Do you say "Ma'am" and "Sir" without having to think about it? Do you drink your sweet tea from mason jars? Do you know when to use the term "bless your heart?” Do you appreciate the value of a sorority sister who will stand by your side through thick or thin?
If you say yes to any of these questions, you might be a southern belle at heart, even if you don't live in the South. Proper etiquette in the South is pretty basic. It's taught early in life and repeated throughout childhood. So by the time a southerner reaches adulthood, it's deeply ingrained.
You know, sort of like how it is with British royalty. There are obviously some differences, but our manners are important to us, and we need to keep keep them in the forefront of our minds.
Historically, southern belles have lived by an etiquette code with rules passed down from their mamas and grandmas. Some are standard things like, “Always call a woman ‘ma’am’ and a gentleman ‘sir.’” Others are regional or specific to certain families.
Depth of Southern Manners
The main ingredient in the unwritten southern belle etiquette rulebook is to always show your softer side and never (or nevah) let on how strong you really are. Although steeped in tradition, the modern belle is aware of pop culture and embraces certain aspects that don’t interfere with her southern sensibilities.
Being a well-mannered southern belle has nothing to do with how much money your daddy has or how educated you are. In fact, showing off money or lording your intelligence over someone who is less enlightened is considered downright tacky (southern speak for vulgar).
A modern southern belle is just as likely to join the military as she is to be a member of the Junior League. A southern belle may have traveled around the world, but she never loses touch with her roots because her southern manners run deep.
Whether she is immersed in a career of her own or a stay-at-home mama, she still considers a good place setting extremely important. A southern belle loves fine china, and if it has been handed down through the generations, that’s even better.
Most young women in the South know early on what their silver pattern is—long before they have any inkling of who or even if they’ll marry. If a belle chooses not to marry (and it’s always a southern belle’s choice), she’ll serve meals with pride and find a way to discuss the lineage of the place settings with her guests without appearing to brag.
Southern belles have table manners. They know how to set a dining table for a formal meal, and they know which utensils should be used for each course. When someone makes a mistake or spills something, they know how to cover for the person to prevent further embarrassment.
A southern belle knows how to entertain, and she does so with grace and perhaps a little over-the-top enthusiasm. You'll find fresh-cut flowers on every available surface and a dinner table that appears to be set for royalty. She makes her guests feel as though they're the most important people in her life ... and they are while she entertains them.
A modern southern belle knows her way around the kitchen as well as her ancestors did. If she can cook, she does so with flourish. If not, she knows how to arrange prepared food on exquisite china platters and make it appear that she lovingly created each item from scratch. And a southern belle knows how to make sweet tea, the official drink of the South.
When a southern belle is invited to a party, wedding or other event, she graciously sends back the RSVP. A southern belle arrives bearing gifts for the hostess — sometimes to the point of embarrassing the poor woman because there’s no such thing as too much or too extravagant in her world. She would never crash a party, but if an uninvited guest shows up for her gathering, she will do whatever it takes to make the person feel welcome.
As soon as she gets home from a party or overnight stay, a proper southern belle will write a thank you note and get it in the mail right away. Oh, and it must be handwritten. If she is super organized, she may even have a pen and paper in the car and mail it on the way home from her host’s event. To not send a thank you note is rude, and a southern belle will do anything to prevent being called rude.
When a southern belle has an appointment or makes plans to meet friends for coffee, she shows up on time ... or a few minutes early. Heaven forbid she should make others wait.
Grooming and Appearance
A southern belle is always well groomed, but she never clips her nails or plucks stray hairs in public. She may be wearing jeans, but she doesn’t forget to shave her legs. You just never know when you’ll have to show some leg. Her teeth are always sparkling clean so she can flash that sweet southern smile. Everything about how the southern belle looks is intentional, including her windswept hairdo that may have taken hours to achieve.
She’s a woman who carries herself with pride. You’ll see her holding her head up high as she sits up straight. When she walks, she has an elegant strut that has most likely been practiced for hours in front of a mirror.
Southern Belle Rules
There are southern belle rulebooks, but girls who grow up in the South don’t have to read them. They know what’s expected of them from the moment they start talking. When they reach a certain age, they are presented at a cotillion, coming out ball, or backyard barbecue to let the world know that their family considers them ready to face the world.
A southern belle lives by certain rules that must not be broken, or she’ll forever be the embarrassment of the family:
- White shoes should never be worn before Easter or after Labor Day, unless it’s to your own wedding. Then it’s okay, but when you change out of your bridal gown, you need to change your shoes, or you’ll be seen as tacky. However, it's okay to wear "winter white" between Labor Day and Easter.
- Regardless of how many trips she’s made to the altar, a southern belle bride wears white on her wedding day.
- Cleavage is reserved for evenings. Before the sun goes down, cover your chest.
- Chewing gum in public is…well, it’s just tacky.
- Modern southern belles may smoke and drink, but they should never walk around with a cigarette or drink in their hands. Either have someone bring it to you or have it arrive at your seat.
- Never swear in public. If something really rattles you, choose a euphemism, such as “darn,” “shoot,” or “I swanny.”
- Love your family, even the eccentric folks…especially the eccentric people. They give you something to look forward to at family reunions and something to talk about later.
- The woman who gave birth to you is always “Mama,” unless she prefers the more formal "Mother," and the first man in your life will forever be referred to as “Daddy.”
- Southern belles who attend college know what sorority rush week is, and they have a special place in their mama, grandma or aunt’s sorority house. Being a legacy provides a safety net, ensuring a bid at the end of the week…unless she’s gone off the deep end and winds up being too much for the “sisters” to fix.
- Know how to accessorize without being tacky. If in doubt, remove one item before leaving the house. In the South, this is called “understated elegance.”
- Never gossip. When you have something to say that isn’t so nice, preface it with, “Bless her heart” or, “Please pray for her,” and you can pretty much get away with anything.
- If you don’t know someone’s name, you may use terms of endearment such as, “sweetie,” “honey,” “sugar,” or “darlin’.”
- When someone is sick or passes away, bring food to the family. People get hungry when taking care of an invalid and after losing a loved one, but they don’t have time to cook. Most southern belles have a favorite casserole that others eventually come to expect. When they don’t receive it, they get concerned that you may be sick, and you just might find people showing up at your door with food.
- A southern belle breaks rules all the time, and she does so in good humor. However, as she skips along with an armful of stacked bracelets and white shoes the week before Thanksgiving, you can count on her glancing over her shoulder to make sure her mama isn't looking.