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Published on October 5th, 2013 | by Matt Haberfeld


Cultural Differences Between the North and South

My cousins stopped by to visit me in North Carolina on their way from Connecticut to Florida. They have both lived in New England most of their lives, and I don’t think they’ve had a great deal of experience with southern culture. We went out to dinner, and my older cousin was extremely impressed with our waiter and how polite he was, and how hard he tried to make a good impression on a group of complete strangers. I know it’s hard to believe, but it seems that is something of a rarity in New York City where she lives. As I was trying to explain how all southerners are polite like that, I realized just how different it is in the south and how little most northerners probably realize it.

I’m a transplanted northerner, which is the term for a someone who lives in the south, but grew up in the north or the midwest. I grew up in Connecticut and moved to Kentucky at 18 to attend college. Unfortunately, college is a protected bubble of culture, and you don’t get an accurate southern experience because even though you live in the south, students come from all over the nation to attend school. My first real taste of southern culture was trying to get a job after graduation.

One would think that everywhere in the United States is fairly uniform, but that’s far from the case. I spent 8 years living in Kentucky, trying to adapt to life in the south. I’ve now had a good deal of experience with both northern and southern culture, and they are VERY different. If you’ve only lived on one side of the Mason Dixon line, you may not understand the subtle nuances that separate two distinct and linguistically unique people. This article will give you a brief introduction to the differences between northern and southern culture, just in case you find yourself in a strange part of the nation and you need a little help. Besides, we all know that acceptance arrives through understanding.

The Meet and Greet

The stereotype is that northerners are fast and rude, and they don’t care about strangers. Stereotypes are very useful, mostly because no one has the time to meet every single person and pass judgement on them individually. However a wise man once said, “All generalizations are false except this one.”

What is true is that northerners tend to be direct and honest. When you say hello to a northerner, they are wondering who you are and what you want. This increases the likelihood that they will say, “Who are you, and what do you want?” It’s not because they’re rude, on the contrary those are both perfectly legitimate questions for a straightforward individual.

Southerners are completely different when it comes to talking to strangers. You can say hello to pretty much any southerner, anywhere, for any reason, and they will be delighted to say hello back to you and make polite chit chat. If you’re not familiar with southern culture, then you might not realize that southerners are thinking the exact same thing as northerners. “Who are you and what do you want?” The difference is, southerners want to figure this out for themselves rather than just ask. The prevailing characteristic of southern culture is indirect communication.

A Day in the Life

For example, let’s say there’s a crying baby at a nice restaurant. A sufficiently provoked northerner would tell the family to take their crying baby home, and perhaps some other choice words depending on how close to New Jersey they live. A “southern belle” on the other hand would say something like, “Oh my! You have such an active child.” If you’re not familiar with the connotation, you could even mistake it for a compliment. The southern belle is hinting at the exact same thing the northerner comes out and says, but only another southerner would pick up on the subtle meaning.

The reason southerners “speak so slowly” is because every sentence conveys twice as much information. The perfect hollywood example is Val Kilmer’s role as Doc Holliday in Tombstone. This is my favorite depiction of the famous Georgia born dentist, particularly his poker game with Ike, the cowardly bully. After winning 12 hands in a row Ike accuses Doc of cheating to which Holliday replies, “Why Ike…whatever do you mean?” Doc’s polite feigning of ignorance with a hint of sarcasm is enough to enrage Ike. Holliday, calm and composed as ever, teases Ike by saying, “Maybe poker’s not your game. I know, how about a spelling contest?” Ike now furious threatens Doc who replies, “Ike, if we couldn’t be friends…I don’t think I could bear it.”

The language in the movie is sufficiently toned down so that a national audience could appreciate both Doc Holliday’s flowery prose and his biting sarcasm. It’s actually a very good example of both northern and southern culture blended together, but it is only a basic demonstration of either culture taken individually.

The fact is that the subtleties of southern language are difficult to pick up on. If you’ve never lived in the south, you have probably never needed to be so careful in what you say or had to listen so closely to how other people speak. As you can imagine, this puts northerners at a distinct disadvantage in social situations with southerners. For instance, if you live in the north and your boss tells you, “We can’t find fault with your work, maybe there are some other projects that you could be working on.” that’s a good performance review. But in the south, “We can’t find fault with your work” means “We have found fault with something else that you’ve done” and by “other projects that you could be working on” they mean “maybe you should update your resume.”

