Prompted by someone just being down right ugly on my page recently, I decided to write about one of our favorite sayings here in the south. Contrary to what most people believe, when someone says to you, Bless your heart, they aren’t saying Va Fangool or FU! Now don’t get me wrong, it can absolutely mean that, the facial expressions will normally guide the person you are speaking to, on what you actually mean.
The phrase has multiple meanings and is used to express genuine sympathy but more often as an insult that conveys condescension, derision, or contempt. It may also be spoken as a precursor to an insult to mitigate its severity. Meanings range from "you are dumb but can't help it" to "FU" and are primarily imparted through context and tone. While common in the South, it is primarily used by individuals who wish to "be sweet” and do not wish to "act ugly."
Here is what to look for in the proverbial Bless Your Heart~
A Whispered Bless His/Her Heart
A 'bless his/her heart' spoken in a whisper is often conspiratorial. It's not said to the proverbial blessed heart. It's repeated to a friend or neighbor about the 'blessed heart.' Usually, if the phrase is uttered to you in conversation about someone, not present—or present, but out of earshot—the appropriate response is a smile, and perhaps a chuckle if you agree. AKA an insult!
An Empathetic Bless Your Heart
Everyone appreciates this version of 'bless your heart' because it's always kind and courteous. If 'bless your heart' is deployed in an expression of empathy or concern, a clear "Thank you, ma'am," or "Thank you, sir" is appropriate. 'Bless your heart,' said in this way is an outstretched hand, a pat on the back, an olive branch of understanding. AKA sincere!
A Sassy Bless Your Heart
If you do not hear sympathy, you most likely hear a touch of sass (or more than a touch). Receiving this 'bless your heart' is a Southern rite of passage. This one has some judgment, but you know it's because the person speaking has your best interests at heart. Responding with a return volley of salt or sass may be tempting, but the best option is to smile and change the subject. (Unless, of course, you have a well-timed response teed up. If so—and if you have no fear of consequences—then the choice is yours.)
AKA- they are judge-y and think they know a lot more than you do!
A Neutral Bless Your Heart
Occasionally, the phrase 'bless your heart' can substitute your actual reaction to a conversation where that response may not be appreciated. When you can't relay your true feelings, a 'bless your heart' might be enough of a conversation-ender for the other person to understand the need to switch subjects. AKA silence is golden!
Bless My Heart
'Bless my heart' has many meanings, from self-sympathy to self-admonishment to self-deprecation to modesty. The appropriate response to 'bless my heart' is usually a sympathetic nod of the head. Show enough empathy to show that you understand or agree, but not too much as to display any misinterpretations. AKA I am a bit embarrassed or I feel stupid!
If you're on the receiving end of a 'bless your heart,' it might make you laugh or sting a little. It's usually good-natured, but you'll have to carefully listen because 'bless your heart' has too many meanings to count. Southerners know that the phrase's purpose depends on the tone in which it's spoken, and a slight change in inflection or volume can make all the difference. So while I believe in the power of silence (it really speaks more volume than going off on someone after they may “ bless your heart” you), the Italian in me would say “basta così puttana” with hands waving in the air. I’ll let you all go to google translate for that one.