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Southern Belle Etiquette We Should Bring Back

Hoop skirts may have gone out of style but these classic good manners haven't!

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Mind your “Ps” and “Qs”

Many people see the traditional “Southern” manners as being “too proper” or “old fashioned” but that’s a mistake, says Lisa Grotts, etiquette expert, founder of Golden Rules Gal, and author of A Traveler’s Passport to Etiquette. “Contrary to popular belief, good manners are mainstream and are always in fashion,” she says, adding that there’s a lot we can learn from our Southern sisters of all colors and classes. Done properly, good manners won’t come off as stiff or stuffy but will help put everyone at ease and make for a more pleasant experience all around, she says. Not sure where to start? Butter your biscuits and prepare to head south.

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Saying, “Oh, bless her heart!”

Can you even say “oh, bless her heart” without a Southern accent? For generations, Southern belles have used this phrase in place of saying something snarky or rude about someone else. You don’t have to use these words but we should all try harder to avoid saying nasty things about others, especially when they are doing the best that they can, says Jodi R. R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. Note: Sometimes “bless his/her heart” is said in a snarky or condescending tone, making it the very thing you should be trying to avoid—don’t do that either.

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RSVPing on time

An all too common (and irritating) custom these days is to hold off on responding to an invitation until you see who else is coming or to not respond at all because you’d prefer to wait and see how you feel that day. This is incredibly rude and makes the host’s life difficult as they can’t move forward with their planning, Grotts says. Instead, follow the Southern tradition of answering promptly and completely—try and avoid the “maybe” option if at all possible, she explains. If you can’t go, know how to say “no” with grace.

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Being generous with praise

Endless compliments, especially when they’re not tied to something specific, can feel fake or disingenuous, but praising someone when they do something good not only makes them feel good but it also ensures that behavior will be repeated, Smith says. “The importance of rewarding good work is especially true in business,” she adds. And make sure you’re avoiding these 16 “compliments” that are actually pretty insulting.

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Making eye contact and shaking hands when being introduced

Gone are the days when women would offer a gloved hand to be kissed but knowing how to properly do an introduction is a timeless skill, Grotts says, especially when it comes to making appropriate eye contact. Too little and you look aloof or uninterested, too much and you look crazy or aggressive. But it’s so important to find that happy medium, particularly when being introduced to someone new, Grotts says. “Follow the example of Southern belles by extending your hand for a handshake, smiling warmly, and making eye contact for a few seconds,” she says. Find out what your handshake reveals about you.

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Saying “please,” every time

No one likes to be commanded to do something and barking orders doesn’t make you seem powerful, it just makes you look entitled and demanding. Instead, make sure you soften any requests with a polite “please,” Grotts says. “It’s such a little thing but it completely changes the tone,” she explains. And you’ll be more likely to get what you want. There’s a reason saying please is at the top of the 50 tips for good manners list.

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Thanking everyone, regardless of station

A verbal “thank you” is one of the best social lubricants we have and Southern belles are known for always being gracious. The key is to make sure you’re thanking everyone who helps you. Whether you’re talking to the CEO of a company or the waiter clearing your dishes, it takes so little to say thank you and it will make both of you feel good, Smith says. The key to emulating this Southern nicety is to constantly be aware of others around you and how they are helping. “We can all learn to be more appreciative,” she says. Find out the 13 social media etiquette rules you really need to follow.

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Writing prompt thank-you notes

“In the South, thank-you note writing is a competitive sport,” Smith says. “Guests will even bring note cards in their purse, to write the host a thank you upon leaving a party so that it is waiting in the host’s mailbox in the morning.” This isn’t just about show, however, it’s about remembering to be grateful for all the big and little things others do for us, she adds. Plus this is one of the 13 rules all good neighbors follow.

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Looking on the bright side

Southern belles are known for being relentlessly positive, even when things are going terribly. To some, it may seem naive but having an optimistic outlook and looking for the best—both in people and situations—is a good skill to have, Smith says. Looking for the positive can help you find solutions and keep moving forward whereas sitting and complaining gets you nowhere, she explains.

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Being punctual

A Southern belle does her best to be respectful of other people’s time and that means being punctual as often as possible, Grotts says. Showing up late or unprepared makes others feel unimportant or slighted so it’s worth it to take the extra steps so you’re prepared to leave and arrive on time.

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Knowing how to make small talk

Small talk is a skill and one that’s quickly being lost, thanks to the constant presence of electronic devices in public. Yet a Southern belle always knows how to make small talk with someone, including a few interesting but appropriate tidbits for starting a conversation. They also know what to avoid. “Don’t bring up the dreaded three: sex, politics, and religion,” Smith says. “It’s not that you can never discuss these things but rather that they don’t belong in small talk.” Not sure where to start? These 37 conversation starters will make you seem instantly interesting.

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Knowing when and how to change the subject

Everyone has probably watched a perfectly wonderful dinner party devolve into a screaming match after someone brings up a contentious argument—and it can ruin the whole evening. Southern belles are adept at recognizing when things are getting heated and know how to quickly change the conversation, Smith says. “The key here is to have some interesting topics ready in advance, like books you’ve read, a big project at work, or an upcoming vacation,” she says. These magic phrases can instantly save any awkward conversation.

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Keeping the dinner table sacrosanct

Southern belles know that dinner together is one of the most important times of the day and they’ll go to great lengths to protect that time. This doesn’t mean you have to eat off the fine china and use cloth napkins every night, rather it means that everyone is present and talking together, even if it’s over microwave dinners. In the past, this might mean Southern grandmas banned books or TV during dinner and today you can carry this tradition on by saying no to phones or other electronic devices at the table, Grotts says. “Put them all the way away, where you can’t even see them,” she explains. “All your focus should be on the people there with you.”


Teaching children to be polite

Politeness is diminishing in all age groups but perhaps the one that’s most upsetting is in the youngest generation. Southern belles pride themselves on having well-mannered children, however, and will go to great lengths to ensure their little ones know how to behave properly. But the key here isn’t threats or punishments (no ear pulling, even if your Southern grandma did it!) but preparation, Smith says. You should prepare children by practicing at home what to do and say in tricky situations in advance, and then reinforce those manners by being a good example, she explains. Start with these 17 manners every parent needs to teach their child.

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Being patient

“Society has become more and more fast-paced and we expect to have instant access to photos, news, and media, and we love convenience,” Grotts says. All of this can cause people to rush things and become grouchy when things don’t happen immediately. But delays are simply a part of being in the world with other humans—cars break down, employees get sick, texts don’t get answered. You can choose to respond in anger and frustration or emulate Southern belles and learn how to wait patiently and politely. The first option rarely gets you what you want but being patient often leads to a better outcome, she adds.

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen is a health, lifestyle and fitness expert and teacher. She covers all things wellness for Reader’s Digest and The Healthy. With dual masters degrees in information technology and education, she has been a journalist for 17 years and is the author of The Great Fitness Experiment. She lives in Denver with her husband, five kids and three pets.