The thing about deep cultural knowledge is that you don’t realize you have it until a piece of your culture gets appropriated.
I have never considered myself particularly Southern, at least in the way that people take ‘Southern’ to mean. I do not frequently use y’all. When I ask for a Coke I do not mean some other carbonated beverage (and I don’t drink it all that much). I’m not a Republican. Or a Christian. I do not wear pearls. I do not cheer for SEC football. I do not like bluegrass music and I play the violin, not the fiddle.
But if there is one aspect of Southern cultural heritage I claim as my birthright (besides excellent taste in bourbon and a kickass biscuit recipe), it is the way we do things with words. The way southerners speak is wonderful beyond explanation. The molasses slow pace of stories; the odd idioms that come from a much older English (“vittels” from “victuals” meaning food); the blunt imagery (like someone’s having been ‘hit by the ugly stick’) and obscure use of prepositions (‘Where you at?’); the creative use of multiple modals (“I used to could ride a bike and I might could ride again someday”). It is so thick as to add a whole ‘nother layer to the sonic sphere.
And I hate that I don’t have an accent. (Many of us don’t. There was a large economic boom in Atlanta in the 90’s somewhat coinciding with the ’96 Olympics. Because it brought many companies to this southern capitol, along with their employees and their employees’ families, my schoolmates were just as likely to be from Albany NY as from Albany GA and I speak what must be the most whitewashed version of English you can imagine. Seriously, there is a whole generation of us who sound like audio description for the visually impaired.) But I make up for this lack with love. I love the way my parents speak and the way my grandparents spoke. I am deeply offended when someone is amused by these accents. I would be happy to tell you where you can stick that amusement.
So naturally, my ears perk up when a “Southernism” suddenly becomes amusing to the general population. And I am staking the minuscule claim I have to a Southern identity to issue a cease and desist order against the rampant misuse of the phrase “bless your heart.”
You heard me.
Give it up.
I’m not entirely sure when it happened (though it likely had something to do with Mitt Romney saying it to Barack Obama in 2012), but suddenly, it seemed that everyone had been let in on this private joke. Suddenly, there was this supposedly secret phrase that conveyed sharp criticism disguised in kindly feeling. Like a pat on the back that is actually a knife.
Here’s the thing. Actual Southern people – not your stereotyped versions of Southern people but real live folks – rarely use “bless your heart” in a derogatory manner.
Let me give you some examples of how “bless your heart” is actually used:
When my helpless three month old son launches one of his truly pathetic baby frowns, I bless his heart. (Actually, I “bess ‘is lil haw’.”) When my husband injures his knee and limps around the house for days, confronted not only with immobility (because he is human) but also his own mortality (because he is a human philosopher), I bless his heart. When my friend goes on yet another disaster of a first date, I bless her heart (and his heart too because, wow, that guy had no clue). And when my mother recounts yet another terrible story from the nightly news, I bless the hearts of people I have never and will never meet.
No, we do not say “Aw, that sucks.” Because the content is obvious and the phrasing tacky.
No, we do not say “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that.” Because it too strongly emphasizes the speaker’s own negative feelings.
No, we do not say “Whoa, I can’t believe that.” Because, quite frankly, we have a tradition here of believing almost absolutely anything.
“Bless your heart” means all of these things and more. It is a validation of grief and a small invocation of strength. We do not bless people in difficult situations, we bless the very mechanism inside them that must deal with the difficulty.
So when I found myself reading about the cutesy cattiness of “Well bless your heart,” I understood why people could distinguish an underlying current of disdain. It happens. Because there will always be Mean Girls who say Mean Things disguised as Nice Things. But I did not understand how this had become the only feasible interpretation.
As was recently pointed out, “By far the most dangerous ‘bless your heart’ usage—a situation requiring absolute mastery—is when you want to call someone [an] idiot straight to their face.”
In other words, “Bless your heart” – when used as a backhanded insult – is not a blunt instrument. It is not for the weak of heart or the soft of spine. It is also not for the novice. It does indeed require mastery. Mastery that takes many years (and a few thorough readings of mama’s Miss Manners library) to acquire.
Yet seemingly overnight, this deeply complex exclamation was compressed into two dimensions and bereft of all its various shades of signifying.
The problem is not simply that the multiple uses of “bless your heart” are being ignored. It is that, in order for the phrase to be employed effectively in a backhanded manner, it has to draw upon the grave sincerity of these other contexts.
When we bless someone’s heart, we absolutely mean it. Except when we don’t.
I blame Northerners. Obviously. Because thinking that you are “in on the joke” means that you think there is a joke to be in on. And we are not a joke.
But Southerners are also part of the problem. A clever phrase had been attributed to us. A phrase that is not racist or sexist. One that is charmingly religious but not overtly evangelical. One that contains an incredible amount of nuance and power, meaning several different things, and meaning them strongly.
So we relished the unexpected popularity of our phrase. Yes, you’re right, it is cool. It is funny that something so benign is yet so cutting. Yes, indeed, we too engage in complex verbal wit. Imagine!
And as so often happens, we let ourselves and our language be defined by outside observers.
From what I gather, people seem to think that blessing someone’s heart is an act of sarcasm. But sarcasm is not what we do here. Sarcasm is what Northern folk do. And teenagers.
This is the land of William Faulkner. Of Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. Of Poe (yeah, that’s right, Poe is OURS). What we do is tragicomic, pseudoreligious, humble effrontery. It is paradox. Not sarcasm.
This is the Gothic, as recounted by an unreliable narrator. Our blessings transform into curses, and no one can even distinguish the difference between them.
So to say that “bless your heart” is merely a “catty” expression is to miss the point entirely. For if someone properly blesses your heart, I guarantee that you will have no idea whether you are being consoled or insulted. That is where its potency comes from. Anyone can issue a sarcastic remark. Anyone can throw out a nasty retort. What only the grotesquely poetic literary mind of the South can do is to destabilize your very hold upon reality in the course of a casual conversation.