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.
Note: I have learned in my travels that this is not exclusive to the Southern culture. I have also found this in Cuban society as well, although in many places around the world, who gets to take the first bite varies. In most of America, children are fed first, while in the Middle East, it’s the men.
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, a sprig of mint or a rose bud from your porch plant, let someone know that you appreciate that they shared their food with you.
3. 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 we have become too reliant upon these methods, and they are the easy way out.
There are some exceptions to the thank-you note rule. This practice is not beholden to Christmas gifts, small and random acts of kindness, or simple extensions of a courtesy between friends or colleagues. I am talking about something you have invited your friends to attend, or something that a friend did for you where they truly went out of their way. If someone has planned or attended your baby shower, helped with your wedding, provided an extra set of hands and a quick stop by Publix for something you forgot for your child’s birthday party, if they’ve bought your kid a graduation gift or delivered food to a sick relative in the hospital, if they prepared a meal for you when you were new parents, or if, in any way, someone really went to some trouble to do something thoughtful for you, a handwritten thank you note is most definitely in order.
People keep these mementos, people remember this kind of appreciation forever. And trust me, people remember when you don’t do it, too.
Then 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.
Edited, May 2, 2020:
If you travel, you will find that every culture has a few similar hangups about etiquette, and sometimes, you will also discover that everything you’ve always heard about a new place isn’t even true. If you arm yourself and your children with a few basics in universal good manners, and then add to that the ability to ask simple, polite questions, you will find enthusiastic and friendly answers to your etiquette questions almost everywhere you spend a night, or at every table where you ever share a meal. I have discovered the strangest and funniest examples of my own etiquette mishaps, again and again. Sitting down at an Egyptian meal recently, I wanted so badly to eat my food with my hands, but I didn’t know if that was proper. I know Middle Eastern cultures are very particular about the cleanliness of one’s hands, and I did not want them to think I was raised in the woods, so I just asked. Guess what…soon thereafter we were eating our chicken and licking our fingers like we were competing in a barbeque competition. Slurping is another example. Don’t slurp in America, but slurp away when Asians are hosting you! Cleaning your plate..another example. It’s best to ask, because at some tables, it means you are satisfied, at others it means the host did not feed you enough. Wearing your shoes in someone’s house, probably a bad idea anywhere you go besides America. Letting a host serve you hot tea in the middle of a sweltering afternoon heat wave… take it no matter what, just to be safe. So I suppose the number one rule for this piece should have been: have the courage to ask what to do, and that is how to show you care about others.
Great resources if you need to brush up: Emily Post on Manners
…or if you need something a little lower on the propriety scale, try this: Good Manners for People Who Like to Say F***