In the South, we are known for our friendliness – not just with close friends and family – but with kindness and concern that extends to acquaintances and strangers as well.
It’s evident in the way we wave hello to everyone from the porch or while driving down the street, and in the honey-sweet greetings you hear when you walk in a restaurant, and in a lifestyle inextricably intertwined with other people in our community.
We celebrate life on scales both grand and simple, paying attention to big events as well as to everyday interactions. We thrive on sharing happiness, giving encouragement, and showing our care and concern.
I hope this list of Southern “politeness” will inspire you to become more involved in both the challenges and celebrations of the people around you!
1. Call or visit a family that has lost a loved one –
It’s hard to know what to say or do for a person who has lost a loved one. In the south, we typically say it with food.
Whether you carry a few soft drinks for the friends you know will be dropping by, or bake a pound cake and take it by while it’s still warm, food is a familiar reminder that you are loved.
It’s always appropriate to call or stop by for a brief visit at the family’s home; there is almost always someone available to greet people even if the loved ones are in seclusion. Send flowers to the funeral home if you can – a potted arrangement can go home with the family, and an arrangement that acknowledges a special hobby or interest can be a touching tribute.
Don’t forget that the grieving process takes much longer than the visitation and funeral process – it’s thoughtful to visit a family days and weeks after the event, just to show support and give a shoulder to lean on.
2. Take some goodies to a person who is sick –
Not only would someone recovering from an illness or injury appreciate a home cooked meal, but the other family members caring for them could also use the pick me up of a meal or desert that they don’t have to prepare themselves.
If your best friend has the flu, you might drop off a batch of vegetable soup; if your relative is receiving treatments for cancer, you might spend an afternoon just visiting or playing cards, providing they are up to it, of course.
3. Make friends with your neighbors –
You may not have a lot in common with the people who live closest to you, and you may not end up being the best of friends.
But there is no denying the sense of security and happiness that comes from living in a community where you feel comfortable and safe; where people know you and your family, and will check up on anything that seems amiss.
When we first established the cows on our farm, we had multiple friends and neighbors who would make a habit of driving by our pasture and “looking” at things, while my husband and I were at work. This turned out to be a very good thing – especially those times that a calf slipped under the fence, or a broken limb allowed several cows to walk over a broken fence line!
That “slower pace” of southern life, that others often notice, may just be in part taking the time to foster friendships and share in those moments of everyday life. You don’t need to plan a visit or make it formal. A brief chat on the porch… dropping off a piece of pound cake you baked earlier that afternoon… a few minutes asking about someone’s children (or parents) will let someone know you consider their friendship important.
4. Spend time with older people –
One of the great tragedies of life is realizing that we wish we’d spent more time with someone once it’s too late.
Make time to visit the people you love – and in particular, the older person – a favorite elderly neighbor – the grandfather you love to be around – take the time to hear their stories and learn about their life and ideas and values.
There is so much to be treasured from the people we love, if we only take time to hear it.
5. Acknowledge someone newly retired –
Retirement can be a difficult transition time for families. After a lifetime of being identified by the work they did, a newly retired person might be struggling with finding his or her new identity – and sense of purpose – from whatever they “do” with their life after work.
Be sensitive with remarks about how they must love to sleep late and do nothing, as these can make a person cringe if they are already feeling like life is passing them by. Try to appreciate and acknowledge the person’s worth beyond the scope of their work life.
If nothing else seems appropriate, just let the person know you are happy for them and proud of them – and assure them that you plan to keep up your friendship!
6. Congratulate parents (and grandparents) on a new baby –
A gift for the baby is always appropriate (a rattle, a teething ring, a blanket), but you might also consider something that pampers a new mom spending all her efforts on the little one.
A little pampering – such as bath gel or scrub, soft socks, a lovely picture frame; a casserole or dessert that can be popped in the freezer for later is also good.
You could give a keepsake – such as a special children’s Bible, or a children’s storybook to read to baby.
