Is Southern Hospitality a Myth?

It’s tough coming up with a more solidly Southern lineage than mine–General Sherman’s troops literally burned down my great-great-great grandparent’s farm–and yet, I don’t actually know what “Southern Hospitalityis. This may just be a quirk of the people who raised me, who perhaps simply forgot to explain it to me, expecting me to pick up cultural values via osmosis instead.

At any rate, I started thinking more about Southern Hospitality after conversations with two friends–one a Southerner who has moved to Yankeedom, and the other a non-Southerner who recently sojourned through the South. The Southerner reports that the Yanks are rude, unfriendly, and decidedly lacking in Southern Hospitality. The non-Southerner reports that the Southerners they encountered were rude, unfriendly, and really not hospitable at all. Intrigued, I went searching online and discovered many similar accounts. Southerners swear up and down that “Southern Hospitality” is real and Northerners are rude; Northerners swear up and down that Southerners are fake-friendly, un-hospitable, and aggressive.

How could this be?

When faced with a conundrum like this, I find it useful to assume that both sides are truthfully reporting their impressions, at least as far as humans can, and then find a theory that fits both. In this case, obvious things that come to mind:

  1. Different cultures define “hospitality” differently, and your own culture, of course, is the one doing it right
  2. People don’t generally notice whether or not they are being hospitable to others, but they notice right away if people aren’t being hospitable to them, and this tends to only come up while traveling
  3. Some people or places in the South are more hospitable than others
  4. Southerners are more hospitable to some people than others
  5. All of the above

The Wikipedia has a hopefully helpful page on “Southern Hospitality“:

Southern hospitality is a phrase used in American English to describe the stereotype of residents of the Southern United States as particularly warm, sweet, and welcoming to visitors to their homes, or to the South in general.

Well, that wasn’t my experience growing up in the South. I found my classmates generally hostile and aggressive, and I don’t even know the names of the people who lived next door to us because they never said hello.

I have traveled (albeit quickly) through much of the country, including the South. From that perspective, few states really stand out (not counting geography,) except for Mississippi. No one smiled at us in the entire state of Mississippi. The one time random strangers stopped to help me out, I was in New England.

The friend who recently traveled through the South reported unfriendliness from strangers, lack of smiling, people staring at them, hostility, etc.

The Wikipedia quotes a very different perspective, from Jacob Abbott (1835):

[T]he hospitality of southerners is so profuse, that taverns are but poorly supported. A traveler, with the garb and the manners of a gentleman, finds a welcome at every door.

This reminds me of Soviet propaganda trying to convince people that American grocery stores had so much food because Americans couldn’t afford to buy food, and that Soviet grocery stores were empty because Soviet citizens were buying up all of the food.

As far as I know, the South was more sparsely populated than the North, especially before the advent of air conditioning, the full eradication of malaria, and anti-hookworm campaigns, and the like. The economy hasn’t been all that robust, either. Few well-off travelers in a sparsely populated area => not many inns, so a social norm of local hospitality for travelers may, without which any travel would be quite difficult, may have been the most sensible outcome. We see this in other areas where people must depend on each other due to lack or uncertainty of local resources–the Eskimo were traditionally so hospitable, a traveler might even enjoy the loan of a man’s wife for an evening. Muslims also pride themselves on hospitality; a friend who has traveled extensively in Muslim countries claims that folks there are extremely friendly and hospitable, (except for that unfortunate time terrorists blew up his hotel. And afterwards, the rescue workers were extremely apologetic and embarrassed that such a bad thing could happen to a guest in their country.)

I suspect that the desert, like the arctic, is particularly fraught with dangers and scarce of people, and so cultural norms popped up about helping strangers.

And [Abraham] lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, and said, My Lord, if now I have found favour in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree: And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said.

And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes upon the hearth. And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetcht a calf tender and good, and gave it unto a young man; and he hasted to dress it. And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat. (Genesis 18:2-8)

Of course, directly after this story, these same visitors went to the city of Sodom, where they were treated most inhospitably by the mob. So Sodom, for its poor treatment of guests, was wiped from the map, while Abraham’s wife conceived her first child and he became father of a nation.

Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it.

Ezekiel 16:49

The most common defense I have seen of Southern hospitality is that it is a waning norm, not found in all areas of the South, and more common in the countryside than the city. This is a very reasonable defense (and would explain why I didn’t encounter it.) Cities are a relative novelty in the South, and have a lot of recently arrived migrants from other parts of the country, (who are therefore not culturally Southern,) and cities generally aren’t great places to be hospitable, just because they have too many people and too much crime.

Come to think of it, “stranger danger” was a big deal when I was a kid, so not only was I not raised to be hospitable to strangers, I was told that strangers would rape and murder you and to run away screaming if anyone tried to talk to me. Sure, it sounds paranoid now, but when I was little they found a dead kid in the dumpster at my apartment complex, so I think my parents were really doing the best they could.