What’s worse is that a southerner can spot a northerner by what they don’t say when they speak. So in the above example, when your boss can’t find fault with your work, if you mistake his words for a compliment and say “Thank you,” you’ve revealed yourself to be an outsider, and your employment is probably coming to an end in the near future. However if you say something like, “I endeavor to please, sir,” then you’ve demonstrated that you hear what he’s saying and you’ll take care of it going forward. Everything is pleasant on the surface, and from a distance no one would be the wiser.

You can never pass yourself off as a southerner unless you can talk the talk. It takes a long time to learn to adapt to the culture, however once you do the south becomes a wonderful place to live. Everyone is friendly, you never have to say what you’re really thinking, and in the presence of an outsider the conversation takes on a hidden meaning known just between you and your kinsmen. But the culture of the north is not without its charm.

Subtlety Be Damned

If you’re a southerner venturing into the north, you need to develop a thick skin. People are going to say exactly what they’re thinking, and you’re likely to be offended if you’re not used to such a direct approach. But the hardest thing to get used to is the sarcasm. Just when you get used to people speaking their mind, someone goes ahead and looks at you with a straight face and says the exact opposite of what you were expecting. This person is not a liar, in fact they assume that you know they mean the opposite of what they say.

In this way, northerners also use language to judge the measure of a man or woman. Sarcasm is an effective method of figuring out if someone is paying attention to the conversation or is even capable of understanding what is being said at all. It can be molded to every conceivable topic, and the best sarcasm sounds so much like a serious heartfelt statement as to be indistinguishable to the untrained ear. Northerners are just as adept at using language to convery hidden meaning and distinguish kinship, but since the language is so direct, they generally speak faster. In many ways it’s harder to adapt to the culture of the north due to how fast the conversation moves in comparison to the south.

The advantage of northern culture is honesty and efficiency. If you like someone, you tell them that you like them. If you hate them, you make sure they know that too. Unlike the south, it is much more evident where you stand with people, and you’re free to compliment or insult a person without committing an unwritten social transgression.


The southern culture is that of mutually veiled understanding. Rarely if ever will you be insulted or talked down to, or otherwise confronted directly. It’s like living in a spy novel where everyone speaks in code. As a transplanted northerner the first thing you need to learn to do is enjoy how nice everyone is, closely followed by curbing your instinct to say what you are thinking. Confrontational language, sarcasm, and honesty are used far less in the south than they are in the north. If you can handle that, the next step is to train yourself to hear the meaning behind the words. Southerners have a specific objective with most everything that they say, and you need to learn how to discern it. When you understand what southerners are really saying, then you can begin to emulate them. Only then will you truly belong in the south.

However, don’t forsake your northern linguistic talents. If you really need to get your point across to someone, be direct. This will throw them off guard, because they are unaccustomed to it. As long as you’re southern most of the time, the occasional sarcastic comment will be taken with much more weight, which is what you should save it for.

I don’t have as much perspective as a southerner living in the north, but my advice would be to learn to not take things personally. People are going to say things that make you uncomfortable or are downright offensive. Hopefully this will be something that you can get used to. In the meantime, be southern. Speak slowly, use flowery prose, people will think it’s charming. Northerners love people who are polite and thoughtful, because it is comparatively rare up there. However, chances are that most people won’t pick up on your subtleties, so you will have to learn to be direct and honest when you really need to convey important information. I can only imagine that it’s uncomfortable, but then again being an outsider always is.

Hopefully if you have to change your latitude, you will be more prepared than I was. My professional career was set back almost 18 months because I wasn’t prepared for the culture shock, or even aware that one existed. It took a long time to train myself to think and speak like everyone around me, but it was well worth the investment. Perhaps by reading this article you can avoid any…unpleasantries in your travels.

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10 Responses to Cultural Differences Between the North and South

  1. chyna smith says:

    this didn’t really help me on my research paper all that much but i do apperitiate you making it.i’m only in eighth grade by the way.

