I love the way Southerners talk, and by that I don’t mean accent or dialect; I mean the way we talk. It was one of the hardest things for me to get used to living in California. In conversation, Californians, even the laid-back surfer-dude types, are generally very direct. They like to get to the point. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but for me, having grown up in South Carolina, having internalized the inherent rhythms and inflections and other unwritten rules of Southern conversations, it sometimes comes across as abrasive or rude. I have to work at not being offended.
I became acutely aware of the issue when I worked as an attorney in California. When I started my first job, the firm was already involved in a large case. Our client, Big California Company (BCC), was being sued for breach of contract by a small company based in, of all places, South Carolina (Small South Carolina Company, or SSCC). BCC, a producer of consumer goods, had an agreement with SSCC to make components for one of their products, but at some point, the relationship soured, and BCC pulled out of the deal. In reading through the documentation, I pinpointed that exact moment. Representatives of BCC went to visit SSCC’s manufacturing facilities. They came in, guns blazing, ready to get down to business. The owner of SSCC perceived their behavior as obnoxious and arrogant. The meeting did not go well, and things quickly went downhill from there. It was all just a misunderstanding, a cultural mismatch. I tried to explain that to my colleagues, all California natives, but none of them got it, and in any event, everyone was so invested in the litigation at that point that no one wanted to be the first to blink.
At the next firm I worked at, one day I gave what I still believe to be a well-reasoned and accurate explanation of a legal issue to one of the senior partners, also a California native. After I was finished, he said, in front of others, “Matthew never answers a question with ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ There’s always a story.” What he meant disparagingly, though, I took as a point of pride. As Southerners, we can’t answer a question without rambling through the weather, Saturday’s football game, at least three decades of local history, someone else’s family tree, and what we had for lunch. There’s always a story.
I think the fact that storytelling is so ingrained in the way Southerners talk is part of what made me want to be a writer. I also think that it’s an enriching and fulfilling way to look at the world, to know that there’s always a story, and that sometimes, those Californians miss out in their race to get to the point.