Why I worry about what people say up here because they speak a different language in the Midwest
After two days of meetings with our new VP, a co-worker turned to me and said, “Wow. You’re just so – fearless. You say what you think.”
I answered, “Um. Well.”
He continued. “I’m always worried I’m going to say the wrong thing or that people are going to think I’m stupid. But you go right ahead!”
I pointed out that I had been at the company for less than five years and that he has survived for 41, but I have to admit I felt a tiny bit of pride.
And then, ten hours later, as I was trying to sleep but was unable to sleep, his words popped into my head again.
What he said was not necessarily a compliment.
Or maybe it was.
What language was he speaking?
Was he speaking the sincere, straightforward, direct language of the upper Midwest?
(See also, How to Speak Midwestern, by Edward McClelland. Yes, Marido, “boughten” is a word so you be quiet, you.)
Or was there a code I had not translated?
When I lived in Memphis, I somehow found myself in charge of selling ads for my neighborhood’s annual home tour. I was supposed to recruit others to sell ads as well.
I failed miserably in recruiting and I didn’t even know I was failing. Every single woman I asked told me some variation of, “Thank you so much for asking me! I would just love to! But I can’t! I wish I could!”
In retrospect, my hat is off to them in their amazing ability to politely tell me to go to hell are you kidding me I am not going to go door to door to local businesses to ask them for money?
And I have tried to learn from them and use that approach for saying no. It’s more effective up here than it ever was in Memphis because of course in the South, the native-born women know that technique and know how to counter it.
There is a code in the South. They all know what to wear. I went to my first Junior League meeting (long story) in jeans, tennies, and a t-shirt and discovered a room full of blondes dressed in heels and Lily Pulitzer, blown-out hair and perfect makeup. I would show up at baby showers at noon when the invitation said the party started at noon and I would be the only one there.
And I would have taken a statement such as my co-worker made as a compliment more or less, thinking to myself, “Indeed! I speak TRUTH to POWER! I am not afraid of THE MAN!”
(Even though I should have been, as I was the one laid off in my group when corporate ordered a ten percent reduction in headcount. When your boss tells you that he doesn’t understand what you do and tells you in your review to “quit using so many big words because it makes people feel stupid,” well — that is not a good sign.)
In the South, if another woman had told me, “Wow. You’re just so – fearless. You say what you think. I’m always worried I’m going to say the wrong thing or that people are going to think I’m stupid. But you go right ahead!” it would not have meant, “I wish I had your courage but I do not.”
It would have meant, “Whoa. I cannot believe you say such stupid things and say them out loud and say them out loud in front of the people who could fire you. You sound like a complete idiot but it’s good for me because they are watching you instead of watching me.”
And then the other woman would have added, “Bless your heart.”