Before visiting any new country, you usually look for a place to stay, things to do, things to see, and places to eat. All of these are important parts of planning a trip to a new country, but you have forgotten something essential for a good trip: the culture. Without doing so you may commit a faux pas or really offend someone. Or you might be the one offended due to not understanding the culture. If you are planning on visiting a larger country, you will want to learn about regional culture. That may be the case even for smaller countries. Each place you visit will have different cultural norms. In preparation for your visit to the US, you may have read our article about things for English learners to know about American culture. However, if you are planning to visit any part of Southern region of the US, you will need to learn about some unique Southern cultural norms. These 6 things to know about the South before visiting the Southern US will have you well on your way to a pleasant stay in the Southern United States.
Bless your heart
You may have heard this phrase before. It is probably the most iconic saying of the South. Its meaning is similar to “you poor thing” to express pity for the recipient of the phrase. But bless your heart is a versatile phrase that can be used in many contexts, and not all of them are sweet. One of the most confusing ways it is used it to mean the exact opposite. Bless your heart (you poor thing) can be used to express dislike for a person. It can also be used as a way to soften the blow of an insult. For example, “Molly is so dumb, bless her heart.” In this context it usually follows an observation of something that the speaker feels that the person cannot help. So, in this case, the speaker thinks that Molly is dumb but just cannot help it, so she needs to have her heart blessed, because that is all that can be done for her.
Steering wheel salute
If you are ever driving through a neighborhood in the South, you better prepare yourself for the steering wheel salute. The South is all about manners and being polite. One of the areas of politeness spills into interactions between cars and pedestrians in neighborhoods. If there is someone walking in a neighborhood, they should be walking toward traffic, so it will be natural for eye contact to occur between drivers and walkers. Simple eye contact can be a bit awkward, so Southerners always accompany the eye contact with a wave. The walker will wave normally, and the driver will simply raise their fingers upward off the steering wheel without letting go of the steering wheel. This wave is not just for people you know. It is anytime you come across someone walking through a neighborhood. You may also experience this on backroads if a car is coming the opposite direction at a slow speed. If they are driving the same car model as you, it is even more likely that you will receive a steering wheel salute and should return the gesture. A head nod in acknowledgment of the other person is also acceptable when your hands are not available to wave.
Manners are Key
In the South, manners are non-negotiable. Different than in the Northern United States, the use of ma’am and sir is not a sign of the age of the person being addressed. It is a sign of respect and manners. An example of that would be that parents may tell their kids no, sir or no, ma’am when addressing an unwanted behavior such as throwing food on the floor. Be prepared to say yes, ma’am or yes, sir, with any yes or no question. You may also say no, thank you when offered something that you do not want. Always say please when asking for something and thank you when receiving something or when someone does something for you, such as holding the door open or when your waitress brings you a refill for your drink.
Southern Hospitality not Flirting
Do not be surprised when you are in a place of service (i.e. restaurant or store), when you are called honey, sweetie, or sweetheart. You might think to yourself, “Doesn’t she see my ring?? I am obviously married!” No need to get your “panties in a wad.” These names are things that Southern women use with all of their customers, both male and female. You are not special. And they are not making advances. They are being sweet and friendly. Do not take it the wrong way, or you will embarrass yourself.
Speaking of restaurants, Southern cuisine is some of the best in the country. At least for your taste buds. Healthwise, maybe not so much. Fried food is a staple in the Southern diet, as are biscuits. Anything can be fried: chicken, vegetables, Oreos, etc. Breakfast can also include fried foods such as fried chicken and waffles. Biscuits at breakfast will likely be smothered in white sausage gravy. If you go to a Southern food restaurant, you may see macaroni and cheese listed under your possible vegetable options. If you want “tea,” plan on it coming with ice and sugar. If you do not want either of those, you better ask for hot tea. At which time, you may be met with a strange look and might be told that they do not have any available.
In the South, you will likely hear expressions and words that you will not hear elsewhere in the United States. Instead of turning lights off and on, you will cut lights off and on. Instead of pushing buttons, Southerners mash buttons. A shopping cart turn into a buggy. Fixin’ to do something means you are about to do something. I reckon means I guess. Y’all is the plural of you for when you are addressing a group of people. Instead of purses, Southern women carry pocketbooks. Barbecue refers to the sauce and pulled pork, not cooking meat on a grill to have dinner with friends and family. Water from the sink comes out of a spigot not a faucet. And all carbonated beverages can be called coke or soda. Learn the lingo, and you will be all right!