Why Southern Manners Matter In a Modern World
A few months after I got engaged in 2004, I had to sit down and explain to my future father-in-law how he was going to get enough to eat at our wedding reception. See, he was a New Yorker. My boyfriend, now husband, and I met in New York City, where he was raised. Weddings in New York—and many, many other places in the country outside of the South—tend to be seated affairs. There are place cards and seat assignments and plated chicken breasts. As I began to explain to my future father-in-law the concept of the typical Southern wedding reception we would be having in my hometown of Memphis, where the food is a buffet and there might only be enough chairs to accommodate guests with AARP memberships, his eyes widened.
"But what will we eat for dinner?" he asked.
"Oh, any number of things!" I offered. "We will probably have a carving station, and I was thinking there would be one buffet with different salads."
"I don't understand. Can I get a dinner-sized portion of food?"
"Yes. You can go back to the buffet as many times as you want. That's the point. It's a free-for-all! The bar, the dance floor, and the food are open, and everyone is just circulating."
"I see. Where will I eat my food?"
"We will have tables."
"But not enough for everyone to sit down at once?"
"I'm still not sure I get it, but I trust you."
"I promise it will be a really fun party."
"Can there be pasta?" (My father-in-law is very Italian, as you might surmise from my last name.)
In the end, my in-laws had a blast at our wedding. Their friends from New York and Connecticut and Ohio did, too. Everyone got plenty to eat, and we didn't need half the chairs we rented, because most of the guests were on the dance floor the entire evening. My in-laws also enjoyed the rehearsal dinner at the Peabody Hotel, despite the fact that it ballooned to over 150 people. That was another cultural hurdle, explaining that my mother expected to invite not just family and out-of-town guests, but also all her friends who had thrown wedding showers for me. After that night, my father-in-law declared that surely he was now a part owner of the Peabody, simply because of the bar tab.
A New Way to Think About Etiquette
A Southern wedding has its own particular set of traditions and etiquette rules. So does a Southern funeral, a Southern baby shower, a Southern cocktail party, and a Southern drop-off-a-casserole-after-the-baby-is-born visit. Good manners exist everywhere, of course; I still live in New York, and I know many non-Southerners who write lovely and copious thank-you notes. But there are certain quirks that are unique to the South and Southern gatherings. Most of them are probably second nature to you.
Some etiquette rules might feel stuffy or outdated—anyone outside of the royal family worn a morning suit recently? I'll admit there are a few things I grew up with that I've tossed when it comes to my own kids because I'm parenting in a different way, with different expectations, than the generation before me. As I have written before, my children do not use 'ma'am' or 'sir' when addressing adults in their daily lives in New York, because adults here don't expect or enjoy those terms as signs of respect. My kids do say 'ma'am' and 'sir' when visiting their grandmother and her friends in Memphis.
That's exactly how I believe manners should operate—as guideposts to loving my neighbors, whether they are older relatives or dinner party guests, with the onus being on me to adapt to their needs and expectations, not the other way around. My hope is that my Southern manners will never be something I hold onto purely out of habit or, worse, to create an environment where people who do things differently feel excluded. When it comes to hospitality, especially, Southerners are welcoming and gracious. The etiquette mantras I cherish most are not no-no's, but rather, shortcuts to celebrating with the most possible joy. If we do want to call them etiquette rules, let's think of them in the way David does in the Psalms (please allow me some wide theological liberty here): "The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places," he says to God. I like the idea that knowing what to expect or what is expected from you can be freeing. Boundaries can keep people out—although, if our weddings are any indication, we tend to go big—or they can provide a haven for gathering, so that everyone within them feels cared for and safe.
Southern Weddings: Something Old, Something New
When it comes to weddings, there are a lot of formalities that have fallen by the wayside. For example, everyone includes response cards now. When I got married, that wasn't a guarantee. My mother taught me to RSVP to a wedding on my own stationery, with very specific wording—"Miss Elizabeth Schatz accepts/declines your kind invitation for Saturday, June 16th"—because there was no card or check box included in the invitation. I'm happy to know the rule and have that skill. I'm also happy to let it go. After all, we likely aren't inviting only Southerners with this knowledge to our blessed unions; we may be inviting friends from all over the country. If our goal as hosts is to make our guests feel comfortable, including a response card is a kind gesture. It also makes practical sense, as you'll never get a decent head count without it. Should we sit around bemoaning that 25-year-olds in Denver don't know how to properly word a wedding response? No. We should make it easy for our friends to let us know if they're joining us or not.
That said, I personally think the way Southerners do food and drinks at weddings is far superior to anything else I've experienced—and I've been to a lot of sit-down dinner weddings. Heaven forbid you are seated with a bunch of dull conversationalists or an ex-boyfriend and are stuck there for half the night. If you get one plate of food, and it's not great, you're asking cake to do the job of absorbing all the champagne you'll inevitably drink to tolerate your tablemates. At a Southern wedding, you can drink, dance, and socialize with whom you please, and graze for as much food as you need. Toasts are largely confined to the rehearsal dinner, so the wedding reception is devoted to letting loose and having fun. My favorite aspect of the free-for-all, no-seat-assignments wedding is that it's easier to invite more people. I hate having to trim a guest list, and a buffet reception with buckets of beer and limited table rentals allowed me to be as expansive as possible. The week of my wedding, my mother was still inviting people that she ran into at the checkout line of Kroger. The more the merrier.
Southern brides love to keep these traditions alive on their big day—and they make for great photo ops too.
