It's a matter of honor: Why Southerners are more polite

Unlike much of the United States, the South has a culture of honor. While this makes Southerners more polite, it's also something of a double-edged sword.

  • Good hospitality and manners are well-known stereotypes of the American South.
  • Psychologists believe that the South is so well-mannered because it has a culture of honor, where an individual's reputation is highly valuable.
  • To test this, researchers conducted what's known as "the asshole experiment."

According to a survey by Travel + Leisure magazine, New York, Washington D.C., and Boston are among the top five rudest cities. The common denominator? They're from the north of the U.S. Compared to the casual aggression, indifference, and lack of common courtesy you can find in the U.S.'s northern cities, the American South can feel like a breath of fresh air. People smile more, the waitresses call you "honey," elevator rides are (horrifyingly) filled with small talk instead of silence — people seem to have better manners there.

Why is it that expressing an otherworldly opinion is met with "bless your heart" in the South rather than, "What the hell is wrong with you?" What cultural difference accounts for this?

Psychologists Dov Cohen and Richard Nisbett believe they have an answer: "We think the best single explanation has to do with the South being home to a version of the culture of honor." In essence, a place can be said to have a culture of honor if one's reputation is highly valued. If somebody insults you and you fail to respond to the slight, you might start to look like the kind of person who can be taken advantage of. Conversely, if somebody were to insult you and you socked them in the jaw, you would have successfully defended your honor, and people might think twice before behaving poorly around you. The same applies to protecting one's personal property or defending a significant other against unwanted attention.

As a consequence, good manners are a must. If you live in a culture of honor, a certain amount of respect is expected even from strangers. The alternative is that you risk offending somebody, and if they care about their reputation, they might react violently.

There are some real consequences for this. Cohen and Nisbett related how a researcher from 1934 "argued that in much of the South of his day it was impossible to convict someone of murder if (a) the killer had been insulted and (b) he had warned the victim of his intent to kill if the insult were not retracted or compensated." This different way of thinking about violence appears to have persisted. The map below, for instance, shows the homicide rate per 100,000 in 2015. There's a fairly clear demarcation between the places we think of as the South and the rest of the country, barring some outliers like Michigan.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

There's clearly a lot more at work than just the culture of honor: poverty, gun laws, and other factors play a role too. But Nisbett and Cohen conducted an experiment that suggested the culture of honor is very much alive, and damaging somebody's honor can enflame violence.

In what has been called the "asshole experiment," the researchers recruited a sample of Southerners and Northerners for an experiment advertised as one studying the "limited response time conditions on certain facets of human judgement." In the test, the participants were given a phony explanation of the experiment, asked to fill out a survey, and then asked to walk down a narrow hallway to another room, where they were told the rest of the experiment would take place.

But as they walked down the hallway, another individual walking the opposite direction would bump into the subject with their shoulder and call the subject an "asshole." At the other end of the hallway, researchers evaluated the reactions of the subjects. Overall, Northerners tended to seem more amused by the encounter, while Southerners tended to become angrier.

This is clearly a subjective evaluation, so the researchers also measured the participants' cortisol levels — it's a hormone associated with stress — and testosterone levels before and after the altercation. Southerners' cortisol and testosterone levels rose 79 percent and 12 percent respectively after the bump compared to Northerners' 33 percent and 6 percent respectively.

The researchers surmised that this physiological and behavioral difference was attributable to the fact that Southerners grew up in a culture of honor. Without a sense of how valuable a reputation can be, Northerners tend to shrug off insults — and it's likely they're ruder to each other, too. But in a place where honor and reputation are highly valuable to an individual, people treat each other with more respect, but also with more violence.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.