A Christian Insult in the South: Bless Your Heart!

Valentine's Day heart

I've been in Mississippi long enough that one would think I'd have become fully acclimated to the culture by now. And while I have indeed grown used to many of the things I used to find so objectionable (e.g., being asked by complete strangers where I go to church within the first few minutes of meeting them for the first time), there are still a few that continue to puzzle me on a regular basis. The common expression, "bless your heart," is one example. My confusion over its meaning is due to the wildly divergent explanations I have received from people who were born and raised here.

The first few times I heard someone use this expression after moving to Mississippi I figured it was an expression of sympathy. It was usually delivered with what I thought was a sympathetic tone. After one party disclosed some misfortune, the other party would say, "Aw, bless your heart." It seemed so simple, and the "bless" aspect rarely bothered me since I was coming to terms with how evangelical fundamentalist Christianity seems to infuse everything around here.

On a couple of occasions, someone had a fairly negative reaction to hearing someone else say "bless his heart" or "bless her heart" and commented to me afterward about how mean the person who had said it was being. Needless to say, I was confused. I was then told that "bless your heart" is the Southern equivalent of saying something like, "you are a moron." That is to say, it is a strong insult. This did not make sense, and so I asked around. Local after local confirmed that this was indeed the case. The expression, I was told, is a way of saying "fuck you" without actually having to say it...you know...because Jesus.

I started paying more attention to how the expression was used. It is an extremely common one, so I did not have to wait long for examples. If it is indeed an insult, it has to be one of the most subtle and passive-aggressive ways of insulting someone I've encountered. And if it is an insult, it seems well-crafted for use with outsiders (like me). I won't know that I'm being insulted but everyone else who hears it will. That's extremely clever. And since many of the evangelical fundamentalist Christians around here at least try to avoid profanity, this expression seems tailor-made for them as a way to...well...trick Jesus.

I have heard the expression used in ways that make it clear that it was intended to demean someone. The most common example would be someone telling a story about someone else's poor judgment or bad behavior and working in "bless his heart." It ends up communicating something similar to "that kid ain't right." In these instances, there is little question that the speaker is insulting someone.

But is it always an insult? When I tell my boss about some of the medical problems I've been struggling with lately and he responds with a sympathetic-sounding "bless your heart" even though we're having a private conversation where no native Southerners are present, is he telling me to go fuck myself? If so, it seems like I should be approaching HR and filing a complaint. After all, if this is how he is responding to what I'm telling him, I'm probably not going to have a job much longer.

No matter how many Southerners have assured me that this is in fact what my boss is doing, I remain skeptical. I suspect that "bless your heart" might mean different things in different contexts. I think it can be a genuine expression of sympathy no different from "I'm sorry to hear that" in some contexts and a way of saying something more like "Oh, you poor idiot" in others. I won't pretend I can tell the difference, and I am hesitant to think I know better than the many locals who have told me repeatedly that it is always an insult. Still, I tend to think that what this article in Southern Living says about it is probably more accurate than much of what I've been told.