Getting back to Jacob Abbott, note that he specifies that the traveler is a gentleman. He does not tell us what reception a black man or a poor farmer would receive. Southern society has traditionally been more hierarchical than Northern society, not just in the form of rigidly enforced class distinctions between aristocratic whites, poor whites, and blacks, but also in the relations between strangers and of children to their relatives.

Many Southerners, for example, report believing that children should not call relatives by their proper names, but by their familial position–eg, “Grandpa” instead of “Grandpa Joe” or just “Joe.” It is my impression that most children do this, but here the justification is that it is improper for children to use adults’ names. When my dad talks to me about something my mom has done, he doesn’t use her name, he calls her “mom,” because this is the only name I am supposed to call her by. I actually don’t know the names of some of my relatives because no one uses them with me.

(I know some Northerners who call their family members simply by their names, but I don’t know if that is a common thing in the North.)

Within this code of formality and class distinction, whether a Southerner calls someone “Sir” or “John” or “Mr. Smith” may (I am speculating) have great meaning, even if it means nothing at all to an outsider unfamiliar with the social norms. So a Southerner might in fact be acting “hospitably” in their mind by observing proper, polite social etiquette with a stranger (and yes, there is a problem with calling “etiquette” “hospitality” and expecting people to know what you mean, but inexactness of language is pretty common among humans,) and the stranger might not even notice, having no awareness of such distinctions of manners.

It’s like giving perfume to someone who can’t smell.

Ultimately, I suspect that “Southern Hospitality” may be inexactly named, because it primarily isn’t about hospitality per se, but about the conduct of relations between people, enforced perhaps among the middle to upper class, where folks (particularly strangers) at or above one’s social class are treated formally and deferentially. This includes hospitality norms, among other things, but does not necessarily mean that hospitality is extended to all classes of people or that it means what non-Southerners think of as hospitality.

I suspect that Southern “hospitality” did not traditionally extend to people lower class than oneself–Southern plantation owners were not opening their kitchens and bedrooms to every passing vagrant. Northerners who expect to be treated well regardless of their social class may find that they do not rate very highly on the Southern totem pole.

Northern society is supposed to be less hierarchical, (at least in theory,) and as a result, there are (I suspect) fewer socially observed norms of formality. (Business contexts may be different, though.)

And this explains why Southern Hospitality feels “fake” to Northerners. Northerners tend only to be overtly friendly toward people they actually regard as friends, while to Southerners, overt friendliness toward strangers (whom they may never be friends with,) is  simple politeness. The politeness is genuine politeness, but it is not friendship, which Northerners mistake it for. When they discover that it really wasn’t friendship, they feel deceived. To the Southerners, of course, Northerners come across as ill-mannered and rude, due to their disregard of formalities.

Indeed, many of the things Southerners consider “normal” in the hospitality department are (I gather) considered rude or offensive in the North. For example, I think Northerners tend to expect their guests to stay at hotels, and Southerners expect to be put up in people’s houses. The Northerners believe it rude to inflict oneself overmuch onto another’s company and invade their home and disrupt their routine, while Southerners believe that being with others is a great joy and helping their relatives save money by opening up their homes is a moral good.

Which, of course, leads to both sides referring to the other as “rude.”

Still just a theory, though.

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8 thoughts on “Is Southern Hospitality a Myth?

    • 6 years ago I moved to Tennessee from Utah, where people are genuinely nice, but also very straight forward. One of the first things I figured out through my encounters are that southerners (at least here) are polite when in person and avoid confrontation but are vicious gossipers and terrible drivers. It’s not easy to trust people in the south, although you will find many genuinely kind southerners.

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  1. I have *a lot* of thoughts on this. I keep trying to get this shorter but…at this point I’ve spent more time trying to get it shorter than I did writing it in the first place. So…here it is, and I apologize for the length. (BTW, personally I don’t expect a blogger to reply to every comment, either.)

    This parody is…actually embarrassingly accurate. I think it’s mostly shyness, but it may also be partly a tactic to protect oneself from one’s heart going out to an un-vetted, possibly untrustworthy stranger.

    But I agree that there are also huge cross-cultural communication issues. By now I walk on eggshells around Southerners because I’ve seen and been part of so many misunderstandings.

    Take the word “ignorant.” Most Northerners use it to mean “doesn’t know something it’s not their job to know anyway,” so it’s usually not at *all* an insult, or at worst it’s only a very slight one. But I’ve been told many Southerners use the word “ignorant” to mean something more like “badly brought up”–is that right?–and so I guess it’s always a pretty severe insult to a Southerner.

    I suspect there must be a lot of these slight differences in meaning…which are often so slight they’re hard to detect, and instead we just each decide the other is being unreasonable.

