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'Bless Your Heart' And Beyond

Actress Juliet Prowse wearing a 'southern belle' dress and bonnet.
Ian Showell/Keystone/Getty Images
Actress Juliet Prowse wearing a 'southern belle' dress and bonnet.

Maybe you know the saying: if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all?

Of course, plenty of people have sounded nice when the intention is cutting.

Writer Helen Ellis includes this type of comment in the vernacular of the “Southern Lady Code.” She flips the saying on its head, and defines it as when “you don’t have something nice to say, [and you] say something not-so-nice in a nice way.”

This is when things are tacitly expressed, like this phrase, which many of our listeners mentioned to us.

— michelle ferrell (@MadameMiso) April 12, 2019

Southern coded sweetness isn’t the only way meaning is indirectly conveyed via regional subtext.

This is part of writer Paul Kix’s take on “Midwestern Nice: A Tribute to a Sincere and Suffocating Way of Life”

I grew up in Iowa but I’ve heard the same line repeated of people from Minnesota or Wisconsin or Nebraska, and always with the unfussy grammar of the plain-spoken: “The Midwest is a great place to be from.” It is nurturing and civic-minded, maybe due to the Scandinavian and German Protestants who settled the land, living by the Golden Rule, and its history is a continuity of compassion: the territory of Iowa in the Antebellum Era refusing to segregate schools, an idea that even Ulysses S. Grant called radical; a president from Illinois who ended slavery; Wisconsin laborers, in the early 20th century, receiving workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance decades ahead of the New Deal; Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois, in the modern age, allowing gay marriage years before the progressive movements in New York and California could do the same. The Midwest takes pride in all this; it would just rather not talk about it, you see, because that would be boasting, and boasting is not nice.

That humility permeates everything, helping to create the most remarkable facet of Midwestern Nice: the restraint from speaking ill of others, even if others should probably be ill-spoken of.

We talk with Kix and Ellis, as well as a linguistic expert, about these regionalisms. What’s the context behind these niceties? And why have they stuck around?

Produced by Bianca Martin.


Deborah Tannen, Professor of linguistics, Georgetown University; author of many books, including “You Just Don’t Understand”, “That’s Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships” and her latest, “You’re the Only One I Can Tell.”

Paul Kix, Writer of the Thrillist article, “Midwestern Nice: A Tribute to a Sincere and Suffocating Way of Life;” author, “The Saboteur;” @paulkix

Helen Ellis, Author, “American Housewife” and the latest “Southern Lady Code;” @WhatIDoAllDay

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