Several years ago I heard a Northerner speak critically of how Southerners often say ‘uh-huh’ instead of ‘you’re welcome.’ To this Northerner it seemed a bit rude. But Southerners (cultural Southerners I mean) are well known for being friendly and polite, so this didn’t add up in my mind. I have heard this complaint since, but more importantly, now alerted to the infraction, I have heard ‘uh-huh’ used in place of ‘you’re welcome’ more times than could be counted.
It is most often said after a Southerner (usually a man) gets the door for someone.
Vocally the uh– falls, the -huh rises, and both syllables are short.
I also realised that when I was getting the door for someone and was thanked that I myself always said ‘uh-huh’ instead of your ‘you’re welcome.’ I know that in my mind I am being polite and I am positive that other Southerners are as well.
So why is it that we say ‘uh-huh’ instead of ‘you’re welcome?’
In the South, being both friendly to strangers or showing them respect, as Southerners judge friendliness and respect, is mandated by our culture if you wish to be accepted or not ostracised. Conduct that may be viewed with indifference in other cultures can cause offence, even deep offence in the American South.
That a man should get the door for others, especially women, is on that list of courtesies that may be considered a social requirement. To acknowledge someone that gets the door for you is also a requirement. But this paradigm and expectation of ‘thank you – you’re welcome’ is common in many other cultures, such as the American Midwest.
But why do we say ‘uh-huh’ instead of ‘you’re welcome?’
I think the root cause pertains to a cultural quality that may be considered something uniquely Southern. I am struggling to convert my theory into words here, but I think it has something to do with the Southerner’s inherited notion of humility as well as duty.
If I pull you out of a burning building, or your car out of a ditch, or just help you gather up the things that you have accidentally dropped, I have in fact done you a favour at some cost to myself. You’ll likely say ‘Thanks, Mark!’ And I will say ‘you’re welcome’ or maybe ‘my pleasure.’
But to merely get the door for you was at almost no cost to me. While good manners requires that I must accept and acknowledge your gratitude, I must not be puffed up or act as though I have done you a favour.
I might say ‘my pleasure’ but such a proper expression seems more appropriate for a doorman, waiter, deliveryman, or any serviceman to say in the execution of his vocation. And for them ‘uh-huh’ may not rise high enough, and in fact may be considered rude.
‘Here’s your food.’
‘Uh-huh.’ Or put another way ‘Whatever.’
But ‘uh-huh’ doesn’t sound rude to the Southern ear in the context of getting the door. So what I think the Southern man is saying when he gets the door for you is ‘It is my pleasure to do this little thing for you that is but my duty.’ Which he contracts to the humble, self-effacing…
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