    “The politeness is genuine politeness, (a perhaps foreign concept in parts of the North,)”

    I don’t think any culture has *no* rules of politeness, and I suspect anyone who thinks so is setting themselves up to put their foot in it without realizing. I agree with what you said later–it’s *different*, sometimes *directly conflicting* rules of politeness that are the problem.

    “but it is not friendship, which Northerners mistake it for. When they discover that it really wasn’t friendship, they feel deceived.”

    I think you might be talking about a norm that “‘effusive’ compliments = polite” which Yankees (can’t speak for other northerners like New Netherlanders or Midwesterners) don’t have.

    Or–have you seen Suzette Haden Elgin’s classic “cows in the yard” blog post? (I’d link, but I don’t want to end up in the spam catcher again–if you search on “ozarque” and “cows” you’ll find it.) The discussion in that post turned up a lot of words or phrases that one dialect took figuratively and another took literally. One example she gave was that if you said, “There seem to be some cows in my yard,” that would sound weird to an Ozarker, because “Cows are pretty obvious–there wouldn’t be any doubt about it.” IOW, the Ozark dialect takes “seem” more literally than “Standard American English” does.

    So here I think you might be talking about…standard phrasings that Southerners don’t take literally but think of as just “required by politeness,” but that *aren’t* standard to Northerners, so Northerners take them literally.

    It would be similar to Americans’ misunderstandings of the British tendency to say something or someone is “brilliant” when they mean it’s/they’re adequate or nice–Americans famously tend to take that literally and might feel very flattered…or might be made uncomfortable.

    (I think *Yankees specifically* might tend to be made uncomfortable and to react by ignoring “effusive” remarks, rather than to take them as friendship. Can’t speak for New Netherlanders or Midwesterners.)

    Another example of conflicting politeness norms: This is Midwest vs. Northeast instead of South vs. North, but…I’m remembering a discussion I had with a Midwesterner who was confused by the Yankee hatred of “talking behind someone’s back.”

    She said that in the Midwest you do that on purpose–if you have a criticism of someone, you say it to their friend, “knowing the friend will turn right around and tell the person,” so that you can avoid having to give the criticism to their face and “publicly humiliate them.”

    I replied:

    Interesting…thing is, if the friend’s a Yankee, he’s *not* necessarily going to turn around and tell the person!

    Since Yankees don’t *have* the tradition you described, you’re *not* “just letting the person know without publicly humiliating him”; instead, you’re imposing intense discomfort on the friend, who now has to decide what to do. He has to decide whether to agree with you, thus “betraying the friend” (in quotes because that’s the standard Yankee-culture interpretation), or whether to disagree with you, thus “being loyal to his friend” but also “butting into” a fight that “you both have the right and responsibility to keep between just the two of you.” And he also of course has to decide whether to pass on what you said…with similar considerations of “disloyalty” if he keeps silent or “butting in” if he says anything.

    IOW, what you’re doing in the context of Yankee culture is “forcing the friend to choose between the two of you.”

    So the same behavior that in Midwestern culture is “politely avoiding publicly humiliating someone,” in Yankee culture is “rudely putting a mutual friend on the spot.”

    And then there’s the classic “Yankee vs. tourist from elsewhere” joke where…well, who is being rude here?

    Tourist: Does it matter which road I take to get to Bangor?
    Yankee: Not to me it doesn’t.

    The Yankee felt the tourist was being rude by assuming it might not matter (and responded by being rude “back”). Imagine a student who missed class asking the teacher, “Did I miss anything?” The teacher might be tempted to say, “No, I just wasted the class’ time, you were lucky to be sick.” It’s the same kind of thing here–“No, we wasted a lot of effort building two identical roads.”

    The *most* classic “Yankee vs. outsider” joke (which someone mentioned on Haden Elgin’s blog too) is:

    Tourist: Can you tell me the way to Bangor?
    Yankee: Yes.

    Lest you think this is *just* a joke, I have seen this type of interaction happen IRL, and not just with tourists, either. I have literally seen the following interaction:

    Transplant: Can you tell me where the file folders are?
    Yankee coworker: Yes.

    I think what’s happening is that Yankees take “Can/could you [whatever]?” as rude because it implies that the only reason you wouldn’t do it is that you couldn’t. It “tramples on the hearer’s autonomy” by assuming their willingness to help. (Which seems a little silly because they almost certainly *are* willing–but the image of it being a choice must be maintained. ;) …actually, the fact that they almost can’t stand to refuse an appeal for help might be exactly *why* they are so prickly about it! Like: “Look, we all know I *am* a sucker for requests for help–the least you could do is not make it *obvious* you’re exploiting that!”)

