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Column: Mama knew my sweetness needed practice
Ronda Rich
Ronda Rich

Of course, I occasionally encounter rudeness in folks. Usually, I’m in a bubble of some kind when I’m jolted right out of it by rudeness or, in some cases, as Mama would say, “downright meanness.”

Usually, readers who comment on my commentaries write to me and, even if they disagree, it is with grace and genteel respect. 

Yet, about every four years, I get one where I suspect there is something wrong in the person’s life more than something I’d written. The reaction is too strong and twisted, with such anger, that the person’s good sense just takes momentary leave.

I’m not a controversial writer. There are too many strong opinions and too much ugliness in this world already. In the 22 years that I have written this column, which has been read by millions, I have sought to be kind, funny, strong enough to make the content interesting and, mostly, just to tell a good story.

A few months ago, a memory came to me and made me laugh: Mama. From the time that I was old enough to leave the house and be driven by a girlfriend’s mother, or when I was old enough to leave on a date or drive myself, Mama would say, without fail, as I opened the door, “You be sweet, now. Hear me?”

It was embarrassing, especially with the first guy I dated regularly, Philip. One night, he helped me into the car, then he slid in on his side and I asked, “Does your Mama always tell you to be sweet?”

He laughed as he started the car. He always had an endearing sense of humor. “Nay, she knows I can’t be sweeter. If I did, flies would be stuck to me all the time.”

I wrote a column on my dear Mama’s words and even joked, “You would think she might say, ‘Be safe.’ No. ‘Be sweet’ was more important.”

That evening, an email that wasn’t sweet came to me as well as the editors of the Gainesville Times. I assured them that I would share it with my readers across the South:

“Hello Ronda,

“I do hope that you penned your column ‘Thou Shalt Be Sweet’ intending to be humorous. If that was not your intention, then I would like to tell you how offensive your column was. In this time of women being subjected to the fantasies of certain men who would like to see us barefoot and pregnant and living in the 1950s, to imply that the most important quality a woman can possess is to be sweet is beyond my ability to politely ignore. The sweetness that you hold so dear has routinely caused the ‘southern woman’ to be looked upon by the non-southern world as phony and insincere.

“I am so happy that I was raised in a home in which girls/women were expected to be intelligent, strong, honest and kind and in which the only thing that was sweet was sugar (and we were warned to have as little of that as possible).

“Sweet as a leading attribute may have been desirable a very long time ago, but in today’s world the emphasis on it is misplaced. Give me a fair, honest, generous woman who doesn’t sugarcoat her opinions with syrup. Really, don’t you think that women, southern or otherwise, would much rather be recognized for their brains and accomplishments than for having sugar syrup running through their veins."

My mama never wasted time teaching what she already knew I possessed — I was the second-highest academic scorer in first grade. Through the years, I won numerous academic and extracurricular awards, perfect attendance in class and Sunday School, and many professional awards, especially in sports writing where I was usually the only woman. My family has long practiced putting others before ourselves and sharing whatever we have.

But sweet?

Mama KNEW I needed work on that.

Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of several books, including “What Southern Women Know About Faith.” Sign up for her newsletter at Her column publishes weekly.