood, believes in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assures you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.” 

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