Southern Table Manners: Dining, Dating and Courting

Southern belle in a field
••• Being a southern belle is hard work. Getty Images / Eyeconic Image / Aurora

Southern dinner and table manners are used for formal dinners, like when you're meeting your beux's parents for the first time, holidays, when courting and always at Sunday dinner. There is a unique set of manners used for courting a belle. General manners still apply.

We still sometimes employ these manners at formal dinners in the South, but probably not as much when you're bringing your date to an Applebees or even on Sunday dinners anymore.

  Certain situations, like weddings and celebratory meals, are still sometimes formal.

Tables, Party and Formal Date Manners

  • RSVP means you need to respond to an invitation. It is more polite to RSVP no than to cancel later on or to ignore the invitation completely. Once you RSVP, you should only cancel if there is an emergency or illness.
  • Show up on time, but not too early. Showing up to a dinner party or event more than 10-15 minutes early is considered rude.
  • Guests should offer to help the hostess, but hostesses should never burden their guests by asking them for help. Guests should not insist on helping.
  • A gentlemen always helps the woman on his right side, whether dating or not, as she sits or rises from her chair.
  • One should never take a seat until their mother and other elders are seated.
  • Always ask for things at the table, don't demand. "Pardon me, could you please pass the potatoes," instead of "Pass the potatoes."
  • Never speak with your mouth full.
  • Wait until everyone is served to eat.
  • Immediately upon sitting, place your napkin on your lap. If you must get up after sitting, place your napkin on your chair, not the table. Placing the napkin on the table is impolite.
  • Do not place dirty silverware on the table linen. Place it on the edge of your plate so you don't dirty the table linens.
  • Don't monopolize conversation. Let everyone have a turn. Don't use rude language. Try to engage guests you don't already know instead of only talking to those you do.
  • Never asks what something costs, though you may ask where something was purchased.
  • Only make sincere compliments. It is better to be quiet than to make false compliments.
  • Never be the last to leave a party. Always tell a hostess thank you and that you enjoyed the evening when you leave.
  • Call your hostess the next day and tell them how much you enjoyed the party. Better still, write them a thank you note.
     

Dating

Dating and courting (they aren't the same thing) is one of the times when Southerners really do use their manners.  Most of these etiquette rules apply to dating anyone or any sex, and some are a bit outdated.  Most are still practiced to some extent. 

  • Always refer to women as ladies. They are treated as such in the South. Men in the South are gentlemen and are chivalrous (see general Southern manners).
  • Be on time for dates and engagements.
  • It's traditional for men to order for women when they are at a restaurant. This is falling out of favor, but a true belle may still expect the man to place the order.
  • Never insult your date's family, especially their mother. Southern men in particular have very strong bonds with their mothers, regardless of how crazy you may think she is.
  • A true gentlemen will not brag about his job or possessions to his date. Instead, he will focus on her accomplishments.
  • Only make sincere compliments. It is better to be quiet than to make false compliments.
  • The man generally pays. In the modern South, the person who issues the invitation pays. If a woman asks a man out, she may be expected to pay. Some Southern men will never accept a woman paying for a date, and some Southern women would be offended at the suggestion.
  • Save the drama for later dates. A true Southerner doesn't burden a date with problems until the relationship becomes more serious. Don't bring up your house's foreclosure or student loan debt up on the first date. Keep your discussions upbeat.
  • Turn off your cell phone when you're out on a date or at a social function. Unless it's an emergency, it shouldn't divert your attention from your date.
  • Don't forget to treat others nicely. A true Southerner treats everyone nicely. If you're nice to your date, but yell at the waitstaff, stiff the doorman's tip and get the bartender fired, your date will notice and it will reflect on you. Be calm and polite to everyone.