My STEP project brought me to North Little Rock (NLR), Arkansas working for Caterpillar Inc, the world’s largest mining and aggregate removal company. I worked as a Supply Chain intern for the NLR location that manufactured Motor Graders and Wheel Loaders, both aggregate removal machinery. My STEP funds covered my living expenses and some additional travel expenses such as gasoline.
Moving from the Midwest to the South for a summer led me to some profound realizations about the environment that I had grown up in. Though I had opportunities to work in Illinois, the HQ of CAT, I knew that I wanted to work elsewhere, outside of the Midwest. I knew that the culture of the South was inherently different than that of the rest of the US, as I had heard from other people my whole life. The concept of “Southern hospitality” was a myth to me, as far as I knew, I met some pretty nice people in the Midwest growing up. But I wanted to find out for myself.
Most notably, I noticed a difference between how people treated strangers. While I assumed that the notion of hospitality would be a farce and not really noticeable, it was quite literally in your face. I realized how much nicer people could be, despite being people of the same nationality and in the same country: this was purely due to location. Granted, as a white male, I fully recognized that I am fortunate to have been treated the way that I was in the South but at the same time, I did not witness first-hand the traditional racism and hatred that the South is notorious for. Rather, I started to view the South of the United States as more of a homely residence, one where everyone knows each other and consists of a small town vibe. While I wasn’t a fan of the heat in the Arkansas summer, I could see myself returning to the South soon.
About halfway through the summer, I took some time off to go to Manhattan to visit some friends and the difference I noticed from the trip was eye opening to say the least. My trip started out as any other trip, flight, arrive to destination, and do some sight-seeing. Early into my time in New York, I was walking along the street to meet up with some friends. In New York, there is no shortage of people walking to and from different places, with more people on a square block than I would see on a daily basis in Arkansas. As I walked down the street, I kept my head level and eyesight in line with people passing me by. Making eye contact with them was a challenge: if I could make eye contact at all, nearly every person would simply turn their gaze elsewhere. I found this odd, with so many people, there had to be some friendly faces in the crowd.
Returning to Arkansas brought me back to the reality and the lack of warmth that I didn’t realize I was missing. It was remarkable, as soon as I arrived in the South, the change was almost immediate. I had a connecting flight in Georgia and sitting down at the gate, I was greeted by a stranger sitting next to me who decided to strike up some conversation. As I finished my time in Arkansas, this was a reoccurring theme. Any time I would be biking or simply walking through the street, even walking through the plant, people passing by would greet me. At first I thought this was subtle, but the kindness in the South in relation to the East Coast and even the Midwest was almost overwhelming.
I distinctly remember one instance in which I noticed an individual in the South not looking or acknowledging a coworker of mine and me as we crossed paths with her. Almost immediately, my coworker remarked on her lack of eye contact and said something along the lines of “wow, it’s so easy to say hi to people yet she didn’t…”. This wasn’t anything I wasn’t used to; growing up in the Midwest, we had some nice people and some not so nice people. But this coworker had grown up in Arkansas, that culture was all he knew. Anybody that wouldn’t exhibit such a demeanor would stick out like a sore thumb. But he was right, it was very easy to pick one’s eyes up and greet a stranger.
I didn’t realize until after my visit that the difference in regional cultures was so vast and something I want in my life. I suppose when I started out in Arkansas, I was treated well by everyone there. In my view, this was them being friendly with the fact that I was starting out. I didn’t realize that this continued until I went to New York, in which I realized the lack thereof. In fact I even tried to bring the “Southern hospitality” to the East Coast but was met with silence. I realized that cultures are not anything I can impose but rather accept.
Going forward, I’m bringing Southern hospitality to wherever I go. Not that I am imposing it and forcing people to engage in similar behaviors, but rather bringing a new quality of life to myself and those around me. There is no reason to not be friendly to someone, at least starting out. Starting off on a good foot with a stranger is the best way to build rapport and ultimately shows others that I am a genuine and caring person.
Personally, I’m not sure why more folks don’t have a friendly attitude: it helps with quite a lot and makes me happier as a whole. I suppose that some people don’t like being “fake” or forcing happiness if that’s not what they feel. To that end, I completely understand, we all have bad days, weeks, etc. But I’m going to take some time whenever I feel upset or annoying with something to reflect on what it is that is happening and why I am upset. Hopefully, I can acknowledge and be mindful of how I feel, eventually bringing myself back to a mindset of Southern hospitality.