Sunday, January 29, 2012

Is Southern Hospitality a Myth?

I hadn’t seen my friend Scott for several months. As we were catching up, I asked if he and his family had been on any interesting trips lately. He mentioned they had rented a beach house outside Charleston last summer; it was their first time there. A native New Yorker now living in San Francisco, Scott said he had barely spent any time before “down South.”
Then he asked, “Do you believe there’s such a thing as Southern hospitality?
Being Southern, I thought it hospitable to encourage him to continue before offering my opinion. “Do you?” I asked.
“I think it’s a myth,” Scott answered. He explained that the owner of their rented beach house had misrepresented its amenities and wouldn’t fix a major problem Scott had called to complain about. He said the wait staff in several restaurants they’d been to in Charleston had been indifferent and unaccommodating.
“So I don’t buy this Southern hospitality thing at all,” Scott concluded.
Feeling defensive, I explained that Charleston, being a hugely popular tourist destination, has a lot of people living there now from outside the South. (A poor excuse, admittedly.) Also, Scott and his family had gone to a top tourist destination toward the end of the tourist season. By that point, no doubt every restaurant server’s last good nerve had been plucked more times than a banjo string at a bluegrass convention.
And yet, Scott’s question left me wondering: Are Southerners truly more hospitable than people in other areas?
Yes Ma'am
At a minimum, I believe most Southerners are polite. They still say “yes sir” and “yes ma’am” and “thank you” and “you’re welcome.” They will hold the door open for you, regardless of your sex. And Southerners are generally friendly. When you’re out for a walk in a residential neighborhood, a Southern stranger will say hello to you, even wave from across the street.
True hospitality, to me, is something much more than politeness and friendliness. It’s a willingness to take action out of compassionate regard for the needs of others, even when they’re strangers and it’s of no real benefit to you. I’ve certainly seen this in the South—and many other places as well.
No Worries, Mate
On a 1996 visit to Melbourne, Australia, Nick and I became completely lost, so I ventured into a corner market to ask for directions. After waiting my turn in line, I asked the young woman behind the counter how to get back to our hotel. She gave me convoluted directions I had trouble grasping.
I was aware there were three people in line behind me. Not wanting to keep them waiting, I thanked the friendly clerk and started to leave. To my astonishment, she insisted on walking outside with me so she could point out the way. She left the cash register unattended, not to mention those three people waiting in line. Once she had set me straight (so to speak), I stuck my head into the store. The three people in line smiled at me, and I thanked them for their patience. “No worries, mate,” one of them responded, and they all wished us luck.
In London two years ago, I was leaving the theater with a group of people. We became confused as to how to take the tube back to our hotel. A young woman overheard us, said she was going in that direction, and invited us to follow her. She sat with us on the train and stayed past her own stop, to ensure we departed at the correct station.
Losing it in Times Square
And then there was my first trip to New York, way back in 1979. Toward the end of my visit, I discovered, to my horror, that I had lost my wallet—in Times Square. Fortunately I was with a group of college friends and I rode back to North Carolina with them. I figured my wallet, along with the money in it, was lost forever. (I didn’t have a credit card at that point.)
A day after my return, I received a collect phone call from someone in the New York City area. The caller had found my wallet. He offered to mail it to me but wanted permission to deduct the shipping cost from the bills in my wallet. A few days later, my wallet arrived intact, with all my money minus the postage costs.
And so, hospitality exists everywhere—even in Times Square. It’s by no means indigenous to the South. On the other hand, jerks are everywhere, too. You get into trouble trying to generalize about any group of people, whether it's where they live or how they live.

Even so, I feel the need to defend the notion of Southern hospitality and to do my meager part to ensure its survival.
In San Francisco, when I see tourists confused as to which way to go, I will sometimes stop and offer directions. When I notice a tourist taking a picture of his friends, I’ll often ask if they’d like me to take the picture. Partly, my motivation is for them to go home and say “Those San Franciscans are very friendly.” But at the end of each encounter, I always say in my best drawl, “Y’all have a nice day."
What do you think? Do you believe Southerners are more hospitable than other people? What's been your experience with a stranger being truly hospitable to you in your travels?


