We've all heard the phrase.
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In the South, 'bless your heart' situations arise daily. Walk around long enough, and you'll hear 'bless your/their/his/her heart' spoken either vehemently aloud or in a breathless whisper. It's a versatile phrase. It has a thousand meanings—and just as many possible responses.

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.

Don't know how to respond? Consider a few variables. Who's speaking? What prompted the 'bless your heart'? You can bet your Southern mothers, aunts, and grandmothers are all well versed in the language of 'bless your heart.' They practically wrote the book, so you should study up too. Read on for 'bless your heart' etiquette, a few variants, and their appropriate responses.

Bless Your Heart Etiquette

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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. If moved, you can also offer a validating or concerned 'bless your heart' in return. Just watch your tone—it's a powerful thing.