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Southern Charm and the Culture of Honor: Southerners Are Sugar and Spice Until They Feel Insulted

Because my writing niche is connecting relationship science to pop-culture, I often find links between what I teach and what I watch. However, as a southerner, I have been particularly intrigued by Bravo’s reality TV show, Southern Charm. This past season, I eagerly awaited the weekly opportunity to revel in the salacious bed-hopping and bourbon-swilling of these Charleston socialites. For fans of the show, you know that the characters often try to behave in refined ways that demonstrate their good manners. Nonetheless, this etiquette generally gives way to the debauchery for which we watch the show. As this homage to social propriety seemed somewhat unique from other reality TV shows (such as Jersey Shore), I couldn’t help but wonder if this curious behavior was tied to the cultural norms and southern traditions of the characters’ upbringing.

Familiar colloquialisms like “southern charm” reinforce the notion that southerners are especially polite and courteous. However, individuals from the South may actually be more prone to violence, particularly when reputation and social status are challenged.1 In fact, social scientists characterize the South as having a “culture of honor.” This tradition places a premium on protecting one’s social standing, condoning the use of violence when necessary to protect one’s reputation, livelihood, or safety.2,3 

Thinking back to the show, one of the most memorable controversies of the first season was the altercation between T-Rav and Whitney (yes, in this case that is a boy’s name). To the viewers’ surprise and delight, T-Rav threatened physical harm to his long-time friend over what he believed to be inappropriate behavior and negative allegations toward Kathryn (T-Rav’s new squeeze and eventual baby-mama). Interestingly, one of the reasons why this dispute progressed so rapidly into threats of violence may be because both T-Rav and Whitney are southerners. 

Psychologists have extended findings on the “culture of honor” to show that Southern males perceive threats more readily than Northern males. In an interesting study where participants were “accidentally” bumped and insulted by a stranger in a narrow hall, southerners were more likely to consider the slight as damaging to their reputations. They were also significantly more likely than their northern counterparts to respond aggressively, as measured by their cortisol and testosterone levels, as well as by the number of dominant behaviors displayed after an insult. 1

So what are relationship scientists to make of these cultural differences? I’d urge those with southern partners to use this TV series as a cautionary tale. You may want to be particularly attuned to perceptions of your partner’s reputation and status. Although it may sound a bit formal and silly to someone raised above the Mason-Dixon Line, avoiding situations that impugn your partner’s standing may lead to a more satisfying and peaceful relationship. Of course, I’m hoping that Whitney, Shep, and T-Rav do not heed my advice, as I am impatiently awaiting Season 2 of the charming belligerence that I have come to know and love!

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1Cohen, D. Nisbett, R. E., Bowdle, B. F., & Schwarz, N. (1996). Insult, aggression, and the southern culture of honor:  An “experimental ethnography.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 945-960.

2Cohen, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1994). Self-protection and the culture of honor: Explaining southern violence.  Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, 551-567.

3Cohen, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1997). Field experiments examining the culture of honor: The role of institutions in perpetuating norms about violence. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 1188-1199.

Dr. Sadie Leder-Elder - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Leder-Elder's research focuses on how people balance their desires for closeness and protection against rejection, specifically during partner selection, goal negotiation within established romantic relationships, and the experience of romantic love, hurt feelings, and relationship rekindling. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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