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 Hospitality” is. 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:
- Different cultures define “hospitality” differently, and your own culture, of course, is the one doing it right
- 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
- Some people or places in the South are more hospitable than others
- Southerners are more hospitable to some people than others
- 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.
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.