A Southern Sense of Humor

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My wife and I lived in Iowa during the mid-90’s, and we thoroughly enjoyed playing in the snow. The very first snowfall we encountered was an 11-inch blizzard that fell in early November. We knew we were going to be facing snow in Iowa, and we were expecting to see more than we were accustomed to seeing in Alabama, so we thought that 11-inch snowfall was perfectly normal. It was only later that we learned that they were used to seeing only 2 or 3 inches of snow at a time, and one single 11-inch storm was highly unusual. But we didn’t know that at the time.

We got up that morning and had to dig our truck tires out of the snowbank in our driveway in order for us to get to work. Both of us worked at Iowa State University in Ames, and as I said, I figured this was normal. After several minutes of digging and shoveling, it finally dawned on me that we were the only people in our neighborhood trying to get their vehicle out of the snow. As we looked around at the other houses, we could see lots of faces pressed to their windows and peering out at us. We figured that all of our Yankee neighbors were getting their morning kicks by watching the dumb Southerners try to deal with the snow, and we were determined to not give them the satisfaction of our failure. So, we kept digging, and eventually freed our pick-up from the tundra. Then, we climbed in and headed off to work – waving cheerily at all the faces still watching us. We slipped, skidded, and slid our way down the Lincoln Highway to the campus of Iowa State, and discovered that the campus was closed. Apparently, the snowfall was so thick that the university’s buses couldn’t roll, which caused them to cancel classes.

Our neighbors hadn’t been watching us for fun. They were watching us because we really were the only moving objects out there that morning trying to dig out and drive. As time progressed, we noticed that each and every time it snowed, our neighbors would watch us out their windows when we walked outside. They always wanted to see what the dumb Southerners would do each time in the snow. So, we gave them a good show. We would pretend to fight over who got to shovel the walkway (which we actually liked doing), and we would have snowball fights with each other. We had exaggerated pratfalls on the icy walkways, and we just generally gave them something fun to watch.

That story helps me to explain our confusion in Iowa over their total lack of a sense of humor up there. Whenever we told that story to anyone back home, they laughed and laughed at our predicament. Yet, whenever we told any of our Iowa friends and colleagues about that morning, they would listen intently and follow up with a deadly serious lecture about the dangers of heavy snowfall. Trust me, the Iowans are not known for their senses of humor. By far, that was a lot harder to get used to than the snow.

I was reminded of this the other day when I accompanied my wife into Hobby Lobby. My job is to hold her purse and follow her around in case she needs me. I’m good at it, because I’ve had decades of practice. When we checked out, my wife held up an item we’d brought with us into the store to try and match, and she told the cashier, “This is mine. I brought it with me.”

The cashier feigned a dramatic reaction and said, “I totally don’t believe you.”

It was awesome. We laughed, traded a couple of more one-liners with her, and then left – smiling. And it reminded both of us that no matter how hard we tried in Iowa, we couldn’t get the Iowans to banter with us like that. We used to say funny and silly things to practically everybody we met, and they would just stare back at us with concern. Nobody ever seemed to understand that we were just playing. I mean, it’s not like only a few people would react that way – they ALL reacted that way. Now, don’t get me wrong. Iowans are very witty, Iowans are very sarcastic, and Iowans are very clever. But that’s not the same thing as having a good sense of humor. And Iowans do not have a sense of humor.

The older I get in life, the more I keep thinking that one of the things for which Southerners are famous is our fantastic sense of humor. Think about how many times a day you might trade jokes, fake insults, and barbs with total strangers. It seems to come naturally to Southerners, and we’re all so good at it. Part of it, I think, is our willingness to be truly friendly to practically everybody we meet. People aren’t like that around the rest of the United States, so I guess their senses of humor are dwarfed and shriveled as a result.

When we were kids, my father was infamous for “picking at us,” as he called it. He read every bedtime story wrong. He played with toys all wrong. He called all of us by the wrong names. If I told him I was thirsty, he would reply, “Hello, Thirsty.” If I said to him, “Hey, daddy, guess what?” then he would reply with, “Uh, Ho Chi Minh died?” The result of this ridiculous exchange helped cure me of asking “guess what” annoyingly, and it also created a 9-year old that knew who Ho Chi Minh was. My point in all of this is to explain that by “picking at us,” my father helped us develop that good old Southern sense of humor. It’s vital to our existence. No matter what goofy, left-field response we get from somebody that’s being funny, we’re all prepared to roll with it. Not stare blankly like the Iowans.

I’d like to think that those Iowans in our old neighborhood are still telling stories to this day about the dumb Southerners that played in the snow all the time.

About Tom Daniel

Tom Daniel holds a Ph.D in Music Education from Auburn University. He is a husband, father of four cats and a dog, and a college band director who lives back in the woods of Alabama with a cotton field right outside his bedroom window. His grandfather once told him he was "Scotch-Irish," and Tom has been trying to live up to those lofty Southern standards ever since. More from Tom Daniel

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