The prevalence and importance of good manners is the main thing to keep in mind about the South. While it’s tempting for folks from more outwardly assertive parts of the world to take this as a sign of weakness, that would be a major mistake.
Southerners use manners, courtesy, and chivalry as a system of social interaction with one goal above all: to maintain the established order during times of stress. A relic from a time of extreme class stratification, etiquette and chivalry are ways to make sure that the elites are never threatened—and on the other hand, that even those on the lowest rungs of society are afforded at least a basic amount of dignity.
But as a practical matter, it’s also true that Southerners of all classes, races, and backgrounds rely on the observation of manners as a way to sum up people quickly. To any Southerner, regardless of class or race, your use or neglect of basic manners and proper respect indicates how seriously they should take you—not in a socioeconomic sense, but in the big picture overall.
The typical Southern sense of humor—equal parts irony, self-deprecation, and good-natured teasing—is part of the code. Southerners are loath to criticize another individual directly, so often they’ll instead take the opportunity to make an ironic joke. Self-deprecating humor is also much more common in the South than in other areas of the country. Because of this, conversely you’re also expected to be able to take a joke yourself without being too sensitive.
Another key element in Southern manners is the discussion of money—or rather, the non-discussion. Unlike some parts of the United States, in the South it’s considered the height of rudeness to ask someone what their salary is or how much they paid for their house. Not that the subject is entirely taboo—far from it. You just have to know the code.
For example, rather than brag about how much or how little they paid for their home, a Southern head of household will instead take you on a guided tour of the grounds. Along the way they’ll make sure to detail: A) all the work that was done; B) how grueling and unexpected it all was; and C) how hard it was to get the contractors to show up.
Depending on the circumstances, in the first segment, A), you were just told either that the head of the house is made of money and has a lot more of it to spend on renovating than you do, or they’re brilliant negotiators who got the house for a song. In part B) you were told that you are not messing around with a lazy deadbeat here, but with someone who knows how to take care of themselves and can handle adversity with aplomb. And with part C) you were told that the head of the house knows the best contractors in town and can pay enough for them to actually show up, and if you play your cards right they might pass on their phone numbers to you with a personal recommendation.
See? Breaking the code is easy once you get the hang of it.
As we’ve seen, it’s rude here to inquire about personal finances, along with the usual no-go areas of religion and politics. Here are some other specific etiquette tips:
Basics: Be liberal with “please” and “thank you,” or conversely, “no thank you” if you want to decline a request or offering.
Eye contact: With the exception of vry elderly African Americans, eye contact is not only accepted in the South, it’s encouraged. In fact, to avoid eye contact in the South means you’re likely a shady character.
Handshake: Men should always shake hands with a very firm, confident grip and appropriate eye contact. It’s okay for women to offer a handshake in professional circles, but otherwise not required.
Chivalry: When men open doors for women here—and they will—it is not thought of as a patronizing gesture, but as a sign of respect. Accept graciously and walk through the door.
The elderly: Senior citizens—or really anyone obviously older than you—should be called “sir” or “ma’am.” Again, this is not a patronizing gesture in the South, but is considered a sign of respect. Also, in any situation where you’re dealing with someone in the service industry, addressing them as “sir” or “ma’am” regardless of their age will get you far.
Bodily contact: Interestingly, though public displays of affection by romantic couples are generally frowned upon here, Southerners are otherwise pretty touchy-feely once they get to know you. Full-on body hugs are rare, but Southerners who are well acquainted often say hello or goodbye with a small hug.
Driving: With the exception of the Interstate perimeter highways around the larger cities, drivers in the South are generally less aggressive than in other regions. Cutting sharply in front of someone in traffic is taken as a personal offense. If you need to cut in front of someone, poke the nose of your car a little bit in that direction and wait for a car to slow down and wave you in front. Don’t forget to wave back as a thank-you! Similarly, using a car horn can also be taken as a personal affront, so use your horn sparingly, if at all. In rural areas, don’t be surprised to see the driver of an oncoming car offer a little wave. This is an old custom, sadly dying out. Just give a little wave back; they’re trying to be friendly.