Southern Etiquette: The Good, the Bad, the Funny, the Frightening. (Our Southernisms for the Week)


Each week we do a hashtag game centered around a southernism. A southernism is either a southern phrase or a cultural tradition in the south. We invite people to think of an example of that phrase, practice, or institution connected to our weekly theme and write it out with a hashtag attached to it. Last week I was inspired by stories my pastor shared. She is a New Englander transplanted to North Carolina for her ministry at the United Church of Chapel Hill. She’s served here now for a couple of decades. She says that when she first moved to North Carolina, she constantly found herself unintentionally missing certain cultural cues and accidentally stepping on people’s proverbial toes. It took her awhile to learn the unspoken rules of the road, or etiquette, that many long-time southerners expect people will use in relationships with each other. I suggested we use the hashtag #southernetiquette. And we had a lot of good responses.


The first I’ll share is the one pastor Jill mentioned: In the south, you can’t just make a phone call and get off. Hailing from north of the Mason-Dixon line, Pastor Jill was used to just calling someone up, getting right to business, and getting off the phone. Not so in the south. Here you are considered rude if you do that. I’d add, you are considered rude here unless you ask about everybody’s brother, sister, cousin, mom, dad, relative, and pet. And listen patiently. Here in the south we may not be sure it takes a village to raise a child, but we sure are certain it takes hearing about the whole village to make a phone call.



Thanks to reader Rev. Ann Luchterhand Joyce, here’s another piece of ‎southern etiquette‬. “Good girls don’t tat, smoke, or chew or date boys that do.” Here’s why she (and I) don’t buy that: How bout you?

another family reunion

Rev. Hugh Hollowell hit on a piece of southern etiquette in my recent interview with him for Progressive Redneck Preacher. He said, “in the south, food is love”. So in the south, whenever disaster strikes, you are expected by southern hospitality to bring food over to them. If someone gets sick, bring them food. If someone loses a job,bring them food. If someone dies, bring their family casseroles. Also if anything good happens — like a wedding, a birth, a promotion — you ought to bring food over. And bring new neighbors who move in a pie or a casserole to welcome them. Do it again as they pack out to move.

Richard Allen Jernigan says another piece of southern etiquette is that good southern women don’t send their men to the store for these things they bring over. Here’s why:

Another piece of ‪#‎southernetiquette‬ inspired by this song :

Southern etiquette says: Don’t forget where you came from. This is why southerners frequent family reunions with a vengeance. It is why some of us often visit old grave yards or do genealogies. It is why we say “listen to your momma” even when the “you” in question is in their 60’s. Here is why we sometimes say “he’s gettin’ bit big for his britches, don’t cha think?” Here is why we love it when we see the hometown boy who has done right. He ain’t done right just cause of the big job. He does right when he comes home, visits his family, his school, and his people. It is also a part of why some southerners have the tradition of war reenactments, whether they are Revolutionary War, Civil War, or even Buffalo Soldiers re-enactments.



Y’all might not be from around here if you don’t get this picture, which gives us another piece of southern etiquette‬: “Don’t play with wild animals. After all, y’all shouldn’t play with your food. You should shoot it and grill it.”

A piece of southern etiquette I grew up with was “don’t eat until saying grace” and let older folks and folks with disabilities get their plates first, as a sign of respect.

disability van
Jenny Howard says she has seen the following pieces of southern etiquette: People use “Sir and Ma’am far more frequently here than up north. Also, male students routinely give me their seats on the campus bus if I’m standing.”

time running out
My California girl wife Katharine Royal reminded me of a piece of southern etiquette I barely notice for the ‪‎southern etiquette‬ hashtag game on Progressive Redneck Preacher: I keep forgetting that in the south, I’ll be there in a minute means “give me an hour”, I’ll be there in an hour means “sometime today”, and in a day or so means “Some glad morning…”

Southern folks tend to open doors for people when they walk by.


