Mind Your Manners
Five Things That Will Absolutely Make Us Think Your Mama Raised You Right (and Other Helpful Hints for Getting Along with Southerners)
I know The Good Lord says we shouldn’t judge, but trust me when I say that within about one-half a moment of focused conversation with any new person I meet (whether it’s you or your child) who’s “not from ’round here,” I will decide I’ve got you pretty figured out. Or, to put it another way, I will decide silently whether you had any proper raising at all.
It’s not that all folks “not from ’round here” are rude, or even uncivilized. I’m not saying that at all. They’re good people, in their own way. Bless Their Hearts. But there are some people from below the Mason-Dixon Line who take manners very seriously.
Very, very seriously, in fact.
1. You wait for the dinner host to sit down before you start eating. She (or he!) is tired from all that cooking and deserves the right to go first. Waiting on her so that the whole table can dig in together also offers everyone the opportunity to thank her in unison and collectively rave about her cooking. It really is the least you can do when she has gone to the trouble to prepare a meal for you. Let’s just hope she doesn’t like to start cleaning the kitchen before she sits down to eat, like my mother does.
And although you may not have asked for a plate of barbecue to take home for later, or even for an extra piece of birthday cake to carry to lunch the next day, if you get one anyway, please remember…
2. You never return a friend’s food containers empty. Over a span of years and an assortment of dinner leftovers, I noticed that my good friend Kace kept on bringing back my Tupperware with a few brownies tucked inside. Another time it was her mother’s homemade cookies. I’d never known anybody who did that, and it shouldn’t have surprised me…Kace comes from solid Southern stock. I love this unique show of thanks, and I guess that’s the point. It’s always about the appreciation. Even if it’s just a thank-you note or a sprig of mint from your porch plant, let someone know that you appreciate that they shared their food with you.
Trust me, there is a price to pay when you’re the guest of honor at any event, because at some point you’re gonna have some work to do in regards to all those presents…
3. Yes, speaking of those thank-you notes…I hope you actually WRITE THEM! By hand, on paper, and within a few days of receiving a gift. We all know it’s an archaic practice, right alongside cursive handwriting, but folks with good manners still do it and teach their kids to do it, too. Facebook shout-outs, emails, and text messages are a nice accompaniment, for sure, but I can’t shake that nagging feeling I get when I know I need to sit down and express my gratitude in longhand. Now, I am not being a judgey nag about this. This practice is not beholden to Christmas gifts (obviously), random acts of kindness, or simple extensions of courtesy. I am talking about something you have invited your friends to do. If someone has gone out of their way to attend your baby shower, your wedding, your child’s birthday party, if they’ve bought you a graduation gift, or if in any way they have really stuck their neck out to do something thoughtful, it really is the least we can do.
Is it starting to seem like we have a lot of hang-ups about food? Yes, well, there is that little issue of inviting people over to eat. There’s some pressure involved…
4. You need to try a little of everything on your plate. I had a student from Ukraine who once made me a bowl of cold green pea soup, a recipe from her homeland. It was gelatinous and looked the way leftover turnip greens do when you first pull them out of the refrigerator. I forced it down…and I lived. I didn’t think I would. But I heard my father’s stern warning: this nice person cooked for you and you will be gracious. My son has been taught to do this as well, which is why he doesn’t accept invitations to eat at other people’s houses very often unless their repertoire has been fully vetted. Sometimes he is able to graciously ask not to be given any Lima beans as long as he can still manage to fill up his plate with other things. He knows that if the menu options are limited, he is to decide which dishes he will choose to choke down, because simply saying, “I’ll just have a roll, please,” will make him look like a total jerk. When someone has cooked for us, we’ve been shown the highest form of Southern hospitality. We must always make sure we let them know their hard work and kindness did not go unnoticed.
And perhaps the Holy Grail of all Southern manners is in the way we address our elders. Yes. It’s The Big One:
5. The ma’ams and the sirs…you demand it, and you teach your kids to practice it. A five-minute conversation with any teenager tells me everything I need to know about where they’re from on a map, and it’s usually summed up based on these old-fashioned greetings. I have long since surrendered to trying to get my son and his friends to stop calling adults by their first names, prefaced with a respectful Ms. or Mr. at least, because it’s futile nowadays. Even the littlest ones do it. But let me tell you, if one of my students hands me a “Yeah,” I instantly judge their upbringing. Not from the South? I completely understand that you weren’t taught this gesture where you’re from. But let me encourage you: when in Rome, do as the Romans…now.
In the South, it opens doors.
Great resources if you need to brush up:
…or if you need something a little lower on the propriety scale, try this: