High noon in the garden of polite and evil: the ugly truth about "Southern hospitality" (by a guy who grew up there)

I grew up in the South. I have lived roughly 33 of my 51 years below the Mason-Dixon and past the occasional trip for business or to visit friends and relatives I shan’t be going back. The reasons are numerous, but the one I’m concerned with today involves that most sinister of myths. I’m referring, of course, to Southern hospitality. To the idea that Southerners are so damned nice. Polite. Friendly. Cordial. Welcoming.

This is great as marketing and ideology. The reality of things is somewhat more…complex.

Oh, sure, Southerners smile. They’re certainly well-mannered when it comes to their treatment of others. Outsiders, though, tend to take these behaviors at face value, and in doing so they routinely fail to understand what’s actually going on. To wit, Southerners are frequently insincere. Not always, of course, but the culture of the place is dominated by a cult of manners that makes the court of Louis XIV look like a hootenanny up at Ernest T. Bass’s place by comparison. While it’s important to be nice to those you like, it can be even more important to be nice to those you hate. Heck, the more you hate ’em, the harder you smile. For instance, growing up I learned the value of “killing them with kindness,” as perverse a concept as I have ever encountered. And we were mere working class, veritable hillbillies next to the moneyed classes that perfected this foolishness.

I’ve traveled all over the US on business and pleasure. I have lived in the Midwest, the West, New England and New York. I have friends, acquaintances and colleagues from every corner of the nation. My experience tells me that Southerners are, on the whole, no nicer than anybody else.

A friend and colleague, a man descended from the First Families of Virginia, once explained to me the “Rule of Three,” which I had somehow missed out on growing up. Let’s dramatize to illustrate how it works.

James: It certainly has been a pleasure visiting with you this fine afternoon. I appreciate you showing me around the grounds and the tea was simply splendid. But I’m due back at the house, and must leave.

Robert: Oh, heavens, James. We’re having such a nice talk. Please don’t leave.

James: Thank you, Robert. You’re too kind. But I must go, I fear.

Robert: I beg of you, James, stay for dinner. We’re having roast duck.

James: That sounds marvelous, Robert, and I know what a wonderful cook Molly is, but nonetheless, I must take my leave.

Robert: Well, I hate it, but if you must leave, then you must. Thanks so much for stopping by.

James: I look forward to seeing you again soon, Robert, and thanks again for your hospitality.

See what happened right there? Huh, huh? Appalling, wasn’t it?

Oh, wait, you missed it? Ah. Well, the Rule of Three dictates that when guests prepare to take their leave, you must entreat them not to go three times. If you do the math in the ritual above, you’ll notice that our host, Robert, only asked James to stay twice. In doing so, he either conveyed an insult to his guest or revealed his own lack of cultural grace and familiarity with the shared customs of the community.

Hell, I never knew this growing up. And for all the access I had to the inner workings of genteel, moneyed culture my friend could be pulling my leg and I’d never know it. But I doubt it. There are plenty of ways that class barriers are delineated and enforced in the South, and these sorts of subtleties can be important in the event that an enterprising gomer loses the backwoods accent and finds someone to teach him how to dress. There’s no telling how many times tactics like this one were used to verify my bona fides (or lack thereof). It always seemed to me that the well-heeled and properly connected could smell the thread count on my shirt before I even got into the room. I wasn’t one of them and they knew it.

I sometimes try to explain the cultural arcana of Dixie by reference to John Berendt’s famous best-seller, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. If you’re familiar with the story, you’ll recall that Berendt was impressed with how he was received by the fine ladies of Savannah’s upper crust. It’s a wonderful examination of how people from diverse backgrounds can come together, be friends, find common cause, etc.

Except that I was laughing my ass off, as I’m sure so many Southern readers were. Being an outsider, he really had no way of grasping the nuances of what was actually happening, so he took their politeness as genuine. He never seemed to understand that the help they were so generously providing was mainly about aiming him at those they despised. For some reason, he never thought to question why folk steeped in that cultural milieu would be so cotton-pickin’ happy at the sudden, unannounced appearance on their doorstep of a Yankee intellectual queer Jew-boy from New York City.

As a result, Berendt unwittingly became the most entertaining character in the book. It’s one thing when a talented writer makes use of an unreliable narrator as a literary device, and another entirely when the author, severely lacking in self-awareness, is himself an unreliable narrator in a work of nonfiction.

How very postmodern.

In sum, if insincerity and pathologically exclusionary elitism don’t bother you, then yes, Southerners are nice. Very nice.


Image Credit: Bohemia Latina

13 replies »

  1. I never knew about the rule of three. Wikipedia says nothing about it. I’m totally doing it now. Does that make me an elitist?