Another piece of southern etiquette some of our northern friends might be unaware of is: Do not put brown sugar in your grits. (They are grits, not oatmeal, for Christ’s sake).

Gabe Sealey-Morris, author of the new book Stubborn Pines , suggests that “Well, bless his/her heart” is a piece of southern etiquette. Southerners use it when they’re taking pity on another person or are being condescending. In my own experience, this phrase is a part of a larger southerner tendency: to “couch” all your statements, so as to sound unoffensive. I had a friend once who said he had it down so well he could put someone down to their face, and they think they were complimented until they walked out of the room.


What are we to make of the quirky, sometimes humorous and sometimes touching etiquette of southern people?

Scott Huler connects it with “southern hospitality”, saying it is rooted in a desire of the rural ancestors of the modern south to combat loneliness:
southern-hospitality“If you go to the books — I always go to the books — you quickly learn that like many things perceived as stereotypically Southern, hospitality has a flavor more rural than simply Southern. That is, the roots of this famous hospitality probably stem from the fact that the South, unlike the citified North, was a community of mostly farms, large and small.”

“In A History of the South, Francis Butler Simkins and Charles Pierce Roland say ‘the cult of Southern hospitality’ expressed ‘a means of relieving the loneliness of those living far from each other.’ A new friend once pressed hospitality on me on Malta, the island at the belly button of the Mediterranean. When I suggested I could not possibly be as welcome a guest as he made me seem, he explained: ‘We live on an island. We wait for people like you.’ Loneliness powerfully motivates hospitality. On a more basic level, when it took half a day to get to the neighbors, you’d better get more than a ladle of water and a nod from the porch when you rode up”.

“On the other hand, Frederick Law Olmsted, who traveled throughout the South before the Civil War and wrote of his experiences, expected to pay 75 cents or more each night for the hospitality he received. Hospitality had become a myth even before then. Jacob Abbott’s 1835 New England, and Her Institutions describes a traveler riding ‘through Virginia or Carolina’ whokudzu1 is all but kidnapped for no other reason than for the householder he visits to shower him with hospitality. Abbott claims that such hospitality explains why the taverns of the South were so poor: ‘so they must continue, as long as Southerners are as free, and generous, and open-hearted as they now are.’ Apocryphal stories abounded of plantation owners who had slaves waylay strangers into their clutches, the better to demonstrate hospitality. The slaves, meanwhile, presumably knew what it felt like to be required to stay rather longer than they might have wished.” (Taken from )

Huler considers the southern etiquette and hospitality one of the truly beautiful things about southern culture, which in fact drew him to make the south his home.

Its important to note his words about slavery’s involvement in the development of southern etiquette. The connection with slavery shouldSlave in chains also be a warning about the flip-side of southern etiquette and southern hospitality. Its history is not just connected with building friendships and alliances to fight the tide of loneliness, but also in propping up a culture and economy built on oppression. Historically, southern etiquette was also connected to systems of patriarchy and racism. Before the Civil War, in the south there was a clear stratification of our culture into near aristocrats who owned large plantations with great wealth, a small white middle class, the very poor whites, and the slaves. One purpose of an early system of chivalry in the south that later grew into southern etiquette was to tell people where they belonged, where they fit, and how to act along the lines of race and class. So saying “ma’am” and “sir” was not just a way of extending respect to invite friendships in the lonely world of the rural south, but also a way to separate the worthy and “the sorry people”, to borrow King Curtis’s phrase in the following clip, to make clear who was to lead and who was to follow:

One could even argue that institutions like Jim Crow, the segregation system in place before the Civil Rights movement in the south, were in fact a complicated way of doing just that.
This history of southern etiquette can explain why some are very negative about southern etiquette.

