Presidential Debate: Thoughts on Manners, Accents and Ass-Kickings

OK, they're finally getting down to the part of the last presidential debate I care about, accents and manners. So I have questions.

The New York Times has a piece on its local page today about how New Yorky and Jewish the last debate was, because most of the people who spoke from the audience had New York accents and ... I'm sorry, the Jewish part was a little too inside for me.

The Times quotes a piece in a self-described "online magazine of Jewish ideas" saying the reason the debate was so Jewish was, "Four words: Town Hall. Long Island." I'm not familiar. I'm going to take their word for it.

But I did notice the accents. The story in the Times says most New Yorkers were proud to hear authentic Northeastern urban accents coming back at them off the TV in such an auspicious setting, but some winced.

I do get that. That's how Texans were when George W. was in the Oval Office -- a mixture of boot-scootin' pride and cringing embarrassment. But here's my question: Why? Why do regional accents make us proud and also make us blush when we hear our own in what we know is a very focal setting?

Of course, when I say, "our own," I have to be careful. I have lived in Texas about 200 years, but my fourth-generation Texan wife has warned me in the past not to take on airs and try to act like a real Texan. To her, I will always be a carpetbagger, and she says I have not lost one ounce of my Michigan accent, which, by the way, is not a Sarah Palin accent, thank you.

But I guess it might be a distant cousin. When we spent a week of vacation in Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula this summer, I came to a terrible realization: I have been away so long now that when Michigan people speak to me with regular Michigan accents, I find myself wondering, "Why won't they be serious?"

They are serious. But they don't sound serious to me any more, because of their accents. Which my wife says I still have. So am I not serious?

Some accents, like Palin or Gomer Pyle, are I.Q. accents. We hear one, and we immediately make assumptions about a person's intelligence. Which, of course, is stupid. Of us. But there you have it.

Our son, a fifth-generation Texan, has absolutely nonregional speech. When he was in college, he used to describe his fraternity brothers as divided into Texas-accent guys and no-accent guys. But they were all from Texas. What is that?

Now for manners. One New Yorker quoted in the Times piece faulted Obama for not telling Romney to "get outta my face" when Romney stepped into his space during the debate. So is that an indicator that New Yorkers are more rude than the rest of us? Certainly that's a common take.

But I'm kind of a neutral observer here on the manners thing. In Detroit, the melting pot city where I grew up, people barely shared a common spoken language, so we had to yell a lot and do sign language with our arms to make ourselves understood sometimes. In rural and small-town Michigan, people were polite but also had a major personal space thing. In a post-office line, everybody had to stand five feet apart. I always wondered, if they were so polite, what were they so afraid of?

When I first came to Texas, I did a roving reporting job out in the boondocks, and one of the first things I noticed was that Texans, especially in small towns, were elaborately polite when approaching or being approached by strangers. But here's the catch. It's sort of like, "You will either be elaborately polite with me, Mr. Stranger, or I will shoot you."

Is that really polite? Is it manners, if the next thing right beyond it is an ass-kicking? Here's a theory: Maybe the New Yorkers have better manners, in a way, because they can afford to get some tension out without resorting immediately to fisticuffs. Hmm? Yeah, I knew I wasn't going to get very far with that one. Just a thought, anyway.

The saddest day -- I'm glad I won't be here to see it -- will be the day the last trace of regional accent evaporates from our culture and we all sound like TV announcers. We know that's coming. I don't want to see it. Or hear it.

Manners, however, that's more up in the air. The big thing people talk about now is the erosion of civility. I don't know where I stand on that. I'm for the erosion of ass-kicking. But, you know, I make my living approaching strangers, so I have a dog in the fight.

Is it possible that less civility could lead to less ass-kicking, if we learned to manage our tensions like those Long Islanders? Hey, again, only a thought. Don't hate me. Especially don't kick my ass.

I wish we could hear the accents of all the commenters here. Which way do you think they would tilt? Gomer? Sarah? George W.? I think it's Sheldon Cooper.