  2. There are good and bad people everyhere. Opinion is a great thing, I used to think people in Boston were rude and abnoxious. Not true. They are faster but very nice and mean well. Biggest misconseption is most southerners are racists. just as many northerners with these issues. Don’t make it harder than it has to be.

    • Biggest misconseption is most southerners are racists. just as many northerners with these issues.

      I know that Southerners like to say this, but let me be clear: THIS. IS. NOT. TRUE. There are racists in the North and not all Southerners are racists, this is correct. But that doesn’t mean both are equal. On the whole, racism is a FAR worse problem in the South.

      • Has it ever occurred to you that part of the reason there might be more racism in the South is that there is a lot more racial diversity in the South?? Psychologically, humans are designed to react to anything/anyone that is different from them. Therefore, the more complex the culture, the more opportunity for conflict. Sure, there is very little racial tension in Seattle. You know why? BECAUSE EVERYONE IS WHITE!!! I think I saw maybe 3 African-American people during the entire 2 years that I lived there.

  3. Can’t expect the truth to come out of people’s mouths anymore. We must develop other ways to discern it. Intuition, etc.

    • Hey, Russ. I understand that Facebook, (or maybe it’s Google…I’m sure it’s NOT Apple) is working on an app that will detect untruths and other deceptions based on psycheabstractive neopolyphonic analysis performed on real time audio/video input. 🙂 Until then, intuition probably works just as well.

  4. “Stereotypes are always true in the aggregate, else they wouldn’t be stereotypes. But they are never true in the specific. It’s true most lesbians have cats, but not all lesbians.” Trevanian

    Everyone, everywhere is a racist. It’s just a matter of the extent to which people recognize it and try to correct for it. People in the south are very racist, rarely recognize it, and don’t try to correct for it at all–two examples, the South Carolina flag and the refusal of Univ of Mississippi to give up on Colonel Reb as a mascot. It is even worse that this behavior is condoned by those who mumble about “heritage.”

    I am a southerner who doesn’t live in the south either. It’s a nasty place for many reasons, among them the foul culture of which Sam speaks. I have many friends who live in the south, most on cultural islands like Athens, Ga, but in the south. They can hold their noses longer than I can.

  5. @Marty: I’m a Southerner. When I return to the South, everyone seems to assume that, being white just like they are, I’ll find their racist jokes funny and the use of the n-word acceptable. Or maybe it won’t be the n-word. Maybe it will just be “burr-head” or “jigaboo” or “jungle bunny,” but that hardly matters. The degree of overt racism there among those I grew up with is pretty much the same as it always was.

    I live outside the South, now, and that almost never happens to me, here. I did once run into a very racist cab driver in Cleveland who was the equal of the average white man I know in the South. But that was once.

    @Otherwise: I agree that racism is pretty much in everyone to some degree, and would postulate that it’s strongly tied to psychological research conducted as early as the 1950s on the strong fear factor associated with “the familiar in unfamiliar guise.” I also agree that the white Southerners I know have no issues with being overtly racist. At least many of the rest of us try. I don’t know of anyone there who does. I’m sure they exist. I just don’t know them.

  6. This is very interesting article, thanks Samuel. The rule of three is great in a gruesome interest sort of way. Is there a rule about when one accepts the invitation to stay or is that against the rules?

    • Hell if I know. I’m precisely the kind of person these codes were designed to exclude, and my friend probably got drummed out of the club for telling me that much. My guess is that there are definitely rules for that sort of thing, but I can’t prove it.

  7. Where in the South do/did you people actually live??? This “rule of three” is not a rule I have ever heard of. It is simply ridiculous to promote such stereotypes of Southern behavior as a general rule. Also, I have lived in NYC, Seattle, San Francisco, San Diego, Salt Lake, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Nashville, as well as growing up in and returning to Alabama and I can assure you that there are perfectly horrible people everywhere. If you step outside of ANY major, metropolitan enclave in the U.S., you might as well be in any conservative town anywhere, in regards to attitudes around race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.. It is NOT just the South. California, for instance, has plenty of hate groups, racists and homophobes, as well as just run-of-the-mill conservative republicans. Walk down the street in Queens or the Bronx holding your same-sex partner’s hand and see how that goes. Or, drive an hour east outside of liberal Seattle or Portland and visit with some of the country’s most committed white supremacists. Stop stereotyping the South. Yes, we have plenty of problems and plenty of idiots. But I personally missed the emphasis on manners during my travels. Whether they mean it or not, it makes the world feel a little less awful when someone smiles and says hello or opens the door for you. Besides, the manners that are in current use are nowhere near as extreme as you are portraying them. You sound like you are shopping for a book deal.