    I think what the tourist needs to say to sound polite is, “Excuse me, I think I’m lost. How do I get to Bangor from here?” (Last time I was lost in another New England state, I opened the interaction that way, and the local immediately gave good directions, then closed the interaction with a cheerful, “Welcome to [State]!” :) )

    (Of course, to people from elsewhere, asking that way might be rude because it doesn’t take into account that the hearer might not *know* the way to Bangor, so if they *don’t* know they’re forced to announce it very explicitly. This isn’t a problem in Yankee culture–they won’t mind doing so–but I gather it is a problem in some other cultures.)

    Anyway, these rules strike me as in direct opposition to some of the politeness rules of the (Ozark, at least) South as Haden Elgin described them. So in the end…each person thinks they’re the polite one and the *other* person is being rude. :facepalm:

    Do you agree with Haden Elgin’s descriptions of Ozark politeness norms? How do you think politeness norms elsewhere in the South relate to Ozark norms?

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    • Don’t worry, the length isn’t a problem. Interesting thoughts on all points.

      My personal experience with Southerners is that they are more aggressive, on average, than folks from outside the South. This leads both to a kind of loud, gregarious friendliness, and a higher tendency to interpret things as insults/threats. (See Southern homicide rates, which are higher than average; even Southern whites average a higher homicide rate than Northern whites.) I suspect this pattern holds globally; the most gregarious, outwardly friendly people seem to have much higher crime rates than shy, more introverted people. Compare homicide rates for Mexico (outwardly friendly) and Japan (shy.) Introverts are just less aggressive.

      (And this probably also explains some of the phenomenon, as introverts tend to dislike aggressiveness, while more aggressive people tend to appreciate an aggressive friendliness style.)

      I looked up the essay; the interesting thing is that all of the examples given are indirect–none come out and say, “Hey, I noticed your cows are in my yard,” which is probably what I’d say, (expecting that my neighbors of course know the cows have to be removed, so I don’t need to state that.) The question is why; is the point to allow the neighbor to “save face” by not directly confronting them with the cow problem, but stating it indirectly, or is the point simply to provide a bit of levity for your neighbors, whose afternoon has just been, unfortunately, lost?

      Unfortunately, despite hailing from the region, I confess that I have no particular insight into their norms. I think you know more than I do.

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  2. I’ve never lived in the South (I’ve spent a good deal of time in Florida, but too far south to be South…) but I’ve lived in two places on the Midwestern i-70 corridor (two very large land grant universities) and two parts of the northeast (Upstate NY and eastern New England). I feel uncomfortable when I encounter “southern hospitality”, but it definitely took me a while to adjust to the New England style. I’d say there’s a “niceness” gradient going from east to the Midwest. I’m sure I’m biased, but if you are in places like Missouri or Kansas, the niceness you see is actually meant. Further east in Big Ten territory, people might be a bit more guarded, and more likely to engage in sarcasm. Ironically, I think that in New England, Midwestern sarcasm is almost as off-putting as effusive southern charm. That was probably one of the hurdles for me when I first moved here. The biggest problem for me has been interacting with people from southern California. Combined Midwestern/New England acculturation doesn’t make for being good at touchy-feely personal interaction, which they seem to expect if you’re going to be friends. (And one got angry at me for saying that L.A. has smog…)

    I’ll ramble on just a little longer to mention that there is a linguistics term called “Midwestern Narrative Style”. Basically, it’s important to include details to anything you tell, and it’s rude to cut them off if it’s not an emergency. If someone from Ohio you just met is telling you all about their grandmother, it means they like you. (I’ve heard of this being used to suss out third cousins before things got too serious… That’s one thing I find odd when people talk about out-marrying cultures being more atomized. I’ve studied my family tree going back several centuries, and the branch that is the most extremely outbred (they came from about halfway between Luxembourg and Saarbrucken about 200 years ago) is also the one where I’m most familiar with distant relatives–you can’t avoid marrying your cousin if you don’t know your cousins.)

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  3. I’m from NY, and I have never, ever know a Northerner to call relatives (grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.) by their first name. It’s certainly not a Northern thing. Having live in Louisville, KY for the past four years, I will say I am still baffled by a lot of social norms here. I think one thing you didn’t mention is that Northerners (Please stop calling us Yankees) tend to value efficiency. Like when I’m in line to get coffee or lunch and the person in front of me, after they’re done ordering, are still standing at the counter talking to the person, thus keeping me from ordering. I know that this is common in the South, but in the North it’s seen as rude. A Northerner in this situation would think, “It’s rude of that person in front of me to take up the employee’s time just for idle small talk and make me have to wait longer.” Or another example is how a group Southerners will just stop in the middle of a busy walk-way to have a conversation. Like for real?! “Y’all” are just congesting traffic. Go have your dang conversation somewhere else! Maybe I’m just an impatient New Yorker. lol

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