Unpacking a culture clash…

by Lynne W. Jeter

Published: June 28,2004

“Y’all still fighting a war down there?”

That’s one question retirees considering relocating to Mississippi have asked Natchez Retiree Partnership director Roy Winkworth.

“They’re usually joking when they say that,” said Winkworth, a retired personnel manager from Toronto, who bought a second home in Natchez in 1981 and recently retired there with his wife. “We simply tell them nothing like that is going on here.”

Out-of-state retirees don’t seem bothered by the idea of a North-South culture clash.

“If anything, folks from up North are surprised by how nice folks are here,” said Winkworth. “People will walk up to you on the street and say ‘hi.’ If you look a bit lost, they’ll ask if you need directions. Believe me, that doesn’t happen up North.”

Diana O’Toole, TMP, program manager of Hometown Mississippi Retirement, the state’s official retiree attraction program, said one of the most common questions she hears is: “Will Mississippians like us because we’re Yankees?”

“I tell them there are jerks in every state,” she said. “But by and large, in most of our towns you’ll be welcome with open arms, especially college towns, which are melting pots anyway.”

Christy Knapp, assistant executive director and retiree attraction program director of the Oxford-Lafayette County Economic Development Foundation, said retirees, especially from the New York area, are often concerned about feeling out of place.

“Once they visit the area and see the gracious hospitality, not only from people they encounter around the square or in our chamber of commerce or tourism office, right away they get a very different feel for the community,” she said. “They’re at ease.”

Cultural differences are often more prevalent in business-related relocations. In the South, conversations are peppered with niceties, usually initiated with a mostly sincere “How are you doing?” A generally laid-back attitude is pervasive. Northerners are sometimes viewed warily, and often come across as brash.

When then Clinton-based WorldCom acquired Ashburn, Va.-based MCI, the corporate culture clashed, not only because of a very different management style, but also because of the geographic differences.

“They weren’t real compassionate,” said a native Mississippian who worked at corporate headquarters in Clinton during the influx of MCI employees from above the Mason-Dixon Line. “If you got sick, they were like, ‘What do you mean you’re sick?’ and when I was pregnant, their attitude was, ‘If you’re going to have a baby, you’d better have it right here because we’re in a hurry. We’ve got to get to a meeting.’

“Before the MCI merger, it was a real homey, cozy atmosphere. That all changed. In Clinton, when you passed people in the hall, you didn’t know them. They didn’t wave, talk, nothing. People started leaving in a constant stream.”

Walter Howell, AARP associate state director for advocacy, said he often hears comments like “it’s a lot better than I thought” after people visit Mississippi, “especially from people on the Coast.”

“A retired firefighter from Long Island who moved to Ocean Springs in the 1980s said his only complaint was that with inflation, his retirement has been hurt a little bit,” he said. “But he quickly added that getting away from the cold and snow in the North has been very positive.”

Billy Sims, vice president of human resources for Jackson-based Southern Farm Bureau Life Insurance Company, said, “It’s funny to interview somebody from out West or up North who’s never been to Mississippi and see how surprised they are that there’s more sophistication here than they expected, and a better quality of life.”

“There’s a pre-conceived notion that we’re uneducated, racist, inbred, backwards and live in the swamp, or all dirt-poor people in the Delta,” he said. “The national news only reports the bad stuff. Once people visit Mississippi, they know none of that is true, and that’s when they consider relocating here. They see that our lifestyle is a little slower, not because Mississippians are lazy or dimwitted but because they take time to stop and talk and really care about one other. Who wouldn’t like that?”

When Sims travels around the country, people hear his Southern accent “…and assume, ‘Well, there’s Jethro.’ But I’ve learned it’s an advantage because as long as people think you’re dumber than you are, you really have an edge on them,” he said with a chuckle.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

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