  1. In some ways I think that we are just nosier than other people and that gets mistaken for or naturally turns into hospitality. You have a point though, you can find good (and bad) people all over.

  2. Was the owner of the beach house a local or from out of state?
    I live in Charleston, I'm a transplanted midwesterner. I have been here twenty years and in that time, I've come to love the way people here will go above and beyond to help out a neighbor. I love that people genuinely seem to care. Granted Jane, they/we are nosy, but that nosiness is laced with concern.
    I apologize for the rude wait staff,and hope your friend will give our fair city another try at some point. James, you'll have to show him the off the beaten track spots so he gets to see some real Charlestonians.

    I do agree, wholeheartedly, that the world is filled with good people. IT's just that the bastards seem to get so much more of the limelight.

  3. In the south, people are more apt to wave hello and dispense pleasantries than here in the northeast. I used to think it was the difference between big cities and smaller cities. But, I lived in a small New England town for a while and people didn't stop and say hello or wave. My answer? It's just to friggin' cold! In the winter the days are so short and it really affects our moods. Come spring and Summer we're a much happier bunch. BUT, you always know where you stand here, and a friend is a friend for life. Give me honesty over hospitality, any day.

    1. LIES! I lived in Florida for a year and I would wave at my neighbors and they would look at me like I'm crazy. As if saying "I don't know you". When I lived in Pennsylvania people would pass my house and wave hello and we would wave back. So I think "southern hospitality" Is a myth.

    2. Florida is NOT the south! You'll be hard pressed to find native Floridians as they've mostly been displaced my new yorkers and immigrants. I'm from the real south, NC, and I get so irritated with the people down here. Like you said, people look at you like you've lost you're mind if you wave at them while passing. And when I hold the door open, crickets! Rudeness pervades down here in Fl for sure!

  4. Oh, by the way, love your new background! See, that's my southern side shining through.....

  5. Why yes, I have found that those who live south of Market are much more hospitable than the Toffs in Pacific Heights or the Marina. ;-)

    More seriously, I think that culturally there is a greater sensitivity to public manners in the South. Hospitality and generosity follow from this to a greater or lesser degree.

    Oh dear...I've said all of this without a proper introduction. However, I am so "northern" that I am not mortified by this.

  6. Bill (my partner) and I travel South once a year. Bill is originally from Georgia (Toccoa). I am a Northerner but my father came up from the south when he was ten years old with his family (not really "South" but hillbilly - western North Carolina mountains - Appalachia).

    I have discovered that most Southerners are friendlier by waving at you even though they don't know you and saying "Good day." Even though most of them are conservative and would never approve of our "lifestyle" (gay) they almost all seem to have a smile and a friendly attitude.

    After I retired from my 37 year banking career I wanted a part-time job. I took one as a hotel front desk clerk but was apprehensive about "dealing with the public." Much to my pleasant surprise I have found that 99.5% of the people I deal with are very pleasant and friendly. Oh sure, there are a few difficult people but I look upon them as a challenge. Of course my big enjoyment in my job is offering customer friendly service no matter what time of year, tourist season or not. It is almost invariable appreciated.

    I agree with you that the overwhelming majority of people in this country are good and honest people. It is unfortunate that the few who aren't contribute to the myth that "dealing with the public" is difficult.

    I agree that people in the North don't wave and say "Hi!" but I think that is because they are afraid someone has a scam or wants something from them. I don't find that attitude in the South.

  7. I have been pondering an answer since I read your blog yesterday. I live in Charleston and for the most part find the people friendly (to your face). I am a Yankee born and bred. When I first moved here in the late 90's I did not feel welcome and definetly did not find the natives particulary polite nor friendly. My first experience was my neighbor who informed me I was a Damn Yankee (different in that I had moved here). The second was being behind the old pick up truck covered in anti-north bumper stickers. One that stands out in my mind the most is the one that said "You spent your money now go the heck home".

