How to Accept (and Decline) an Invitation in the South

By Paul Thomas Zenki

In the South, etiquette is a game of chess …

Lots of folks are moving to the South these days, and I’m gonna do all y’all transplants a big favor. You can thank me later.

There’s a lot that goes unspoken down here, so it’s real easy to screw up and not be aware of it. For years.

I don’t know exactly why this is. But everybody seems to like to gripe about how the outsiders don’t know how to act, but God forbid anybody actually up and tell them what to do.

Now if you are in the US Southeast, you must understand that invitations here include a practice round. I would imagine this custom is changing in the larger cities and among younger folk, but if you find yourself in a rural area or small town, or in the company of people who still sound Southern when they speak, listen up because this is important. Get it wrong and you may soon find yourself on the receiving end of that impeccable yet soulless politeness which indicates you have transgressed an invisible boundary and are now walking around with the mark of Cain on you, perfectly safe from retribution but doomed to be an outcast among the people as long as ye shall walk this earth.

Let’s suppose you’re out for a stroll with the spouse and you pass by your neighbor’s place. They’re all out on the porch with the dogs and the kids, a big plate of fresh baked cookies and a pitcher of sweet tea set out on the patio table. You wave and say hello. They wave back and say “Hey, how are y’all?” And then they add, “Why don’t y’all come on up and have some tea?”

Now it is vitally important for you to understand that you have not just been invited up to the house. No sir.

You see, that first-round invitation is a lot like the “how are y’all” question that proceeded it. Nobody expects (or wants) you to actually start explaining how you are. It’s just a formality. You say you’re fine, even if you just got fired from your job after finding out you’ve contracted an incurable disease. Just so, you are not expected to say, “Hey, thanks, love to!” and make a beeline for the cookies and tea.

No, you politely decline. You say, “Oh, thank you, that sure is tempting, but it’s getting late.” Or something of the sort.

Now to be clear, you do not say “Oh, we don’t want to intrude” or anything like that, because then you are obliging the other party to be polite by insisting that you would not be intruding, even if you are. If you in any way place the onus back on the other party, they cannot then reverse themselves and publicly admit that the original invitation was insincere. So you have locked them in. Don’t do that.

OK, if your neighbors were just being polite, they will respond with something along the lines of, “Well, all right, maybe next time. Good to see ya!” And everyone goes about their day. An invitation was offered and declined. And it’s none of your business why they might not want your company right then. You just accept that they don’t.

Social lubricant has been applied and the wheels of neighborliness keep running smoothly.

On the other hand, if the invitation was sincere, they will say, “Oh it’s not that late, come on up, you can sit for five minutes, can’t you?” At this point, you have actually been invited up to the porch. You are now free to accept or to politely refuse.

If you accept, and you wish to do so in true Southern form, you will hesitate for the briefest of moments before saying, “Well, all right then, just for a minute.” Not too long, mind you, but just enough to give the impression that you really did have pressing matters to attend to, yet the chance to spend time with these particular people was so enticing that you felt compelled by the brevity of this life to put aside all those lesser concerns and join them for a glass of tea.

If you refuse, you must not be so blunt as to say anything like, “Sorry, can’t, gotta go.” Unless, of course, you would rather these folks never speak to you again. Instead you say, “Wish we could, but we’re up early tomorrow. How about we take a rain check?”

They will say, “All right then,” and wave you on. And thus the social order is preserved, there is peace in the valley, and all is right with the world.

One final piece of advice. If you do get invited up for “five minutes” please be aware that you do not really know the scope of your welcome. Depending on circumstances, you may well end up sipping bourbon and watching the moths circle the streetlamp long after the kids have gone to bed. On the other hand, you might indeed be on your way after five minutes.

The key here is body language. If at any time your host stretches, draws a deep breath, and says “Well…”, that is your cue to suddenly recall that you have urgent business to attend to elsewhere. You need not announce what it is, just say, “I guess we’d better be getting along” and your host will inform you how nice it has been to see you, and you should come back around anytime.

And I trust you to know by now that you most certainly have not been given an invitation to come back around any time.

Header image by popofatticus

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Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.