Southern Manners 101: Our Top 10 Do’s and Don’t’s

Manners matter down south (Source: iStock/ duncan1890)

“Friends and good manners will carry you where money won’t go.” – Margaret Walker, American poet and writer

Good manners have always been part of the social fabric of the American South. Where the practice of so-called Southern manners comes from, no one knows for sure. It is clear, however, that the region’s longstanding tradition of Bible-focused education (think the Good Samaritan) and the enforcement of strict social hierarchy (before and after the Civil War) have contributed to this unique cultural institution.

These days, some might argue that the practice of good manners has declined. We speak to each other more informally and often through devices, rather than face to face. But is civility truly at death’s door? Maybe up north, but not down here. Good manners are part of the Southerner’s identity, and we’re doing our very best to keep our Southern manners alive. Check out our list below of some of the South’s most famous “Do’s” and “Don’t’s” when it comes to good social etiquette, won’t you?

1. Do: Be polite

No matter your mood or thought, always appear pleasant and pleased to be in the company of your companions. This applies whether it’s your best friend or your best frenemy. Look people in the eye and give them a warm but firm handshake when you introduce yourself.

2. Do: Be courteous

When you see someone who needs help, offer your assistance —especially to a stranger. Show a generous spirit and don’t expect payment of any kind in return. When you don’t get as much as a “Thank you” in return, keep your grumbling about karma to a low murmur.

3. Do: Remove your hat

It’s always best to remove your hat when invited into someone’s home, during the performance of the national anthem, when the flag is raised and lowered, and during prayer. This is a demonstration of humility and respect for the generosity of others, the county, and God.

4. Do: Respect your elders

Those who have come before you might be crotchety and demanding, but they have deeper experience and knowledge than you do and it’s important to show them respect. Address elders as “ma’am” or “sir,” or with the title “miss,” as in, “Miss Allison.” Always offer your chair to someone older than you, and never sit down to dinner before your mama.

5. Do: Demonstrate chivalry

The traditions of chivalry play a large role in Southern manners. When a lady enters the room, stand and offer her your chair (if there isn’t one available to her). Do not sit until she is seated. Help her take off and put on her coat, and always hold the door open for her when she is leaving. Finally, when walking outside together, always walk on the street side to shield her from any road splash.

As a lady receiving this attention, you are obliged to allow the gentleman to indulge you in this way. Or at least fake it really well. Always return the gesture with a polite, “Thank you.”

6. Do: Be modest

Bragging is unbecoming; it’s always best to understate your accomplishments. Enough said.

7. Do: Be civilized

Whatever the circumstances, always maintain a sense of propriety. Foul language of any kind is a no-no , as is any unflattering behavior in public (gasp).

8. Don’t: Embarrass others

Regardless of the situation, do not correct someone in public, even if they are dead wrong. When an opportunity arises, take them aside and clarify in a nonjudgmental way in private. Relatedly, do not interrupt a conversation, even if you are compelled to do so. Wait for an appropriate pause to contribute.

9. Do: Write thank-you notes and RSVP properly

When you have received a gift, be sure to let them know you are grateful with a hand-written thank-you note. This holds true whether it’s that fabulous cashmere sweater you’ve been dreaming about or that hideous hat that makes you look like a clown. In similar courteous fashion, when invited to an event, RSVP properly to the host or hostess whether you are attending or not. Again, this shows that you are grateful for having been invited and will likely guarantee that you are invited back in the future.

10. Don’t: Rush through a meal or conversation

We Southerners believe that sharing time with others is precious, and savoring it demonstrates respect for the people at hand. As such, indulge your companions with your time and attention, whether it’s over a meal or just a chat.

Of course, there are many other behaviors that reflect good Southern manners; we can only scratch the surface here. Drop us a line at editor@southtosoutheast.com and let us know what Southern manners matter most to you.