Late one night in his dorm room, freshman Zachary Dutton from Moulton, Alabama found himself sitting with his newfound friends trying to explain his family home. The girl sitting across from him simply could not grasp the concept of a doublewide.
She is not alone.
The University of Alabama is now home to more out-of-state students than Alabamians, and with this diversity comes many cultural differences. Sometimes, students meeting southern culture for the first time just don’t get it. The Honors College recognizes these challenges and tries to help students grow more comfortable in their new home at the Capstone.
“We try to find something that’s of interest or things that they’d like to explore and to get them involved in trying to sample,” said Honors College Dean Dr. Shane Sharp.
Sharp compares new cultural experiences to international travel.
“Study up on it ahead of time, find somebody who can get you aligned with it and learn how things are done, and embrace it,” Sharpe said.
Friends told Emily Casson, a freshman from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that the school she was headed to was only a football school and “not a school for brainy people.” But when she arrived in Tuscaloosa she realized the southern stereotypes she’d heard of weren’t always true.
“Everybody assumes stupid people without teeth. No offense, but that’s what the Northerners think,” Casson said.
“It’s very different to have doors open to you down here,” she said. “They actually have manners.”
As a communicative disorders major, Casson was intrigued by the challenges she faced in communicating with her newfound southern friends. She said her friends often use words in ways she doesn’t understand and needs explained.
“I mean we have them, but we call them different things,” she said. “Sprinkles are jimmies to me.”
Her biggest confusion came when she sat on Dutton’s couch, trying to learn what a doublewide was. He and his roommates gladly tried to explain to her that, no, his house did not have wheels, and the family did not simply move it to the next county when a tornado was coming.
Casson’s two biggest surprises were how happy most southerners are and how few of them watch hockey. Hockey is a big thing in the North, but Casson has noticed that it’s not as popular in the South. While she may miss hockey, she said the only thing she would change about the South is the weather. She wants some snow.
Luc LeBlanc, of Felton, Delaware, sat in his hotel room the night before moving into his home away from home: Ridgecrest West on campus. In front of him, the TV was playing a Jack’s commercial with men using burgers as bait for noodling catfish.
“It just kind of broke it,” he said. “I was like, ‘Woah, I’m in Alabama now.’”
Hunting and fishing are often considered stereotypes of the South and such generalizations were a major facet of LeBlanc’s encounters with southern culture.
“The general southern stereotype is kind of a backwoods hick kind of thing,” he said. “You know, they’re there, but there are backwoods hicks in Delaware too. There’s not really more of them in the South.”
LeBlanc said that most of the positive stereotypes were proven true such as southern hospitality. Southerners often greet total strangers in passing, but in the North, most people would not acknowledge someone they passed on the street. Most Northerners are busy and too focused on what they are doing to notice a stranger.
“It’s not that everyone in the North are meanies,” he said, “But they have their head down at their phone and they’re going. I feel like coming from the North to the South is a lot easier than vice versa. Coming from the North to the South is kind of a nice thing, It’s a good thing to get used to.”
After their hospitality, most southerners pride themselves on their cooking, and LeBlanc has enjoyed the different foods he has found here. In Delaware, he said his food choices were very limited, but here he has found numerous small, family-owned and specialty restaurants. He likes to visit the local favorites such as DePalma’s, Mugshots and Glory Bound instead of the national chains he could find at home. He also visited Nehemiah’s Coffee House and said that it stuck out to him because of its atmosphere and the owner’s hospitality. LeBlanc said he could see himself sitting there for a long time.
“I think it’s generally better [than the food back home],” he said. “If I was going to take one thing back to Delaware, I’d probably take Western buffets.”
Like almost everyone who is new to the South, he had some difficulties at first. He said his waiter at the western buffet was extremely kind, but he couldn’t understand her accent. When she walked away, his mom had to translate what the waitress had said for him.
“There’s been a lot of misunderstandings, but being in a college town, people kind of get it,” he said. “People are generally nice and explain it. I did learn the difference between ‘y’all’ and ‘all y’all.’ ‘All y’all’ is like five or more.”
Taylor MacGowan was in for a surprise when she visited Wal-Mart for the first time. The freshman from Bellingham, Massachusetts, was shocked to find that Wal-Marts in the South not only sold alcohol but also firearms.
“You have to go somewhere special to get guns and get alcohol in Massachusetts,” she said. “You can’t just go to Wal-Mart.”
That wasn’t her only Wal-Mart surprise. Most may think that a large national chain like Wal-Mart would be the same in every state. That’s not the case; even Wal-Mart is different in the South.
“Wal-Mart’s open 24 hours here. They don’t have that in the North,” she said. “They close at like 10.”
