I love my hometown, as do many others. We are a hotbed of culture, cuisine, history, and good ol’ fashioned fun. We have beaches, the Battery, plantations, and gardens. We have friendly people, beautiful buildings, and a huge helping of hometown pride. More importantly, we are hospitable and love to share our hometown with visitors. Many natives, myself included, love to teach our out-of-town guests the history of our town, invite them into our homes, and show off what we know to be a true gem. And for the most part, both natives and visitors get along perfectly, that is if the visitors don’t set us off. Our manners dictate that we must grin and bear it, but let me make this clear: if you make a Charlestonian angry, be ready for a healthy dose of passive aggressive belittling. We are friendly, but we are quick to put you in your place if the situation calls for such action (all impeccably polished in presentation, by the way).
If you’re from “off,” don’t fret! There are several things you can do to avoid a stern look and genteel scolding from a native if you happen to cross the line:
1. Don’t stand in the middle of the street
- Look, we get that you are here on vacation and we’re very grateful that you chose Charleston as your destination. Truly, we’re tickled pink. But for the love of God, don’t stand in the middle of a street to take a picture. Charleston is beautiful and scenic, but it is also a living city. People have places to be and clients to see. Trust me, a picture from the sidewalk is not too different from one taken in the street. Of course, some areas of town are not nearly as populated; if you see a break in traffic long enough to quickly snap a picture, do so and then get back on the sidewalk.
2. Don’t gawk in windows
- The historic district is, well, historical, meaning our buildings are old and unique. But Charleston isn’t Pompeii or Ephesus: our old buildings are regularly used and lived in. There are some house museums, but for the most part, the historic homes in Charleston are private residences. They are no different from houses down your neighborhood street. People live in them. And just as you would like privacy, these people would appreciate you keeping your space. By all means, you can take pictures of the exteriors and admire their architectural beauty, but don’t peek in their windows or gawk over their gates. How would you like to see people randomly peering in your living room window? If you MUST see what the interior of these houses look like, make your peek inconspicuous and quick: no longer than two seconds.
3. Don’t drive downtown without first reviewing a map
- Charleston is a city shaped by expansion. The original city stretched from a bit above White Point to Cumberland Street. From there, we see expansion outward onto the rest of the peninsula, some even being built on landfill. This means our streets don’t necessarily follow a grid pattern. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find any grid-like pattern on our street map. We have a plethora of one way streets, dead ends, twists and turns, and many confusing sign names. This is no place to drive without studying first. Doing such puts you at high risk for an accident, or worse, a scolding from a native. Do yourself a favor and carefully study a roadmap of Charleston before you even crank your car. Both you and your surrounding drivers will be thankful.
4. Don’t cross a street without looking
- Remember how I mentioned our roads are confusing? This makes drivers unpredictable. As a pedestrian, you must be aware of this. As such, pedestrian traffic has rules to follow as well. Most importantly is knowing when to cross a street. Our traffic lights are offset, meaning they are on the corner of the street rather than in the center. Underneath each light is a little pedestrian signal, and unlike most cities, that little hand and walking man mean business. If that red hand is up, you better wait. If the man is up, cross with caution. But don’t, and I stress don’t, cross when the traffic light signals cars to cross your path. For example: let’s say you are meeting your friends at Marion Square from the Starbucks on King Street. You walk out the coffee shop and turn left to head up town. You are at the corner of King and Wentworth the light is green for Wentworth traffic. DO NOT CROSS. I know this sounds stupid, but I cannot begin to count how many times I see people cross the street when the light is green for opposing traffic. Stay safe and be smart.
5. Don’t wear swimwear and/or leisurewear around town
- We are a fashion-conscious city, ranked the second most stylish city after New York in 2011. We are home to one of the nation’s hottest fashion weeks, several nationally-known retailers and designers, and some of the nation’s best shopping. We know how to look good, and as such, tourists are very easy to spot. I know, I know: don’t stereotype, but there is truth to this. Walk down Meeting Street and you will very easily differentiate between a local and someone who came straight off the cruise ship. Pasty-white legs complete with knee socks, only to be strangled by the straps of Jesus sandals. T shirts with “I Love Charleston” printed in bold capital letters spanning from armhole to armhole. And don’t get me started on the fanny packs or, gasp, bathing suits around town! Y’all, Charleston is not an all-inclusive resort, where attire is free range. Take the time to look presentable if you are coming off the ship. You’ll get a lot more respect from locals if you do so.
6. Don’t butcher local names and think you’re right
- Because of our melding of cultures and nationalities, we tend to change the pronunciations of many words: words that would otherwise be pronounced with ease. I mean, you wouldn’t think you could mess up the word “Hasell,” would you? Believe me, you can, and you likely will. And that’s just the beginning. Wait till you move on to Prioleau and Huger or words with several pronunciations (such as Vanderhorst). By all means, try to guess and give us your best effort. As long as you are willing to try, we will politely correct you. But if you are ornery and insist that Huger is said “you-GZHEY” because you took French in high school, we won’t be as forgiving.
7. Don’t criticize our past
- We know our history well; you don’t have to tell us that we were the cradle of secession or that we were the largest port in the slave trade. You aren’t the first to tell us this. We aren’t always proud of it, but it is nonetheless a part of what makes Charleston the gem that she is. You can talk about our past, but remember: we are known as the city “where history lives.” This rings especially true for The War Between The States. It’s great that you know about this war, but keep in mind that we are still sensitive about it. Yes, it was a century and a half ago, but the effects were felt as late as the 1940s. If you have an opinion about “The Recent Unpleasantness,” it would be in your best interest to keep it to yourself. There are still people in this town that fiercely defend the honor of the Confederacy, so be careful of what you say.
8. Don’t criticize our culture
- Now I wouldn’t say this in quite an aggressive manner, but a common phrase around town is, “We really don’t care how you did it Up North.” We do our best to make visitors feel welcomed and appreciated, but when someone tells us that we do things wrong and it was done better “back home,” we see this as a direct attack to our very being. We take pride in our culture and do our best to preserve it. Don’t come down and tear our culture apart, please. We rather like how thing are done here. After all, our culture is why we are the number one city in the world. Not to be rude, but if you think things are done better “back home,” I’d love to see where your town is on this list.
9. Don’t mock our accents
- Just in case you weren’t aware, we know we talk funny. We say things differently and phrase things in an odd way. It works for us. We love how older people drop their Rs and shorten their As, we love how they say Cooper like “Cuppah,” and we love how Joe Riley says “out” like a Canadian. It’s quaint, beautiful, and very Chahlstonian. Don’t make fun of it, please. We aren’t too keen on people pointing out that no one says “y’all” back home, or that Rs are in words for a reason. It’s very unbecoming and rude. We don’t like rudeness down here.
10. Don’t forget your manners
- Manners are more than a suggestion around here. They are mandatory: no ifs, ands, or buts. And no, it is not forced or fake. We truly are this friendly and mannerly. In return, we expect you to reciprocate. This being a Southern town, we are big on following the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you receive directions from a helpful local, say “thank you.” If a lady is following you out of a store, hold the door for her. If you accidently bump into someone, offer your apologies. If you’re in a restaurant, be pleasant, friendly, and forgiving. Flipping the bird, honking your horn, yelling obscenities, and the like are simply not tolerated down here, neither by our residents or our police officers. Don’t test us on this one.
Keep this list in mind on your next visit to Charleston, and I promise your experience will be golden. Locals will be willing to help you out, show you the local dives, and give you helpful tips on the rest of your trip. Who knows: maybe you will make a few friends during your stay.
To Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Civility,
A Charlestonian Bon Vivant
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