  2. Heidi Pepper says:

    I am trying to understand the southern culture in the aspect of employment. I am from Ohio and moved to Louisiana 1 year ago. I have 2 part time jobs and both bosses are laid back and unconcerned. I have always been a hard worker and my previous bosses, in Ohio, were slave drivers to say the least. I struggle to feel daily satisfaction because of the low demands. I cant find work that requires using my brain and energy. I also cant find work that pays more than, on average, $9 an hour. I feel like I don’t fit in and am clueless as to how to market my capability. I never want to return to Ohio. Its cold most of the time and BORING. I love the wildlife and multitude of things to do here and in near by states. I just cant figure out how to earn a living!

    • ChristopherATL says:

      Louisiana is it’s own world. I lived there for 7 years. I never could fully adjust to the slow pace of New Orleans. Don’t get me wrong…it’s a great, amazing city with a very unique culture. If you are looking for a faster, more serious business ethic then you should consider Atlanta. I live here now and after a little due paying, I’ve snagged a great salary, bought a home in the city and put down roots. The cost of living is one of the best for a city this size, you still get elements of the southern experience but you also get driven, hard working people in many various industries.

    • Von says:

      Hello! I know this comment was posted in 2014, so I don’t know if anyone will actually read this or not….. but I’ll reply anyways in hopes of lending a tiny bit more insight…..
      I’m 24, I am a born and raised southerner. In fact, I was born in Jackson Missisippi, we moved to Baton Rouge Louisiana, and then finally for the last 16 years of my life I’ve lived in deep east Texas. My father was born in Chicago Illinois, but to be completely honest, I’ve only ever been to Chicago twice when I was very very young (when I was 3 and then 5).
      My “advice” for the Yankee trying to make it in the south would have to be…. SLOW DOWN. Haha. The “slowness” of the south is often misinterpreted as some historical lack of English knowledge, but I find that completely innacurate…. it isn’t that we speak and work slowly, it is more that we enjoy (and take the TIME to enjoy) our surroundings. I would probably blame this more on the fact that most things like friends houses or social gatherings are much more spread out than in the north. In New York (which I have only enjoyed from the airport terminal during a layover) I would assume you could leave one party and maybe even walk to directly another one…. where here you’d have to drive a considerable distance to reach your next destination…. this is only one example but it will suffice…. it is not uncommon for social events to last for much longer because the POINT is to be social. We seem to have a lot more “time” down here. Now please keep in mind, I’m personally from an upper class family, and have not had to ever really worry about more than one job, in fact my job only requires me to work 2 days a week and that is enough for my spending money….. I also have approximately 500 acres of land so a lot of my time is spent enjoying nature, enjoying friendships etc. With your work-work-work mindset it might be a problem To find the right type of job, especially considering a lot of those types of more “manual” jobs are usually easily filled by someone already living and native to here. I know as someone who has been in the hiring and firing position through my own job, the “I’m a super hard worker/laborer” number is quite often INTERPRETED down here as “I do not care to take the time to actually EXPLAIN my qualifications/skills, so I’ll quickly scrawl down my general work ethic into the blank on the application and hope the boss takes the risk that I’M the one who will be the most dedicated employee”. I don’t know if that’s the situation you’re in or not, so don’t take offense to that…. but I have tossed MANY applications into the trash can simply for the fact that they were TOO much “to-the-point”…. THATS the biggest difference I feel between the north and the south….. up there you’re hired maybe because that’s the politically correct “proffessional” way of inquiring about a job, but down here much, MUCH more emphasis is placed on how social you are…… I turned down a girl one time who yes, indeed met every requirement for the position, but lacked one thing…. a social disposition. She was awkward, by no means rude, but painfully off socially. If you’re working in retail, or really any job that requires interaction with any type of customer, your main goal should be the art of small talk. The art of listening, the art of good conversation even if it KILLS you go listen to their boring stories. I guess in conclusion, you’ve got to be theatrical. A boss really doesn’t care much about how you’d “improve” the business with your speciality skills, they want to know that you can be an ENTERTAINER to their customers, whatever the company. Understand that while you may be perfectly to-the-point and qualified, your bluntness is more than likely coming off as rudeness (like this article points out)….. I know several yanks that have literally made me CRY all because they were just too abrasive….. and I didn’t understand what they were trying to say….. and the last thing is to ASK QUESTIONS….. even an employer who spends an hour having an interview with you would probably like to be asked about him/herself….. even if they are clearly the most drab and dull people ever, ASK them about themselves. Make your interview more PERSONAL by really CONVERSING with the potential employer. No matter what your skills may be, you won’t be heard if you aren’t a good listener yourself.

