Stereotypes and Origins of Southern Hospitality

Southern hospitality is an integral part of the South's cultural identity.
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In the United States, some characteristics, such as pride in individualism and a tendency to informality, are considered typically American. In addition, each of the country's regions has a its own particular identity. Residents of the Southern states are known for their warm and welcoming attitude, commonly referred to as "Southern hospitality." Although Southerners take pride in being characterized as gracious and friendly, Southern hospitality also has given rise to stereotypes that are not always complimentary.

1 The South, Geographically

The geographic location of the South has changed over the course of American history. At one time, the South referred to the slave-holding territory below the Mason-Dixon line, a historical boundary beginning in southern New Jersey and extending west. During the Civil War, the South referred to those states that had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy. The U.S Census Bureau later defined the U.S. Southern region as including the states of Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida as well as the District of Columbia.

2 A Tradition Takes Hold

The custom and tradition of Southern hospitality evolved out of the South's rural roots and its preponderance of large farms and plantations. Visits to neighbors weren't a one-hour affair, and preparing food as a gift to the hosts was a ceremonial undertaking. Offering abundant hospitality to guests was, in turn, a tonic to the loneliness of farm life. In 1835, author John Abbott wrote of his travels through the South as a series of encounters with strangers who went out of their way to make him feel at home. Abbott is credited with coining the term, "Southern Hospitality."

3 Minding Manners

Southern hospitality continued as a tradition throughout the Civil War. Travelers, including Confederate soldiers, often stayed in private residences due to the lack of inns and boarding houses. Author and University of South Carolina, Aiken, professor Dr. Tom Mack suggests that Southern hospitality also may have religious connections, particularly in reference to the story of the Good Samaritan and the idea of showing kindness to travelers. Authors John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed emphasize that Northerners and Southerns alike associate gracious behavior, particularly good manners, with traditional Southern hospitality.

4 Not Your Typical Southerners

Stereotypes typically draw on the realistic attributes of people but then distort them to create a caricature. Southerners who display a gracious and inviting behavior are stereotyped for their Southern hospitality when they are depicted as naive and overly zealous in catering to others. The media plays a role in propagating these stereotypes. While Forrest Gump was a movie character admired for his stand-up, gentlemanly ways and generosity, the movie also suggests that much of his behavior comes from being simple-minded. However, when John Abbott first described Southern hospitality, he also alluded to the fact that a Southerner's extension of hospitality was made in expectation of reciprocal respect and congeniality.

Laura Leddy Turner began her writing career in 1976. She has worked in the newspaper industry as an illustrator, columnist, staff writer and copy editor, including with Gannett and the Asbury Park Press. Turner holds a B.A. in literature and English from Ramapo College of New Jersey, with postgraduate coursework in business law.