Calling it a form of “chivalry”, A. Lane writes about the dangers she sees in this system of obligations in her blog
precious“The core of my disdain for chivalry is that it’s rooted in a gendered premise. Its very notion is that women need special assistance and wooing, which I flat out disagree with. Given this, I can say fully that I do not want or expect chivalry. In that way, the ‘cake and eat it too’ complaint is nonsense to me. I do not want any person to look at me and treat me differently based off of my gender, even if that treatment is favorable. The same goes for stereotypes of all sorts–just because something is ‘nice’ (i.e. Asians are so smart!) doesn’t make it any less racist. So with chivalry, just because it’s ‘friendly,’ doesn’t make it any less sexist…

“There’s a difference between being chivalrous and being nice or polite. Opening a door for someone because you got to the door first is both nice and polite; making a huge production of opening a door for a woman in the hopes that she’ll see what a chivalrous dude you are and fuck you (and then getting all pissy when she doesn’t respond how you want her to) is not polite or nice. And that’s the thing with chivalry: It always demands something in return. If you’re being nice to me because you like me and you’re the kind of person who is nice to people you like, then that’s great. If you’re being nice to me because you’re hoping to get something out of it, or if you think you’re entitled to sex or a relationship with me because you were nice and ‘chivalrous,’ you can go fuck yourself. See how that works?…” (taken from

Even some who love parts of this system at time still question its excesses in the south. My wife Katharine, in a recent interview about her experience as a woman with a disability in the south, described this dilemma of southern etiquette well:

diversity and disability“I would say definitely the positive is that what I’ve always heard growing up about the south has proven true — there is a lot of hospitality here. I think of when I lived in Fayetteville, how I would get stuck some places in my wheelchair. It was especially true in Fayetteville with the soldiers. They’d see me stuck by the side of the road and would pull over. They would offer me a ride home or a poncho if it was raining. Some woman I’d never met gave me a sweater one day because it was particularly cold and wet out, and I’d forgotten my jacket at the house. That’s the kind of thing I love. That part was awesome. The frustrating thing I’ve found is that sometimes the hospitality that’s offered can be very condescending. There seem to be a whole lot of people who believe that if you see someone in a wheelchair, they really can’t do much. They act like people with disabilities really need everything to be done for them. They think that people with disabilities need to be spoken to as if they may not have all the lights on upstairs and cannot understand what you are talking about. A lot of times, I’ve noticed that they would speak to me as if the minor things I was doing were these huge ‘climbing Mount Everest’ achievements.

“I mean, I’ve had people stop me in Wal-mart, breaking down crying, telling me how awesome it was to see me out shopping. People think that’s really sweet and being really encouraging. It’s actually kind of embarrassing. So it’s been a bit of a little bit of both for me. I’ve also noticed there’s a big emphasis in the south on what different gender roles should be. That may not be just a southern thing, but I’ve noticed it prevalent in a lot of the areas where I’ve lived. Less so since I’ve moved to Carrboro, but it seems pretty common still in the south. There seems to be kind of an assumption a. I’m a woman, b. I’m in a wheelchair, so here’s what I should and should not be doing. There are a lot of preconceived notions about what other people in similar situations should be able to do.” (Taken from

The two-sided nature of southern etiquette should call people of faith to live out calls, like the call of Romans 12 which challenges us to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God”. This is the process of really looking at the values and customs you have inherited from those around you and before you, and working to live out those which are truly life-giving, truly liberating, and truly from God.

Let’s work to discover and live out the true southern hospitality that is before us, living out compassion and justice not systems of oppression.

And I’m not just whistling Dixie,
Your progressive redneck preacher,


micah pic


2 thoughts on “Southern Etiquette: The Good, the Bad, the Funny, the Frightening. (Our Southernisms for the Week)

  1. When I became more educated and thoughtful about feminism, I changed my policy on opening doors for women, a courtesy I had been taught strictly. Now I open doors for everyone. Weirds a lot of men out.

  2. I am a woman from the upper Midwest, and open doors for everyone, depending on who gets to the door first. I have noticed that men, from the North and South, are generally uncomfortable with it, in particular older men. I am also almost 6’2″, which I believe adds to the challenge for those still embedded in gender stereotypes.

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