  3. Joey Waits says:

    The most important thing I think about the South to understand is how you should treat others. Things like opening doors for people, helping the elderly, inviting you into their homes for food are just some of the ways people show Southern Hospitality. It basically comes from the golden rule, Treat others as you would want them to treat you. It sounds cheesy and simple, but it is very true. That is the reason your boss is so laid back. Bosses generally want to be like more than they want to perform because good performance starts with a good work environment.

    As far as making money. Oil or Healthcare. Your choice Heidi. And you can’t be afraid to do physical labor. I climb 300-400ft reactors everyday and make 100k+. Even doing this physical labor my job is 90% mental. Oil is great if your tough enough

  4. Angela O'Hara says:

    I am from the North, The County and we are not rude like this in fact we have English Propriety so you must be discussing those from downeast into MASS. I moved to Tennessee years ago and the first thing said to me was, “You’re a Yankee? You need to go back home.” So there are rude people everywhere.

  5. Von says:

    And one more comment, for records sake haha…..
    I HAVE to point out that for anyone reading this, the whole “southern hospitality” bit is (sadly) overblown quite often in articles. I don’t want to make it sound like we are all Assholes down here, because we are absolutely more friendly than northerners, but the whole “chivalry, southern hospitality, gentility” DREAM is a little bit antiquated…. which is by no means a good thing, but like much of the country, through years and years of mixing and immigrating and moving around, the south isn’t quite as “unified” in its charms as it once was…. I’d say MOST of the old southern hospitality was gone by the 1970s…..
    In a lot of these types of articles it’s made out to seem like a man holding the door for a lady is some grandiose act of gentlemanlyness…. however I have personally never seen (apart from maybe the teenage guy on his first date) a man intentionally walk round and open the car door for a woman…..
    I’m saying this because the whole door-opening thing seems to pop up in nearly every article I read….. I mean, yeah it’s always the responsibility of the person who walks through a door to glance behind themselves to make sure nobody is going to be whacked in the face by it when it closes, so usually whoever it is will hold the door if you’re close behind them…. but I hardly find that to be an act of chivalry…. it’s just common sense….
    A lot of times (again, this is not a good thing) southern men, especially online, will boast of their refined southern gentility, but to be perfectly honest I think it’s more of the IDEA of southern hospitality and grace that is spread, not the actual action….. what I mean by that is I have seen hundreds of “southern men” write comments and things online detailing how sweet and caring and accommodating they are because of the “way they were raised”….. but then in reality after the first date or meeting, all of those little niceties end abruptly. So if that makes any sense, I would definitely say that the south can “talk the talk” but rarely “walk the walk” at least not for very long….. like I said, southerners are enamored with the IDEA that they are so hospitable, but rarely perform when it comes time to demonstrate those graces. There’s a pretty blatant example of southerners sometimes contradictory ways I like to use to help demonstrate this claim….
    We are SO friendly and hospitable on paper, but woe be it to the outsider who’s car breaks down on a country road, as they will soon find out that every house they walk to in search of someone to assist them will be either littered with “no trespassing” signs or, more literally translated, “take one step onto my property and I’ll shoot you dead before you’ve got the other foot inside” and even more woe be it to the WOMAN who is stranded…. southern states have the highest number of rapes spurring from roadside stranded women than any other part of the WORLD….. all those “southern good old boys” want SOME form of payment for their charms and they aren’t so willing to take no for an answer……
    Sadly the whole “women’s equality” thing is DEFINITELY relagated to the north…. unless you’re talking about your own mother, women are still content with being the quiet, obedient creatures we know from the 1800s….
    I’m gay, therefore I’ve been exposed to this type of mindset from both the girls I am friends with AND the straight men I know…. it’s sad, I WISH things were really as kind and wholehearted as they’ve been touted…. but it isn’t always as “pure” as its made out to be….

