A Southerner’s well-mannered guide to surviving meeting the parents
Through trial and error, a fortuitous intro by a college friend, or a stroke of luck you have finally found the one, and they’ve asked you to meet their parents over dinner.
This is a great first step to building a foundation of trust, loyalty and mutual respect, which are all things a well-mannered Southern belle holds in high esteem. I’m not here to place too much pressure on you — you’re not Meghan Markle meeting the Queen of England — but there are a few important tips to keep in mind.
Get your mind right
First thing’s first, self-awareness is essential to making a good impression on anyone: your significant other’s family, friends, co-workers or your local postman, Fred. This encompasses basic nonverbal communication, spatial awareness, knowing your audience and volume mindfulness.
Mind personal space bubbles, especially when drinking the bubbly. Spatial awareness involves mindfulness of your proximity to others and the affect that space has on their comfort level. A Southern woman with manners has enough emotional intelligence to sense whether she should go in for a strong handshake (it’s 2018 — you don’t need to give a dead fish hand, ladies) or a hug, and when it would be appropriate to touch another’s shoulder in agreement, for instance. Gauge the recipient’s personal space bubble and act accordingly.
Knowing your audience is a huge part of treating others the way that they would like to be treated. Empathy is key to being decorous and to learning another person’s personal boundaries, a.k.a. the parameters a person creates to detect permissible ways for others to behave towards them. When you’ve just met someone, or know that they find a topic (like politics, religion, child rearing techniques) encourages contentiousness, it’s best to stick to lighter topics of conversation such as food, holiday traditions or sports — better safe than sorry! Speaking enthusiastically about a given topic will show that you’re thankful to be in attendance and enjoy the company.
A well-mannered Southern woman should always be conscious of volume levels in public spaces, regardless the topic of conversation. Luckily, when you’re controlling the volume of your voice and filtering your dialog, you’re more apt to listen. Active listening means making eye contact, nodding when appropriate, and not staring at your phone when someone is speaking to you. When at the dinner table, the focus should be on dinner and pleasant conversation. If a topic is brought up (hello, politics) when someone (definitely not you) is allowing their wine to do the talking, try your best to remove yourself from the situation and try to nudge that individual into realizing that they’re making their audience feel uncomfortable — hopefully they get the hint!
Steer dinner conversation towards spending quality time together, learning more about one another and allowing your hosts to get to know you. Asking polite questions is always a welcome approach to getting to know someone, because let’s be honest: Everyone likes talking about themselves and feeling heard.
Arrive on time and come baring gifts
Gratitude is always a Southern belle essential. Manners are not just a teaching tool for young children; thank your host(s) graciously by arriving on time and bringing a nice host(ess) gift.
Being considerate of timing is an important part of showing respect, so ensure you’re not putting a burden on your hosts by arriving promptly. My personal favorite hostess gift, especially when meeting the parents during the holidays, has always been to make a gift basket from Buckhead Atlanta’s Lucy’s Market. This allows me to customize the basket with special, locally-made treats like spiced pecans, Christmas ornaments or wine. (Hint: everyone will appreciate wine.) If you’re not in Georgia, you could head to your local craft store to snag a basket and fill it with Oliver Farm Southern Oil Gift Box, Hudson & Lee Ginger Spice Honey Simple Syrup or Southern chocolates. Keep gifts tailored towards fun specialty items; don’t give a gift that could be misinterpreted as a hint to refurnish your hosts’ home or restock their cookware. Making gifts personal adds a layer of effort that shows genuine conscientiousness. Anyone paying attention (the parents always are!) will appreciate it.
If you’re strapped for cash, offer to make a side dish or dessert — we know you have access to hundreds of recipes, and this will show off your cooking chops! Just ensure to be mindful of dietary restrictions or allergies, so ask your S.O. for advice before making a bevy of peanut butter-laden desserts.
Dress to impress but be yourself
While every family is different, a Southern belle will always look her best and be herself. Dress modestly and make an effort to look put-together. Pair fine jewelry (or dainty favorites!) with a high neckline dress and close-toed heels (not too tall, y’all!), and you’re set for the evening. The hosts may eventually become your in-laws, and you’ll want them to get to know who you are over time, so don’t dress like another person.
This effort shows your hosts that you appreciate their effort and are happy to match it as a guest. Never discuss what others are wearing or gossip, as it will make others feel uncomfortable. Remember, you’re supposed to be displaying empathy, my fair protégé.
Offer to help and clean
Until you’ve heard, “No, thank you” twice, always offer to help clear dishes from a table — everyone appreciates the offer, even if they don’t take you up on it!
Table manners aren’t just for restaurants
Don’t make the mistake of forgetting your manners when you’re at someone’s home. Wait until everyone has their food plated and the host or hostess has put their napkin in their lap before beginning to dine on your dinner. If the family is one that says grace, you should also wait until blessings are made. When you’re finished with your meal, place utensils on your plate and remove your napkin from your lap.
Don’t over-stay your welcome
Dessert and espresso should precede a swift departure because you’re anticipating their needs (like a proper bed time), but never leave before offering to help clear plates.
Make sure you say, “Thank you for having us; we had a wonderful time. I hope you enjoy the spiced pecans”. This phrase is one even Southern five-year olds know like the back of their hands.
Remember, while being a good host or hostess is central to the Southern lady’s identity, so is being a gracious guest.