Have A Coke and A Smile

by Joanie Butman

Last week I mentioned fear being the number one reason people choose not to open themselves to others. The conversation continued during lunch with some friends from Texas who described how difficult it was to assimilate to the Northeast culture. It was then that I realized the protective veneer, which is de rigueur where I live isn’t universal but regional.

From that luncheon I stopped to do an errand and met another friend from the south in CVS who offered me a coupon for a free beauty product. In typical northern fashion I replied, “Why? Do I look like I need a beauty product?”  We laughed, but my response illustrated the suspicious nature northerners have towards people who are ‘too friendly.’  She asked me why people up here find it so hard to connect on a daily basis. What’s everyone so angry about? “Maybe because you think they need beauty products.” was the first thing that popped into my cynical northern head. She went on to describe driving through town and stopping to say hello to a friend who happened to be a police officer. While he was at her window exchanging niceties, the woman behind her impatiently leaned on her horn. Who beeps at a police officer? I can’t repeat what my friend called her, but it wasn’t the all-encompassing southern, “Bless her sweet little heart.” Shocked by the woman’s rudeness, she commented to her friend, “that’s nervy.” The officer wasn’t surprised at all and proceeded to tell her how he had just gotten written up the prior week for SMILING. “No, Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore.”

I’ve come to learn the southern expression “Bless her heart” can mean anything from ‘what a jerk’ to ‘that is so stupid but I can’t tell you.’ For example, your friend tells you “I didn’t know I had a flat tire so kept driving and ruined the rim.” How does someone in the south respond? “Oh, bless your heart.” Northern translation, “I can’t believe anyone could be that stupid.”

Years ago I attended a talk entitled, “Hard-wired to Connect,” which I thought was going to address the concept of community in today’s society. I was surprised by a number of things.

  1. That a group of intelligent people actually thought they had to conduct a scientific study to arrive at this conclusion.
  2. That I wasted an entire evening listening to someone support such an obvious fact instead of “connecting” with my family.
  3. No solutions to improve connectedness within our society were suggested.

Only in the Northeast would people have to go to a “program” to discover that humans are born to connect. It says right in Genesis “It is not good for man to be alone.” Yet, someone thought they needed to do a study to prove what God said at the beginning of time? I don’t think they would have gotten much of an audience in the south. However, there would certainly be a lot of head shaking and “Bless their hearts” going around.

My daughter will be heading south to college this Fall. I am going to have some of my southern friends give her a crash course before she leaves. On our first trip to the Carolinas to look at schools, we almost made it to the gate before our first argument. Knowing her distaste of my habit of speaking to strangers, I gave her a ten-minute warning that I was going to talk to a lacrosse team in the airport. She disappeared immediately then began texting me, “What is wrong with you? Why do you have to talk to everyone?” Maybe I brought home more than a hat from my one and only visit to Texas.

As a mini-orientation, a friend recently sent her an email entitled Suthunuhs! offering a number of truisms about Southerners such as:

  • “Only Southerners make friends while standing in lines ... and when we're "in line"... we talk to everybody!”
  • “Southerners know everybody's first name: 
Honey, Darlin',  
  • “There ain't no magazine named Northern Living for good reason. There ain't nobody interested in livin' up north, nobody would buy the magazine!”

Her college prep curriculum did nothing to prepare her for this transition. I thought back to my conversation with my Texas friends and wondered whether it is easier for a northerner to move south or vice versa.

I actually have relatives who live in Texas – some of them born and bred there, some not. One of the transplants wrote me recently about how she is not recognized as Texan by most "True Texans" and gave me a perfect example of being profiled by a northern police officer.

A couple of years ago when I was at the cottage in Michigan I was stopped for speeding by an Elk Rapids policeman. I was going 70 in a 55 mph zone and I pulled over immediately, but the cop was beside himself once he saw my driver's license. He had his hand on his pistol (still holstered, thankfully) but he was talking so fast and in such an agitated way that I couldn’t understand him the first four or five times that he demanded to know "if I had a weapon in the car." I was convinced that he was a deranged maniac, and probably not even a cop, but it turned out the he was equally sure that anybody from Texas would surely be packing and probably deranged. Yikes!

Yes, I would say us northerners are a suspicious bunch and have some trust issues.

As my southern friends reminded me, every interaction we have with others is an opportunity to have a positive impact or not. There is no neutral, so as she suggested, “Why not choose a good one?” This choice takes on many forms: a smile, a wave, a nod, a kind word, a compliment, a thank you, an attentive ear, anything that conveys to that person that he or she is worth your time, your conversation, your attention.  Nothing makes us feel better than being greeted with a smile. That’s why the “Have a Coke and a smile” ad campaign was so successful. It even ignited a National Smile Week (first week in August if you are wondering), which I am sure was instituted for those of us who live north of the Mason Dixon line.

Coke’s Mean Joe Green (probably from the north) commercial is a classic example of what the Choose Wisely! effort is all about. Click on the link if you don’t remember it. As Mean Joe heads toward the locker room limping and dejected, a small boy walks up to him and asks, “You need any help?” Mean Joe grunts in reply. Then the boys says, “I just want you to know you’re the best ever.” and offers him his coke. Mean Joe’s brash veneer melts away as he drinks and he, in turn, offers his jersey and a smile of gratitude to the boy.

It is during times of trouble, discouragement, anguish, fear, stress, etc. when we need the support of others for strength, guidance, comfort and encouragement. We will all experience times when we feel like a Mean Joe Green, dejected, beaten up and limping through life. We will also experience even more times when we can choose to be the one offering a coke and a smile.

When we choose to take the time to share in each other’s daily burdens, struggles, joys, sorrows, triumphs and failures, I believe we will find that those veneers we tout around in the northeast aren’t as hard as many southerners think.