When I was a young professional, forging my path into the world of work, I took a job at a bank holding company. My boss was very…prim. Priggish, even. Uptight, Outta Sight. (She will play the role of the Uppity Snoot.) During my first week on the job, she made appointments for me to go around and introduce myself to some of the higher ups in the organization. Before each one, she would offer pointers–AS IF my mama had not already raised me, thankyouverymuch. I nodded and smiled and went about my business.
Well, one morning, she came to my desk all breathless and said, “Today you are going to meet the head of commercial lending! He’s VERY important and he’s very busy. Be sure to be your most professional and don’t waste any of his time. Get in, get out, get back over here.”
I got back to the office an hour and a half later. She was in a swivet. A full on tizzy. “What took so long?” she panted.
“It turns out his in-laws live three houses down from my daddy! They’ve been taking their dogs to his clinic for years. I invited him over for a hot dog on July Fourth. He’s a hoot!”
She looked like I had slapped her. “What? How did that even COME UP?”
And that’s when I taught her a thing or two about the power of asking about Y’Mom’n’em.
For those of you who don’t know Y’Mom’n’em, that’s a Southern idiom for “Your mother and them.” That is, your people. A simple question like “How’s Y’Mom’n’em?” conveys that the speaker shows concern not only for you, but for your entire family. It’s “in speak,” a form of jargon that members of a social group use among themselves to establish solidarity. Like “totes ma goats” or “a’ight” for my teenager’s friends.
So…how did I end up inviting the head of Commercial Lending over for a hot dog? As soon as I had shaken his hand firmly and introduced myself (as my mama taught me), I noticed that he had a degree on the wall from the University of Georgia. I said, “Oh, I guess you’re a Georgia fan. May I offer my sincere condolences on behalf of the alumni of Auburn…” because we had recently beaten them in football. He laughed and said “Oh…now we’re hiring people from Auburn?” I mentioned that I had my graduate degree from there (see how I slipped that in there?) and that I had my undergrad degree from Wesleyan College. He told me that he knew a girl who had gone to Wesleyan–Sara Soandso from Griffin. I exclaimed that she was in my sister’s class at Wesleyan and she was now back living in Griffin. That’s when he mentioned that his in-laws lived there too–I said they probably knew my dad, the veterinarian–he told me about the dogs–then it even came down to how he had been down that past weekend to help them with some housework and BAM…they live three doors down from my’dad’n’em.
That exchange took a couple of minutes. THEN we talked business.
That’s the lesson I boiled down for my boss. Southerners like to establish a personal connection first, no matter how tangential it may seem, then they talk business. According to the business manuals, we’re supposed to conduct business together to establish trust, then share personal connections. Nope. Not around here.
Explaining Y’Mom’n’em to her that way clicked and she began to understand all those “wasted” minutes at the beginning of every business meeting–talking about football or fishing or what was for dinner last night or how Little Sally did in the school spelling bee. She thought of those tidbits as the kind of things you saved for AFTER work–but no one was socializing with her after work because they didn’t trust her. She never asked about Y’Mom’n’em!
Those exchanges establish trust and lay the groundwork for making decisions together or conducting business. I know we aren’t the only social group that does this, but it’s a pretty concrete rule down here–make a connection on a personal level if you ever want to connect on a professional level.
There you have it–sociolinguistics, Southern storytelling, and comeuppance. If this story had a three-legged dog name of Cletus, it would be perfect.