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Four Things You Should Know About Southern Culture

Updated on January 17, 2019
Evening Gowns, 1947
Evening Gowns, 1947 | Source

#1: Cotillion

When I first moved to Richmond for a new job I became friends with another woman who had just moved here for the same reason. I'm originally from North Carolina; she's from Connecticut, and one Monday she came to work with a story about her weekend.

She had just started dating a good looking young man from a well-to-do Richmond family. On the previous Saturday evening she had been a dinner guest at the home of this young man's parents. She said, "You would not believe their table setting! And they kept watching everything I did. And asking me strange questions. It seriously creeped me out."

By this point in the conversation I had that "oh no" feeling, the one you get when a character in a good movie is about to make a serious mistake. "So...what kind of questions did they ask?"

"They asked me if I'd been to Cotillion. I thought it was a nightclub and told them I didn't think I'd been. Said I'd only been to clubs around Main and 17th Street but I didn't remember seeing it down there..."

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in that proper Southern dining room!

For those of you from 'other places', Cotillion is a sort of Debutante Ball. I've never been to one myself, but I hear there are a lot of pricey gowns and swanky classical musicians playing ballroom dance music. It's an event where children of the well-to-do and well-connected go to be presented to society and prepare for their leadership roles in adulthood. I was briefly interested in ballroom dancing during my "I-want-to-be-a-spy-when-I-grow-up" days, but I just couldn't take it as seriously as these folks did, not being well-to-do or well-connected myself.

I explained to Susan that her date's parents were trying to find out what kind of family she came from. Cotillion test: Fail.

#2: Southern Hospitality

When I lived in Arizona a friend was planning a road trip and asked me if it would be safe for him to drive through the South by himself. He is Latino, born on the United States side of El Paso 60 years ago. He had heard that Southerners were "friendly" and wanted my take on it.

I told him that Southerners are polite, but not necessarily "friendly". Truth is, outsiders who visit the South usually don’t feel very welcome. Some people say that Southern hospitality exists but is only extended to those people that a Southerner already knows. In other words, if you have a Southern friend or "connection" they will be very nice to you. But if they don’t know you, you're on your own.

Which makes the polite behavior all the harder for an "outsider" to understand. And that leads us to #3 on my list...

#3: Good Manners

I grew up Southern and can't remember a time when I wasn't being taught Manners. Say "Yes Ma'am" and Yes Sir" to your elders. Address elders by their surnames unless they request that you use their given name. Always say, “Please,” “May I,” “Thank You,” “You’re Welcome,” “Excuse Me,” “Pardon Me.” Never interrupt your elders unless there is a dire emergency at hand.

Table manners are very, very important (I still cringe when I see a "gentleman" who doesn't remove his hat at the table, much less when he walks indoors). A proper Southerner never rests her arms/elbows on the table. Men and boys can help a woman be seated if they are seated beside her and she is struggling with her attire. Wait until everyone is served before beginning to eat. One should only talk of pleasant things at the table and should never interrupt another person.

Good Southern manners require a lady or gentleman to write a prompt "thank you" note to any host or hostess who has entertained them. Likewise, it is imperative to send a prompt hand-written "thank you" note to anyone who has given her/him a gift. And most importantly, it is unthinkable to fail to RSVP promptly to any event.

Plantation House. Rammerjammer [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Plantation House. Rammerjammer [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

#4: Southern Culture Isn't a Single Culture

Or, we can't all be Rhett and Scarlett. Most white Southerners, despite their airs, are not descended from English country gentry. The early South was in reality a diverse and complex region. Though Americans today often associate the old South with cotton plantations, large parts of the South were unsuitable for plantation life. In the mountainous regions of eastern Tennessee and western Virginia and North Carolina, few plantations or slaves were to be found.

According to Wikipedia, it was far more common to find non-slave holding "yeoman" farmers in mountainous regions. They were much poorer than the English landowners and many were Scots-Irish. Once in America, they formed a more-or-less cohesive unit: proud, sometimes argumentative, and with a vigorous distain for authority. They tended to settle in large kinship groups, and most were Presbyterian.

Planters (rich land barons) owning large estates had significant political and socio-economic power in the old South, placing their interests above those of the generally non-slave holding and poorer "yeoman" farmers. Add to the mix black slaves and native americans, who generally had no rights or even recognition as human beings, and one can begin to get a small glimpse of the complex (and by today's standards, offensive) social makeup "down South".

Poor dirt farmer's house in Appalachia. United States Tennessee Valley Authority (public domain)
Poor dirt farmer's house in Appalachia. United States Tennessee Valley Authority (public domain)

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