I speak Southern.
Not gentle Southern, that light Southern twang that eases a listener’s ear. Polite Southern. Traveling outside the South Southern. Like a Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon or Morgan Freeman Southern.
Of course, I speak that soft Southern, but I when I say I speak Southern, I mean that thick, syrupy, not understood by those from outside the South Southern. Lucas Black or Jim Nabors Southern. When needed, I can shift gears and drop to a crawling drawl.
Having spent much of my business career traveling, polite Southern is my default. People from other regions make assumptions when they hear a Southern accent. Assumptions about your intelligence. And using a gentle Southern accent can be advantageous.
Hugh McColl, the man who grew NCNB (North Carolina National Bank) into NationsBank and then BankofAmerica, liked to thicken his Southern accent during merger negotiations so that the other bankers in the room underestimated him.
They would all laugh and snicker at his drawl, assume he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, and hammer out a deal. How smart he was sunk in only after they realized that the “mergers of equal” was an acquisition and they now worked for him.
To be fair, saying there is a single Southern accent is as false as saying that there is a “Northern” accent. Most anyone can tell the difference between New York and Boston accents, and New Yorkers can distinguish between lingo from the Bronx or New Jersey.
Likewise, a Tennessee accent differs from Mississippi. The low country sounds of South Carolina are melodious as are the music from the swamps of Louisiana.
The hill country of Western North Carolina, where I live, is distinctive to a Southern ear. But to make this story easy, I will refer to it as Southern. And that accent can be useful sometimes in ingratiating yourself with someone.
A minor repair at the house ended up well beyond my skill set. Knowing your limits is important, and this repair challenged my capabilities. I needed expertise I did not have, so I called a man who was well-known for his skill in this area. Let’s call him Mr. Beauregard, a suitable alias for our character.
Mr. Beauregard came out earlier this week, inspected the problem, and decided the repair outmatched his talents, announcing that his brother was more suited for the work (a specialty within a specialty). When he offered to bring his brother the next evening, I agreed, no other option in front of me.
As twilight grew the next night, a pickup truck pulled in the driveway. Three men emerged – each named Mr. Beauregard.
The youngest, Ernie, the one I had met the day before, was in his late 60’s. Dressed in jeans and a work shirt, he took charge of introducing me to his siblings. The oldest, Vernon, clad in overalls with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips, was pushing 80. Vernon was along for the ride as the middle brother, Tommy, held the expertise I needed.
Typical here in the South, none of them went by their first name, but rather called each other by inexplicable nicknames. I tried to keep track, but got lost as the nicknames morphed from sentence to sentence. I stuck to calling each of them Mr. Beauregard which created something of a “Who’s on First” comedy routine.
The technical terminology confused me, so bear with me through the substitutions in recasting the conversation.
Ernie: When I seen this, I figgered you needed to fix the whatchamacallit.
Tommy: Nope, it’s the doohickey. Clear as a fall sunrise. The whatchamacallit is just fine, but the doohickey is blasted.
Vernon: You’re both ijits. The thingamabob creates the whole durn mess. You get the thingamabob fixed and the doohickey and the whatchamacallit will be just fine.
Tommy: I’m a wishin’ it twere the thingamabob, but you can see righ’ ‘chere that the doohickey is all whackadoodle.
Ernie: Nope. No way. It’s the whatchamacallit, I’m tellin’ yer.
Vernon: Ijits. Surrounded by danged ijits.
Now, again, they weren’t calling the parts whatchamacallits, doohickeys, and thingamabobs, but I had no clue what the real names were. I wanted my problem solved, so I turned to Tommy and asked, “So, Mr. Beauregard, can it be fixed?”
All three responded in unison to their name: Sure. No sweat. We just gotter fix the . . .
Ernie: . . . whatchamacallit.
Tommy: . . . doohickey.
Vernon: . . . thingamabob, ya durned ijits.
I didn’t care which one of them fixed my problem or how they fixed it, I wanted a solution. So, I opened my mouth and the strangest thing happened.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do. And when in a conversation in the South, lather on the Southern accent as thick as molasses on a cold winter day. My speech slowed, vowels lilted, and consonants slurred, “Fellers, howcha wantin’ to get ‘er done?”
Years ago, I had mechanical difficulties with a rented car in The Netherlands. The service dispatched a young man, 18 or 19 years old, to assist. Upon his arrival, he started questioning me in Dutch, not a word of which translated in my poor American brain. Realizing the problem, he switched to a flawless English. The second I heard a familiar language, I relaxed and the rest of our time was pleasant.
That same sense of relief appeared on these gentlemen’s faces as Southern dripped slowly from my lips. They were among kin, folks that communicated with ease. We understood each other.
We spent the next several minutes discussing options for repair, through a language that few people speak. Our voices sang the Southern song as we communicated perfectly.
As we wrapped up, Vernon turned and said, “We purt near figgered ever’thin out.”
I couldn’t have been happier.