August 2019

Southern Etiquette

Author: Laura Jacobi

Southern ladies and gentlemen are often defined by their impeccable etiquette. There’s a reason why good manners are ingrained in Southern culture. From one generation to the next, Southerners are taught to be respectful of others and to show kindness to their neighbors. Even in this modern world, where most communication is done in the form of tweets, texts and emojis, being polite is still a vital aspect of face-to-face interaction. And a little kindness goes a long way.

Long-time Hilton Head Island resident Leslie Richardson has taught cotillion classes at the South Carolina Yacht Club for more than 20 years. Classes are offered for children as young as two (Tips for Tots) to high school seniors. She has spent that time teaching children how to interact with each other, their parents, and other adults in order to become polite, respectful members of their community.

Originally from North Carolina, Richardson moved to Hilton Head Island in 1989 when she married James N. Richardson Jr. They have since opened the South Carolina Yacht Club and developed several Lowcountry communities and businesses under their company, The Richardson Group. In addition to her professional obligations, Richardson has supported several Lowcountry charitable organizations promoting cultural, artistic, educational, and preservation causes.

According to Richardson, Southern etiquette is an outward expression of respect for others. “Practicing good manners is a kind and elegant way to live your life,” she said.

Following are some of the etiquette tips Richardson has taught her students over the years. No matter what part of the country or world you’re from, these simple and gracious gestures can be easily incorporated into everyday life, by children and adults alike.

Ladies first
The practice of holding the door open for ladies is a long-standing tradition of Southern gentlemen. But the truth is, holding the door open is a simple “act of kindness that can be performed by ladies or gentlemen,” Richardson said. It’s easy to rush through life checking things off the to-do list, but taking the extra time to hold the door can lift someone’s day and their outlook.

Yes, ma’am or no, sir
When Southern children first learn to say “yes” or “no,” they’re quickly taught to follow it with “ma’am” and “sir.” To someone raised elsewhere, it might seem as if it comes naturally to them, almost like a reflex. But those terms actually serve a purpose as a form of respect for authority, similar to addressing adults as Mr. or

The origin of sir comes from the English but was borrowed from the French word “sire,” meaning “lord,” or the Latin “senior,” meaning “elder.” Ma’am is a shortening of “madam,” which means lady of the house.

“Until I was posed this question, it never occurred to me to second guess why my mother trained my three siblings and me to respond with ‘Yes, ma’am and yes, sir,’” Richardson said, as it was merely what was expected.

Richardson respects that children in the Lowcountry move here from all over and might not have been taught the same way she was. So, in the cotillion classes, she teaches the same concept as ma’am and sir, but using different language.

“I teach that yes is only half the answer,” Richardson explained. She instructs her students to say “yes, please” or “no, thank you,” which instills in them, at a young age, that words are important; they carry weight and show respect or lack thereof.

There’s a reason why “please” is the magic word. When someone says “please,” it demonstrates gratitude from the onset. It takes little effort to say please or thank you, but those words can have a huge impact.

Proper introductions
Southerners are known for being neighborly, which can range from welcoming the new family who moves in next door to saying hello to people they pass on the street. A simple gesture such as bringing a plate of cookies to the newest neighbor or smiling at someone in the coffee shop line can make a difference. Spreading joy can change the trajectory of someone’s day. “It makes people feel wonderful when you stop what you are doing and greet them with a warm welcome,” Richardson said.

And who knows what people will learn about each other when they take the time to stop and get to know each other? Chatting with neighbors was the first form of networking, it was how townspeople learned what was going on in their community.

Richardson also teaches her students about the importance of introducing themselves to new people. She stresses that the first five seconds when they meet someone new is vital. “There are no do-overs,” she said. “How they meet you is how they will remember you,” so be sure to make it a positive experience.

It might seem old-fashioned to shake hands when an introduction is made or to look people in the eyes when talking to them, because what is happening on the screen they’re glued to can sometimes appear more important than the person across from them. But good conversation never goes out of style.

“As children grow up, people trust people who look them in the eyes,” Richardson said. “When young people know how to introduce themselves and … when and where to put the cell phone down, they separate themselves from the crowd.”

Whether in social settings or workplace environments, polite and genuine communication skills are still highly coveted. According to Richardson, the most important conversation skill is so simple, yet often forgotten: listening.

According to Richardson, her father coined the phrase, “Ask the second question.” He taught her and her siblings that “leaning in and listening is the most important part of communication.” She says the second question comes once someone is truly listening and interested in what the other person is saying. That’s when the learning begins—when people are actively communicating with one another. “You are engaged in conversations when you are listening,” she said.

The hostess with the mostest
Southern women are known to host fantastic parties, leaving no detail behind, from the decadent desserts to the coordinated linens. But being a good hostess is about much more than just meticulous presentation. It’s Southern hospitality—opening up their home and showering guests with attention and usually mac ’n’ cheese.

When entertaining, Richardson suggests parents give their children a job at the party so that they learn how to engage in meaningful conversation with adults and feel part of the evening. They can hold the door open, welcome guests and take their coats and bags. It helps prepare children to become gracious hosts and hostesses in the future.

When on the guest list, bringing a gift is a warm way to acknowledge the invitation and thank the hosts for the delicious dinner, fun party or gracious visit, Richardson said. “The present can be small, but the more thoughtful the better.”

And remember, anytime friends and family break bread together, proper table manners make the dining experience more enjoyable. What your mom always said at the table was true: it’s not acceptable to talk with your mouth full or talk over people at the table, and your napkin belongs in your lap. When a lady leaves the table, the gentlemen should stand as well, according to Richardson.

When the night is over, don’t disappear from the party, Richardson said. It might seem easier to “sneak out” as to not bother the host and hostess, but a lovely evening deserves a thank-you and proper goodbye.

When in doubt of how to proceed in any given situation, just remember the Golden Rule and treat others the way you wish to be treated. Southern hospitality isn’t about speaking in a certain way or following certain rules. Richardson reminds her students that proper etiquette is about treating others and yourself with kindness and respect. So, thank you for reading, and please have a nice day.

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