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North vs. South: Cultural and Behavioral Differences in the US

The United States is a large nation that is made up of many different cultural characteristics. There is no typical “American” personality, but the country’s regional norms can help to understand American culture and behaviors. The North and South regions have substantial differences – from dialect, food and music preferences, to more fundamental ideas such as religion, gender roles, and family structures. It is interesting to examine these regional trends; from how they are displayed to what causes them.

A Culture of Honor

The American South has a focus on honor that the North does not have. The Southern culture frowns upon using offensive language around women, has a norm that people should refer to one another as “Sir” and “Ma’am” and sometimes even normalizes an aggressive reaction to perceived disrespect, whereas Northerners may be inconvenienced, but will shrug off similar behavior for the most part. The concept at play in this aspect of Southern culture is that one must defend his individual or familial honor, particularly if one happens to be male.

More people get married in the South than the North – by nearly 4 percent, based on 2016 figures. Southerners are known for getting married younger than Northerners, by roughly 2-3 years earlier than their Northern neighbors. Interestingly, the divorce rate is higher in the South than the North, and some speculate that this may be due to the instability of marriages that begin at a younger age. Gay marriage is less accepted in the South than the North, largely due to a higher percentage of conservative Christian congregations in the South, as well as gay marriage becoming legal in Southern states much later than it was in the North.

Cultural Lag

Due to the South’s more traditional and Christian-influenced culture, there is sometimes a cultural lag when it comes to the adoption of scientific principles, whereas this is less common in the Northern region. Southern school systems sometimes elect to feature creationist theory instead of Darwin’s scientific discoveries in its curricula in elementary schools, and there has been a push back against allowing stem-cell research. It is important to state that this is not the case everywhere in the South, particularly not at Universities and within larger cities. Politically, the South sometimes lags in acceptance with progressive policies about transgender and gay rights and ensuring equality for African Americans and women. For example, Alabama and Mississippi are the only two states that do not have any equal pay laws, and South Carolina has a general employment discrimination law, but no equal pay provision. This means that employers in these states are not legally required to provide equal pay to women or minorities. There are also no state laws to protect employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in Southern states, and Mississippi even has a law that allows businesses to refuse to do business with LGBT people. This cultural lag is also seen in the attitudes displayed by residents in the South. According to a Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) survey, people in the South showed more discomfort with LGBTQ people than those in the U.S. overall. Many of the responses demonstrated discomfort levels at 5 to 6 points higher in the South than in the country as a whole. This included forty percent of respondents in the South expressing discomfort with attending a same-sex couple’s wedding. The highest levels of discomfort concerned issues related to transgender people, both in the South and with the general U.S. population.

Gun Legislation and Culture

Possibly the biggest and most polarizing difference between the Northern and Southern cultures is each region’s attitude about gun use and ownership. The Northern states tend to have stricter gun laws, while the Southern states are more relaxed when it comes to gun ownership. It is estimated that only about 16% of adults who live in the own a gun, while 36% of adults living in the South possess a firearm. Southern culture is more comfortable with open carry of guns and owning multiple firearms. This aspect of cultural differences may be tied to the farm lifestyle – in more remote areas, homeowners feel like they need to protect themselves. Hunting is also a more popular pastime in the South than the North, resulting in a need for firearms.

While stereotypes and norms certainly exist in each region, it is important to acknowledge that outliers exist as well. While Americans speak openly of the cultural differences between the North and the South, sometimes playfully, sometimes in a more serious context, common threads also exist, and people move around the country, bringing their norms and habits with them.