Remember the grandparents, too! If your next door neighbor has a new grand baby, they will surely appreciate a word of congratulations – it’s a proud and exciting time for grands as well as parents!
7. Be sympathetic to empty-nesters –
After the celebration of a high school graduation and all the drama of teenager-hood in general, it’s easy to forget that parents are likely to go through a bit of withdrawal when their adult child moves away from home. But the empty nest syndrome can be a very big deal for some parents.
The support of friends and family really helps during this transition time. If you know someone who has recently sent their child away to college or to a new job, be sure to spend a little time with them. A simple visit or phone call can give a parent a chance to vent or worry, if she needs to, or a chance to get her mind on something positive.
8. Be friendly to those who struggle –
We all know of people facing difficult situations – someone whose child has gotten in trouble with the law; whose spouse was caught stealing; who has caused shame and embarrassment to themselves and their family. It’s difficult to know what to say to someone clearly laboring under feelings of guilt or humiliation, and the easiest thing can be to look the other way.
But let’s face it – ultimately we don’t want a society where people disappear in a cloud of stigma and shame; what we really want is for everyone to learn from their mistakes and move on in a positive direction.
Keep your eyes open for times when you can offer encouragement and support. When you see someone at the grocery store or at the gas station who you know could use some positive encouragement, walk close enough to them to speak; maintain eye contact so that they see you are not going to ignore them; say hello – even if they aren’t looking at you. Make your interaction brief but very positive. “Hi! How are you? It’s good to see you!” and any distracting thought not related to whatever burden they would prefer to ignore. Everyone wants – and needs – to be treated like a human being of worth. Use your talents and kindness to share some positive feelings with those around you.
9. Pay attention to children – ALL children –
You can’t help but notice the adorable child in the supermarket – the child whose bright conversation and contagious smile light up everyone that sees her. It’s easier to overlook a child whose sullen face and downcast eyes ask to be ignored rather than recognized. And that can be a real shame. What all of us want – and need – is to be loved and accepted for who we are.
The child who has trouble making friends at school, who is ignored or resented by his parents, who sees his place in the world as a non-entity, an unimportant or bad person, is the one who most needs his ego boosted and his feelings encouraged by kind words from a stranger.
Of course, you should be aware that many parents will be suspicious and protective if an adult gets too close or too personal with their child, but a friendly smile, a quick “Hi there! I like your shoes!” or a comment to the parent “She has beautiful eyes!” (or a sweet face, or anything positive that you can see at a glance) could be the interaction that inspires a better afternoon, at least, for someone who really needs it.
10. Notice those whom no one seems to notice –
Just as they may have been ignored as children, there are some people who seem doomed to live a life as an invisible person.
There is plenty of reason to maintain boundaries between yourself and persons who might become dangerous, and you should always be cautious about safety with strangers.
But there are also many opportunities to say hello, make eye contact, and generally treat a person as worthy of respect, while still maintaining a safe distance.
A friend told me that she stooped to pick up the medicine bottle of an older, dirty looking man standing beside his bicycle at the local pharmacy. He apparently couldn’t reach down to the sidewalk to get it after he dropped it. But his dirty appearance and unsavory character seemed to turn people away – and many people had walked right by him without ever seeing that he needed help.
It doesn’t cost anything, or hurt anyone, to simply pay attention to other human beings. It is as important to be sure others are alright as it is to make sure we ourselves are safe. Often, we can accomplish both goals by simply acknowledging all the people around us.
Life is, after all, only a collection of moments. When we look back, we remember big, once-in-a-lifetime events, of course, but also the collective feeling – the nuance of the life we have lived. It’s a composite of all those little things we have experienced – forgotten as individual moments, perhaps, but woven together to create the larger context in which we live our lives.
It is so worthwhile to take the time to engage with others. It makes our life – and theirs – richer and fuller. And, after all, isn’t that what living a full life really about?