  6. Von says:

    And lastly (before the owner of this website blocks me for posting 500000 comments haha)
    The VAST majority of people in the south are wonderful, and ARE very accommodating, sweet, respectful and friendly………………
    Unless you’re atheist, black, gay, mexican, chinese, muslim, any type of religion other than christian Baptist, democratic, or foreign.
    I’d love to meet the sweet southern gentleman who extends those touted traits towards a gay guy…. but sadly the mindset of the south is still DOMINATED by the cult-like interpretation of the bible and the conviction that they MUST damn every non heterosexual male to burn in hell for all eternity …….
    But other than that the south is fabulous!

  7. J.R. says:

    This essay is spot on. I grew up in Pennsylvania and relocated to Alabama, where I had a difficult time interpreting the coded messages used by Southerners. In fact, my wife and I used to refer to it as “speaking Southern”.

    There is, however, an important aspect of this cultural phenomenon that I feel received insufficient attention, which is the issue of honesty. This is a topic that is of immense significance in what has come to be referred to as the “Post-Truth Era”.

    Even if Southerners can reliably translate their own words, spoken in Southern, into English, this doesn’t imply that the form and construction of Southern is not FUNDAMENTALLY DISHONEST. It IS dishonest, and understanding and recognizing this provides an important key to understanding Southern culture, and why the Southernization of American culture as a whole is so insidious and corrosive.

    I found the dishonesty of Southern culture very disturbing and upsetting, and over time, I grew to deeply resent it. It bothered me that people did NOT say what they actually meant, and that superficial “politeness” Trumped honesty. In my view, this is not a small matter, and reveals a fundamental underlying corruptness in the Southern culture… And that corruptness is rooted in the “original sin” of the United States… slavery.

    I feel there is something so inherently repugnant in the notion of one sub-group within human society owning another sub-group as property, that it engenders an underlying denial. In other words, I interpret that Southern culture developed a fundamental underlying dishonesty in a desperate effort to justify the institution of slavery.

    This hypothesis might not be valid. The important point is that Southern culture is intrinsically dishonest. Having lived in the South now for 30 years, I firmly believe this.

    This dishonesty is manifested in other ways as well, notably including denial that the American Civil War was precipitated by the issue of whether slavery would be tolerated or not. This is a matter of historical fact, yet many Southerners deny it, and refer to the Civil War as “The War of Northern Aggression”. What b.s.

    Some people find the genteelness of Southern culture appealing. I find it appalling, especially as Southern values have become incorporated into the basic platform issues of the Republican party. This dates back to the “Southern Strategy” embraced by Richard Nixon in a cynical effort to reel in disaffected former Dixiecrats.

    The battlecry “The South shall rise again” was ultimately realized…. not by the South rising up, but by dragging the rest of the country down.

    I hope that “Blue State” honesty can recapture our national agenda before we sink much lower.

  8. K.M. says:

    J.R. – You hit the nail on the head. My husband and I moved to Atlanta from Wisconsin 2 years ago. I found this article via a Google search on the “language” difference between the North and South. I am in sales, I knew there was going to be a learning curve … I just had no idea how veiled the communication is here.

    it has become apparent to me that all of this Politeness and Not Asking Any Questions (certainly not any direct ones) is exactly what made The South the perfect place to breed an economy based on a concept that, if spoken about plainly, only allows the Pursuit of Happiness for a very select group of people.

    My Midwest Nice certainly doesn’t want to bash on anyone. I do think that as a country, we are Southernizing. And we need to get off the Front Porch and put the Sweet Tea down (it damages the teeth … plus hello Diabetes? I say that to help)

    Now that I am a midwesterner in the South, I can see that the rest of the country’s own politeness has allowed this distorted version of The South to manifest. At first out of politeness – The South lost the war, were angry and embarrassed. The country felt your pain, respected the fight in you. But … enough. The South’s Mean Girl with Guns approach is not good for business. Meaning, the Business of America.

    I think that the bringing of Hollywood to Atlanta will be good for the South. Different people from different cultures … it will take some time, but The South will experience diversity. It is another form of invasion, but since The South is choosing this one, I reckon it will work. I am certainly not saying that the Midwest is a hotbed of diversity. But the North and South are like the two oldest kids in the family … and until those siblings re-establish their family unity, the rest of the family USA remains in a state of unease. I’d say unease definitely sums up where the USA is at right now. Which could be why Freedom of Speech (Speaking the Truth) is the *First* Amendment. Y’all.


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