Wal-Mart is known for selling just about anything, but MacGowan hasn’t been able to find a few food items she loves to get in Massachusetts. She wants a fluff sandwich, but can’t find the fluff she needs.
“It’s a marshmallow crème, but it’s not like your jet-puffed. It’s fluff,” she said.
Now, she’s traded the sweetness of a fluff sandwich for the smoke of barbecue. In the South, she tasted real barbecue for the first time. She had always thought of ‘barbecue’ as any grilled meat with some sort of barbecue sauce on it. When she arrived in Tuscaloosa, barbecue was explained to her as cooking the meat as slowly as possible, gradually building the rich flavors southerners crave.
“[Northern barbecue] does not taste like it does down here,” MacGowan said. “It’s actually good down here.”
People here don’t just take their time when cooking; they do nearly everything slowly. That was one of the stereotypes she found to be true. Most southerners have a more laid back life. Instead of rushing from place to place, southerners prefer to take a leisurely pace to their days. She also noted a lot of cowboy boots and people dressed up to go to football games. The cultural differences were one aspect of the University of Alabama that interested MacGowan.
“I just wanted to meet new people, very different people, and that’s exactly what is here,” she said. “It’s very diverse. A nice change.”
When Katie Guezille came to Tuscaloosa, she left behind friends who worried she’d come back wanting to marry “Bubba,” their stereotypical Southern redneck.
“He’d have a mullet and a shotgun permanently attached to his right hand,” Guezille said. “And he’d have a giant truck with a Confederate flag hanging from it.”
Coming from California, the most common differences Guezille noticed were political. Southerners tend to be more conservative and outspoken than she is used to. They often speak their mind without worrying about offending someone who might have a different opinion. Many of Guezille’s new friends in Alabama are outspoken because their political beliefs are rooted in their religious convictions.
“Everyone here, well most people I’ve met, are Republicans and they have strong beliefs that they don’t hide at all,” she said. “[In California,] people aren’t religious or if they are religious, they’re not open about it because the majority of people who aren’t religious.”
Guezille had a friend in California who was often teased for going to church on Sundays instead of spending time with his friends. She said she didn’t see much of that in the South because the majority of people go to church themselves.
She was also surprised to find that southerners don’t take recycling as seriously as Californians and don’t drive cars that are as environmentally friendly. It’s not that southerners don’t care about the environment with their massive pickup trucks, but they live differently than people from other regions. The pickup is a simply a part of an Alabama man’s life. More than a vehicle, the truck serves a purpose. It can be used for work and hauling equipment or as a place to relax. The bed of a truck is used as a stargazing platform, picnic area, and occasionally a swimming pool with the help of a tarp and garden hose. For southerners, its only natural to ride in the bed of a pickup truck, and that came as a shock to Guezille.
“That blows my mind,” she said. “I mean I’ve seen it, but it’s not legal – only in Mexico and not on real roads.”
But Guezille found that the South is not as backwards as it may appear. While there may be fewer regulations, and people are more settled in their ways, they have a reason for why they do what they do. It may be tradition, faith, or simplicity, but they all have a reason.
Dutton describes himself as the stereotypical Southerner.
“I think people find me rather intriguing, and I don’t understand that,” Dutton said. “The people from out of state don’t really get our way of life, like the amount of guns we own, how we live, how much land a lot of people own. That’s been surprising to me.”
Dutton described the essence of the South in three words: food, faith and hospitality. Dutton’s view could be summed up by a church potluck dinner. Sunday after Sunday, family and friends gather together to share traditional Southern staples like fried chicken, mac and cheese, and family recipes passed down through the generations. While other states may have similar traditions, the food is what makes this distinctly southern.
“If it’s not deep-fried, we’re not going to eat it,” he said with a smile. “It’s not healthy whatsoever, but we love it while we’re still here to love it. That may be shorter than the rest of the country, but we love it while we’re here.”
While the South may be known for hospitality, Dutton said most of the Northerners he has met haven’t been as mean as he may have been led to believe. In fact, he found that they were often more accepting than the southerners he knows. Dutton explained that it’s not that the southerners are hateful or racists, but they find a lot of things odd that the rest of the country takes to be normal. However, he takes pride in Southern traditions and attitudes especially the simple, hardworking lifestyle.
“A lot of people in the South may not have as much as big city people have, but they’re always happy,” he said. “It just seems like we have a good outlook on life. I think that’s a lot vested in our faith.”
Dr. Sharpe advises students to give the new culture a chance and meet someone from the South. He finds that this allows students to engage the new culture while having a friendly face there to help explain things they may not understand.
“I think that benefits both parties,” he said. “What you want is for other people to bring parts of their culture here and experience and talk about that as well, so we all grow from that. It’s not just enough to have people learn about the South.”
To see this article as it was originally published by Mosaic Magazine, click here.