Sconnies like to think they’re the friendliest people on Earth. There’s a comedian named Charlie Berens who makes a lot of hay on this and other cute things people say about themselves here. He developed quite a following during the pandemic—check out his site to get the gist.
Ever-suspicious Chicagolanders like me, forever the enemy up here, are apt to roll their eyes at all this self-professed amiability, but I try to play nice.
I was thinking a lot about friendliness on our Easter road trip to see my son and his family in Virginia, including a minor detour on the way back through the Shenandoah and over to Nashville, a place I’d somehow managed never to have been. These Southern (sort of) places also like to boast of their brand of hospitality.
I say “sort of” because my son lives in an upscale DC suburb in Fairfax County, and in Nashville we nestled into a VRBO in a boho bungalow East Side neighborhood very similar to our own in Madison. Neither of these spots are typical of their regions, to say the least, but on a road trip you get plenty of the in-between places, too.
So what did I see?
Our waitress in Somerset, Pennsylvania was congenial and skilled, but our less than half filled hotel’s clerk, her friendly smile beaming at our request for a quiet room, plunked us right next to a family with an uncertain number of kids, the apparent mother of those lively little rascals towing back to the room at 2:00 AM some man who was more than willing to oblige her in a long hallway conversation that eventually but thankfully got around to trailing away somewhere.
People walking along the Lake Acotink trial in Fairfax County and the Shelby Bottoms trail in Nashville nearly all waved or said hello, even more so than in Madison, it seemed. Runners and bikers? Not so much—anywhere. Maybe it’s just all that heavy breathing. Maybe not.
East Side Nashville was the Shangri-la of polite four way stops. I swear, people were dying in their sleep at them, arriving at the pearly gates with their left turn signals still on. Downtown at Honkytonk Row, which was quite lively even on what everyone called a quiet Wednesday evening, none of the patrons seemed much interested in venturing outside their own little parties—no different than Vegas, Bourbon Street, Disney World or Piccadilly Circus, really. Staff tried to be accommodating, but they were tired a lot. There are an unimaginable number of musicians living in Nashville, nearly all of them working day jobs.
Because you can just window shop the music down Honkytonk Row, it’s easy to move on, so the bands don’t get a lot of breaks. It’s very wrong, and maybe that’s why the chef at our excellent pizza bar in Five Corners, who plays the drums, was struggling to train a new hire, though he seemed to appreciate some conversation.
A hotel-strewn town along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a VA Tech-student-staffed diner in Blacksburg, VA, and a trending neighborhood in Nashville—these are all places that a seventy-something with a ponytail and wire rimmed glasses aren’t exactly foreign. It’s no accident that I tend to navigate along a path somewhere between the mad scramble of mainstream tourism and the stifling conformity of small towns.
But there are bumps along that road, too. The hostess of a coffee house with about a hundred forms of the word “neighborly” posted on its walls seemed oddly put out that we got in line and placed our order for coffee and breakfast before sitting at an open table, a protocol quite common in similar Madison coffee/brunch houses. There were no signs to wait to be seated or indication that “Order Here” was for to go orders only—that would be rude, apparently.
And after our spending at least an hour at the aforementioned pizza bar, there were still at least six open tables for two, our original request when reserving.
These are insignificant things, sure, because the trip went quite well. Nevertheless, lacking more conclusive evidence, I’ve come to some conclusions.
There are no hotbeds of friendliness. There are people who react with people and people who don’t. The best conversation I had with a stranger was with an older, very rural Appalachian woman working the breakfast buffet at the Comfort Inn in Somerset. We talked about the weather and then she hit with me with a sly grin and went into some real homey stuff. After I asked her if frogs really had hair on their backs, she said that it may or may not be true, but it wasn’t the point. She was very sweet, very funny, and sharp as a tack. I’d like to think she knew a good audience when she saw one.
You just don’t know about someone until you try.
Some people (like unshy and quite retired me, for instance), have a lot of time to be friendly. Many don’t. Some care enough to make the time. Many don’t.
As with anything else, practice helps. People are cautious. Introversion abounds. It doesn’t mean you can’t be friends—likely you just need to put a little thought into it, or even do a little homework. First and foremost is a thought you must always keep in mind:
People are far more like you than not.
Even Packer fans.
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