How to talk Southern

Two Inviting Rocking Chairs

I just spent a week in the South visiting friends and Crayton’s family. We had fun, but the trip made me realize that despite being a Southerner by marriage for eight years, I still don’t know how to conduct a proper conversation.

Strangers — the waitress at Waffle House, the lady at the gas station on the way to Charleston, a woman planting flowers in front of her home — would ask me, “Hi, how are you?” I’d answer “fine” and then think… wait. Did they really want to know how I am? Did I answer correctly? Does not coming up with some sort of Southern witticism make me sound like a Yankee? (Or, what I truly am, a Southern California girl?) Crayton would answer as if he was born knowing the answer: “Hi, how are you doing?”

In Greenville, SC, it took him less than five minutes to ascertain that the guy behind the rental car counter was a Clemson fan. At a restaurant in Charleston, a guy in the men’s bathroom commented to him about the weird angle of the sinks, and Crayton replied, “Well, whatever gets the job done.” He’s full of these little sayings. So is his family.

While visiting his grandparents outside Greenville, I listened a lot. They did most of the talking, and it hit me that with a small arsenal of pleasant replies, you can propel a conversation forward in a genteel way. These replies include:

  • Well, how about that.
  • I’ll be.
  • Isn’t that something?
  • I know you had fun/enjoyed that (or any sentence that politely repackages what the talker has just said to you).

I have not attempted to use these with my own family, because I think they’d laugh at me and hang up the phone. But I’m keeping them handy for the next trip South. And I’ll continue to observe and take notes, because if a Southern woman approaches me in a restaurant bathroom — example: “Wasn’t that just the biggest meal?” — I want to know what to say.

On Tuesday, once I was home in New York, I was about to enter the elevator of our building when I saw my neighbor, a woman with young children who lives across the hallway. She was near the staircase and called out, “Hello!” through the lobby.

I called back: “Hi, how are you?”

She said, “Just fine, thanks!”

I couldn’t resist continuing the conversation, so I called out, “Okay, bye!”

She may be a Southerner by marriage, but she’s getting there.

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12 Responses to “How to talk Southern”
  1. Doug Hall


    I was born in Georgia. The one and only answer to “how are you” is fine. It doesn’t matter if you just had a quadruple by-pass. And, no, they really don’t care to know how you are. It’s just like saying “hello.” I have a friend from Pittsburgh. He will go into his entire medical history each time someone asks “how are you.” I have told him a hundred times this is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

    Bless your heart for trying.

  2. Lesley Tellez

    Hi Doug: It’s heartening to know that there are other people out there just as clueless as me. But my heart is in the right place. I promise you I’m as sweet as I can be. :-) I will continue to say fine when people ask. Thank you for the validation!

  3. Katie

    How funny. I grew up in the south, and I never really considered these phrases to be particularly southern, but more just kind pleasantries. But you know, it’s probably an orders of magnitude thing. I also used to never hear southern accents unless they were particularly strong, and now, having been out of the south for almost 10 years, they ring out the minute someone opens their mouth. It’s particularly amusing when I talk to people I’ve known for a long time and I think to myself, wow, when did they pick up such a strong accent? And then I remember that they’ve always had it, I can just hear it now.

    But I agree with you, there’s something so wonderfully lyrical in how conversations move in the south. One of my favorite phrases is “what did he allow”. Like me saying to, say, an aunt “I ran into Jimmy at the Food Lion. I haven’t seen him in a long time, it was good to catch up.” And then she replies “Oh really? What did he allow?”

    Now, bless your/his/her heart? That’s a whole post unto itself! 😉

    • Lesley Tellez

      Hi Katie: Thanks for your comment. Re: accents, isn’t it weird to recognize your own speech patterns? For years I swore to Crayton that I didn’t have an accent, and then I watched the Kardashians and realized: Oh. I sound like them. But I do generally find a familiar accent comforting, like a little piece of home. Whenever I hear a chilango accent in New York, my ears prick up.

      I haven’t heard “What did he allow”! Love it. I am putting it in my Southern conversation file. And I loved your mention of the Food Lion.

    • Kristen schnelle

      I was just thinking, “bless your heart” is a story all on its own. It could mean, “really I don’t care” or “you are crazy” or “that really is just awful.” I love southern sayings and have only realized I have them when I lived abroad.

      • Katie

        Yeah, I’ve certainly never heard “bless your heart” used positively. Mostly, I think it’s dismissive — either “oh you’re really crazy” or “oh you’re really naive” or “oh you’re really stupid”. It’s loaded, no matter what.

        • jodi @ underamexicansky

          Oh wow. I am from New Zealand and I would have thought “bless his heart” was like saying “oh, isn’t he lovely for saying/doing that”. Wow, I will need to watch the context of the conversation when I head to the South.

          • Geri

            “Bless his/her heart” is not ALWAYS used negatively! Sometimes it is said with gen yoo wine sympathy.

  4. Didi

    That’s cute! Been through southern states and people here are really friendly! Sometimes people even talk too much and say too much about their lives (which I don’t really mind)

  5. Lynda

    Oh this is funny! I miss hearing these southern expressions. Love the rocking chair/porch pic :)

  6. Roberto

    I love this article. As an Italian, living in Texas for 23 years, I know what you mean…
    You also probably forgot one of the Southern ( Texans) expressions I find amusing..
    “I tell you what..” .

    In Texas that is a complete sentence.. and the foreigner could reply : What ?
    Nothing, I just told you…

    • Lesley Tellez

      Roberto: Yes! The rhetorical “I tell you what” — love that one. Thanks for commenting.

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