Not only does Mama salute Emily Post, but she “goes her one better.”
There’s social etiquette and then there’s Mama’n’em’s etiquette. None of these rules are written down. Southerners just absorb them through cornbread and the liquid sugarcane we call sweet tea.
We took a quick poll of our Facebook Brain Trust and found some common threads. It should come as no surprise that many Southern rules for proper etiquette revolve around food.
First of all, we’re happy to report that the more draconian dining/entertaining rules for children have loosened considerably over the years. Back in the day, children were to be “seen and not heard” when company came over. Or at the very least “speak only when spoken to.” When Mama entertained the preacher, the young’uns didn’t eat till the good reverend had finished, and he always got the “pulley-bone.” Nowadays, there’s plenty of Publix fried chicken for everybody. Still, some dining restrictions apply . . . and Mama has other rules, as well.
- Never chew with your mouth open or talk with your mouth full. Do. Not. Smack.
- Take off your hat or cap in the house, especially when eating or when a lady is present. Don’t even think about coming near Mama in her house with that thing on your head. Not if you want to keep it. And we’ll leave it to you to decide whether “it” refers to your hat or your head.
- Elbows off the table.
- No young people (family members under 40) at the “big table” unless there’s room to spare after all the elders are seated and even then, only if invited to join.
- Don’t sing or whistle at the table.
- Don’t talk about unpleasantries at the table.
- When friends come over, children should let their guests choose the games and the snacks. That one’s actually not a bad idea. It teaches consideration and courtesy. Agree?
- Speaking of refreshments, we always offer some, even if they’re simple. And we always take some (or at least offer to) whenever we attend a gathering, be it a barbecue or a funeral.
- Conversely, it’s considered bad form to ask for something to eat when you’re a guest. You must wait to be offered food or drink—sometimes hope to be.
- As a general rule of thumb, it’s always ladies first in the South. But there are annoying exceptions. “Men get to go first in the food line at Christmas,” writes Beverly from Birmingham. “I do not agree with this rule, but I have to do what my mother said to do.”
- Always see your guests to the door when they leave.
- Men and boys, open doors for women and girls. Everybody hold the door open for whomever is approaching from behind you. Writes Kelly, a Southerner transplanted to the Big Apple: “Southerners instinctively know if people are behind us when we’re walking into stores, restaurants, and offices, and we patiently hold the door. My son inherited this ability even though he was born in NYC and is growing up northern.”
- Always say please and thank you.
- Always send a thank-you note (not a text) for a gift.
- Always say yes ma’am and no ma’am (unless you’re up north, where they seem to get offended by it, though we have no idea why).
- No cell phones at the table, in church, at the cemetery, or anywhere near Memaw. She hates those things.
- No running in the house unless it’s on fire—and it better be a hot one.
- Men and boys should stand when a lady comes into the room or when she’s being seated. Everybody (regardless of gender) should stand when an elder (regardless of gender) enters the room or is being seated.
- Never let on that you’ve heard PawPaw tell that story before. Says Gae in Alabama: “We are very good at listening to a friend or relative’s retelling of a story for the umpteenth time as if it’s the first time we’re hearing it. It’s respectful and just part of the fun of spending time together.”
- Parents should teach their children how to handle themselves in “big church.” Fortunately, there aren’t that many rules to remember: eyes forward, no running, no talking, no loud whispering, no looking like you want to say something, eyes closed and head bowed during prayer, no bellowing during the song service, no turning to see who’s behind you, no kicking the pew in front of you, no fidgeting, no taking off your Sunday shoes, no pointing, no rummaging in Mama’s purse, and no pushing at the fellowship table. That’s not everything but it’s enough for Junior and Sissy to qualify as raised right.
Surely that stack of paper plates you just plopped down on the serving table aren’t for takeout supper, prepared free of charge by your host. Surely, surely not.