What I learned while living in the South

The jury is still out on whether I can truly call myself a Southerner, as Alabama is only one of several states I’ve lived in. Still, even if I have lost any hint of a Southern accent I may have once possessed, I am happy that one thing I do still have (besides my monogrammed laundry bag) is my appreciation for Southern manners.

I certainly do not have impeccable table manners, nor do I always remember to smile at strangers. And yet, I often find myself referring back to my Southern roots to help me maneuver everyday scenarios with grace and charity. I think that everyone, regardless of where they live, would benefit from adopting some of the behaviors that are still strongly associated with the South. Here are a few I try to incorporate in my own life.

01. Hospitality

In the South, there is an unspoken “open door policy.” No, this does not mean that a stranger could walk into your house expecting to find a place to stay for two weeks, but this does mean that you could walk to your neighbor’s house expecting to be welcomed there and helped without hesitation. Whether you need help moving a piece of furniture, need to borrow sugar for baking, or need someone to drive you to the hospital in an emergency, people in the South can always count on their neighbors to be, well, neighborly.

My mother (a native New Yorker) fully embraced her new Southern identity when she began keeping extra baked goods on hand “just in case” someone unexpected popped in, or a friend was going through a hard time and needed a little pick-me-up. (This was a practice that my siblings and I never complained about, as her frequent baking benefited us, too!) I also love that Southerners aren’t afraid of sugar and butter—and that they take pleasure in serving their delicious homemade food with their guests. (If you’ve ever tasted a Southerner’s family gumbo recipe, you know that this is quite a gift.)

In addition to getting a good meal (or at least a glass of sweet tea), guests are always treated as family. Southerners let visitors take their time and do not nudge them toward the door. They are courteous and patient, and they have a general “What’s the hurry?” attitude that I strive to adopt in my everyday life. If there is anything we can observe and learn from Southern social gatherings, it is that those present are truly present and engaged in the moment. I’ve found that they do not rush their conversations, but rather relax and soak in the sweet moments. They are cautious not to interrupt someone else’s story, and they listen attentively before inserting their own opinion or changing the subject.

02. Timeliness

Speaking of taking their time, Southerners are mindful of their time, especially when it affects other people.

If you’ve ever been a bride or the host of a large party or gathering, you don’t need me to tell you that hunting down RSVPs from guests is a particularly arduous task. Southerners, on the whole, seem to be more respectful of their hosts in that they are proficient at RSVPing for social gatherings within—and well before—the day asked for a response.

Not only do Southerners RSVP on time, but they try to show up on time as well. Of course, we all have days when—despite every intention to be punctual—nothing goes as planned, from shoe-less kids to spilled coffee. And yet, I’ve learned from Southerners that, when it is in your human power, showing up on time is tremendously important. By showing up when you’re expected and not making anyone wait on you, you show how much you truly care about the event that you’re attending, as well as your appreciation and respect for your host.

03. Respect

If I could choose only one word to describe the culture of the South, it would be this: respect.

While the practice of saying “ma’am” and “sir” might seem silly or unnecessary to many people outside the South, these terms exhibit a great deal of respect to their recipient. They are used when speaking to parents, teachers, or anyone “above” you in authority or age. (I remember responding to my teacher’s questions with “yes” in grade school only to be admonished with a gentle, “You mean ‘yes ma’am,’ right?”) Beyond using “ma’am” and “sir,” though, Southerners are cognizant of how they talk to others and are careful to speak respectfully to everyone from their parents to their elderly neighbor to the woman at the grocery store. The takeaway here is to show the people in your life—regardless of how large or small their role—that they are important to you, that you appreciate them, and that they matter.

And the stereotype of Southerners smiling and saying “hi” to everyone? It’s not an exaggeration. While greeting strangers is not typical of many other parts of the country, it is a common display of courtesy in the South. A simple “hello” acknowledging another person is a respectful and kind gesture. It is something that I am trying to practice again now, living in a friendly neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio. Because I love it when somebody notices and acknowledges me, and it truly is such an easy way to show kindness to strangers, I feel almost criminal whenever I let this opportunity pass me by.

Lastly, while it may seem unrelated (or only somewhat relevant) to “respect,” practicing good table manners is, in fact, another way that Southerners practice respect. I used to think that Southern table manners referred to eating daintily with seven different utensils, a folded napkin in one’s lap, and a teacup in hand. (And it can still mean this!) More often than not, though, using table manners in the South involves taking your time eating dinner and refraining from talking with your mouth full or shoveling food down your throat. It means using dinner time as time spent with your family by participating in conversation, not interrupting or embarrassing others at the table, not using your phone, and simply being present and content.

As a woman trying to exercise kindness in my everyday life, I greatly appreciate the tips and examples I picked up from my time spent in Alabama. And while I’ve found hospitality in every state I’ve lived in or visited, I can honestly say that none compares to the hospitality for which the South is so noted. Even if we haven’t all experienced it firsthand, we can all still bring a little bit of Southern charm to our own homes and communities.