    I love living here in Charleston, the weather cannot be beat, the beaches are beautiful and there is nothing like strolling around downtown but, I have to agree with Bill. I miss the honesty of the north. You know where you stand and don't have to pussy foot around with people. I have gotten many negative comments on my employee feed back forms (which are of course annoymous) since I moved here that I am too northern which translates to direct. I expect people to work when you are paying them, you can have fun but hey...lets get our stuff done. My boss's boss (who is also from NY) tells me not to change who I am but still the comments are on my review each and every year. I know that part of this is the culture of the company but an even larger piece of it is the culture of the south.

    I do like that people wave to you here, especially when they drive. They even use all their fingers!

  8. The gift of Hospitality can be found anywhere and everywhere. I have found that my attitude and demeanor very much is the catalyst as to the level and quality of Hospitality being extended. People can be so much more of a gracious Host if we are a Guest worthy of Hosting.

    Blessings from the Arizona Desert... Dawn... The Bohemian

  9. Great Post.
    I am a southerner....I think you hit the nail on the head, as you can find hospitality anywhere, and the opposite in the same places. We are living in different times, where aggression seems to be rewarded, so you have factor this into the situation. But my vote is, yeah, we can be a bit more genteel.
    It is good to hear now and then, that people anywhere, can be generous and kind, it rather makes one want to "pay it forward,"-- in today's world, we need all of this we can get.
    PS My brother in law from SF, left his new Mac book Air on a train last month in London. He went to lost and found, and someone returned it, with no card, no nothing, but good will.
    Ya'll have a nice weekend, now, ya hear!
    tim in France

  10. True, hospitality can be found anywhere but some places more so than others I think! It can be as simple as someone giving you good directions which is helpful in foreign countries.

  11. I am from the south, I find the people rude and unwelcoming. I moved to New York a few years ago and have been welcome and treated fairly just about everywhere I go. If you say thank you to a clerk in the south they look at you like you just killed their dog.
    I made a mistake of moving to Missouri a few months ago and have made it a point to buy a map of the U.S just so I could mark it and other southern states off the map as if they never existed.

    1. Wow. Sorry you had such a bad experience. I will say that New Yorkers have an unjustifiable bad rap for being rude. Most of the time, I've found them to be helpful and friendly.

    2. born and raised in missouri and i can tell you that besides columbia (and even in columbia sometimes) people have certain edge about them. i think it has a lot to do with the fact we get pissed on from all directions. people from the south call us yankees, people from the north call us southern, people from the coasts consider us not worthy and call our state fly over country or worse think we are all mouth breathers, you can see why we don't like people. the one question we absolutely hate in missouri "what do you do there?" we get it all the time as if we don't have places to eat, sports teams, entertainment venues, the internet, so and so forth. so we aren't the friendliest people at first.

  12. I moved to Greensboro, NC in 1996 and have since lived in Raleigh, NC; Durham, NC; Burlington, NC; High Point, NC and Mebane, NC - Although I enjoy living here enough, I have found that Southern Hospitality is a myth. In Caswell County which is tobacco country they still do the wave to everybody thing, but you can also easily get shot if you step foot on someone's land to ask a question. In the rest of the areas I have found as a generality Carolinian's treat all non-natives with contempt. I have been here for 16 years, there is no place else for me to call home, I married a North Carolina girl and my children are all born here, yet I will always be treated as a non-native here. It is unnerving but I've come to accept it. Warning when a southerner is asking you, "where are you from" you must translate it as "you're not from around here, are ya".

  13. Complete myth. Just moved to North Charleston, SC a few months ago and this is the least friendly place I have ever lived. Still waiting for those hello waves, even from neighbors across the street! Maybe it's the MI license plates, but I would think that would be even more of a reason to extend a welcome greeting or a simple hello. I can stand outside in my yard/driveway watching my son play and cars will drive by and people won't even look at you, let alone wave or stop to say "hi, welcome to the neighborhood." We just bought a house that had been for sale for months, surely they know we're new to the neighborhood. Store employees are even more rude than in MI, which is pretty hard to believe. No smiles, no friendliness, no warmth at all. At least the weather is nice and we're 30 mins from the ocean. I guess I better get the license plates changed in a hurry!

    1. Sorry to hear that. In my experience North Charleston didn't have much of a community or neighborhood feel to it. It was pretty industrial. So maybe it's North Charlestonians who aren't friendly as a rule. Anyway, don't give up on the Southern folk just yet. They may still surprise you.

    2. I lived i Florida for a year, after moving from Pennsylvania me and my family have had trouble with a bunch of things. My kids had trouble making friends, and all the kids would say stuff like "Go back home, YAH YANKEEZ!" I would even wave at my neighbors next door who are sitting outside on their porch, guess what? No wave back or any "Hello" as most of the people (who I very much believe are liars) here have been talking about, but instead a very disturbed look like I was crazyas if saying "I don't know you, why yah wavin'?". And the thing that bothers me most is that they acted like they were the nicest people on the planet. I might have agreed with you if they hadn't have done this, but, they did, so I think that "Southern hospitality" isn't real. Boy am I glad to be back in Pennsylvania.

  14. Well in my trip to colorado i met many different kind of folks, most of them were nice, and i dont know if you could call that a southern state, but there i was in the middle of a trailer house neighborhood surrounded by confederate flags and cowboys so... Most people were nice, some indifferent and a couple were neo nazis which werent that friendly.

  15. I am from the south (Atlanta and Nashville) and completely miss the hospitality from everyone. Sure, there are rude people everywhere but generally southerners are super friendly. I just moved to the Midwest and can't wait to move again. The people here have no conversation skills whatsoever. They are really nice with "hello" but it never goes any further than that. Southerners are inclusive as opposed to Midwesterners' cliques. If you're not from here, they want nothing to do with you. It really doesn't help if you have an accent...
    As for New Yorkers, they have always been very friendly to us, EXCEPT when driving. ;)

    1. I have seen that everyone who has left there area of origin (me PA) that they have been mistreated in some way. So I guess everyone should just stay where they began, and everything will be alright. :D

  16. I once joked that if you wanted to meet nice people, go to Colorado or California [San Francisco], and that I hadn't been there since the weed, so I only imagine it's gotten worse.

    I think where the myth, or legend comes from is that most Southerners grew up in modest, small towns, not concrete jungles with one million plus residents. So many think being very involved in [other] people's business is a virtue, strangely though this is probably also what justified lynching in the mind of so many residents barely half a century ago, and probably what justifies all the homophobia and conservative mentalities today.

    I've heard it said that racism is just as prevalent in the North, and this is not entirely inaccurate. Living in Boston I can attest that people had no problem spewing the N-word. New York as well. I knew many a person in NYC that had no problem ranting about how the homosexuals and blacks were ruining everything. But in practice they mind their own business. The pace is too quick. There's not enough moments to sit there and ruminate on what everyone else is doing, even if that person hates the bejesus out of them.

    1. Orion, I grew up in North Georgia, and I can assure you that we never did any lynching, nearly half a century ago or now. But you are right about one thing, most Southerners grew up in modest, small towns, and that's where I've noticed hospitality is the strongest.

      Many in the comments section seem to think hospitality is about friendliness. That's part of it, but it's also about helping others. I come from a small town (in the Bible Belt too) and people would give the shirt off their back to someone in need. We had poor strangers come by our community and we made sure they were fed. We also gave them opportunities for honest hard work.

      Small towns seem to have, one might even call them Conservative values, which means that you help people who need it, but give them the chance to become independent so they don't have to rely on help. This extended to anyone who came by, familiar or not.

      Southern hospitality is not a myth; it is alive and well. It may just be harder to recognize depending on where you go.

      P.S. I've lived in California now for nearly a decade. People here are significantly less friendly and more likely to ignore someone in need than the town I grew up in. Even in nice neighborhoods, there seems to be a sense of fear that people will do wrong to each other.