A Tradition to Consider Bringing Back
Wedding dress codes, designating what attire is expected based on the time of the ceremony, may seem antiquated; but I wish more people understood and used them. They are a perfect example of how boundaries could make our lives infinitely easier. Instead of texting your friends to find out what they are wearing, you would see a time, know instantly that it meant cocktail attire or black tie, and dress accordingly. We could be flexible—I'd support eliminating tails and white gloves, solely on the basis that I think they are unattractive; but I'd also propose that Southerners lead the charge for wearing fascinators, like the British—but overall, less guesswork is better.
A Tradition to Consider Letting Go
Another area I think we could be flexible on is who throws the shower, be it wedding or baby. Traditionally, a bride or mother-to-be's own family does not throw her shower. A bride's sister is busy enough and deserves to sit down with some quiche and take a load off. An aunt or beloved neighbor hosting the shower is, to me, the epitome of loving a family well, and chances are, that neighbor is also served by being a part of your special occasion in some way. However, not everyone has a network of loved ones capable of hosting a party, and a certain bride or pregnant woman might feel most comfortable with her sister or mother as the gatekeeper. In that case, so be it. I'll never shake my head at that breach of protocol. I will happily drink mimosas, sit next to the guest of honor, and offer to write down who gave what gift as she opens them.
A Tradition to Have Forever and Ever, Amen
Which brings me to thank-you notes. And I don't need to tell you. Write them. Teach your children to write them. In the pinchiest of pinches—a week when you are feeling overwhelmed, and your mental health is at stake, or you simply want to send a quick, heartfelt thank you for something small—text your thanks. But a handwritten thank-you note is an act of love, a way to honor someone who has spent precious money or time on you. It can be very, very short. Write, "Dinner was wonderful. So are you. Thank you for the food and your friendship." The hardest part is remembering to stick it in the mailbox, I promise.
Southern Funerals: Graciousness in Times of Grief
Now, I think about Southern funerals similarly to Southern weddings. We tend to fling the doors open wide in times of joy and grief. It is difficult to say exactly what rules exist, as different faiths have their own customs. What I can say is that I have experienced funerals in various houses of worship and disparate parts of the country. I experienced my own father's funeral a couple of years ago. And the way people gather in the South—not that they gather, everyone does that, but the way they do—does feel distinctly comforting. Like wedding and baby showers, the family is encouraged to be served rather than serve. Their house may be the gathering place, but family and friends show up to tidy up, direct food deliveries, stock the bar, and restock the toilet paper in the powder room. As my mother recently said before leaving for a vacation, "My house isn't funeral ready, but oh well." Her house wasn't "funeral ready" when my dad died while they were out of town for Christmas either. But it didn't need to be. My aunt Patti showed up before they returned and took down the Christmas tree and made all the beds. In the South, when you are grieving, your house is taken over by an army of people who will lift you up by running the dishwasher and buying bags of ice.
Our Need to Feed
We are people who show up with food, whether that is to the home of a family who has lost a parent or added a child. Dropping off a meal to new mothers is not uniquely Southern, but I would argue that our casseroles and comfort foods are uniquely designed to travel (and uniquely appreciated by hungry, sleep-deprived parents). What does feel special to the South is showing up with something homemade in less expected circumstances. Yes, we appreciate good hostess gifts, like candles or fresh flowers. But we are also known to bring pie or a bushel of zucchini from our garden just because. Our beloved babysitter in New York frequently shows up with baggies of hot peppers she grows in her backyard in Brooklyn. She's from Texas. And the food offering goes both ways. It's almost a knee-jerk reaction, when the doorbell rings, for a Southerner to reach for a plate of snacks, even if it's just a dish of kettle chips. (Never pooh pooh a kettle chip, by the way. One of the fanciest bars in Manhattan, Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle Hotel, serves drinks with a trio of kettle chips, mixed nuts, and—get this—spicy cheese crackers that are basically knockoffs of a Southern cheese straw.) I rarely think of making a meal or being a proper host as an obligation. It's a blessing to my neighbors or friends or even strangers in the community. Manners don't feel like rules when they are small, tangible ways of loving others.
This recipe can even be assembled and frozen for up to a month.
Why Our Manners Still Matter
People ask me quite a lot what I miss most about living in the South. I say my mother, because I'm not a moron, but the truth is that we talk and visit enough that I don't feel too deprived of her presence. What I miss the most are the small, friendly interactions between me and the store cashier, me and the woman in line behind me at the bank, me and my neighbor as we meet at the end of our driveways. I miss the way my manners compel me, and most of you, to make small talk or wave at someone walking down my street as I drive past. We are skilled at chitchat. (Often, I wonder if this part of our culture is exhausting for Southern introverts.) There are critics of Southern manners who say we are disingenuous—that we are sweet to your face, but gossip behind your back. This is sometimes true because we are human, and we are flawed, like everyone else. But in our best moments, I hope we look each other in the eyes and take a moment to talk, not only because our mothers pinched the backs of our arms when we were little and told us to. I hope we do it because we see every person as valuable and treasured and worthy of the best manners we can muster. That is what I want my children to learn from me. As a family, we are warm and open to conversation because every person deserves to be seen and heard.
This is especially crucial, I think, in a world full of phones, where the strictest etiquette lessons are constantly overpowered. My Southern manners tell me that I should look people in the eyes when talking to them, so I look up from my phone (when talking to my kids, too!). I learned to have good table manners and make conversation, so I leave my phone elsewhere. My Southern manners tell me to be pleasant; and maybe that sounds phony, but what if we all aimed to be pleasant and respectful in our comments on social media? What if we adhered to the old adage, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all"? Being sweet doesn't mean we don't have a backbone. It means we have difficult conversations in the right context. And I say this as someone who has a temper, and it's frequently on display in public. I'm as messy as they come.
Southerners can be messy, too, even if we're dressed impeccably and carrying a cobbler. That's what makes us interesting. And a lot of fun at weddings.