I grew up with a strong sense of barbeque. Barbeque was, of course, slow cooked pork served on a bun with vinegar based sauce. I didn't question this "fact of life," because it was "fact" in this area. If you asked for barbeque, you knew what you were getting.
The first time I questioned my definition was when I moved to Texas. I ordered barbeque. The waitress brought out a huge plate of beef ribs smothered in tomato sauce.
I said, "What's this?"
The waitress said, "Barbecue. Wasn't that what you ordered?"
I covered well (I think). I said, "Yep. And, it sure looks good."
This was over 20 years ago, and I remember it like yesterday. The ribs were good, but they were ribs to my way of thinking. This was a date, and I would not order ribs on a date. They are a might messy. I try to order neat meals on a date. No spaghetti. No ribs. Not when you're trying to look cool and impress a guy. I had my work cut out for me and quite by surprise.
I don't think I ordered BBQ again the entire time I lived in Texas. It's not that I don't like Texas BBQ beef ribs, but I do like to know what's coming when I order food. I did learn to say "OK" to putting my stuff in a "sack." Around here, a sack is a big burlap sack for potatoes. In Texas, they just mean a paper bag. I turned down sacks for a while until I figured out they just wanted to put my purchases in a paper bag. I was thinking they ran out of bags there for a bit and didn't want a sack to store in my small apartment. After a while, I got that down. But, I neverdid catch on to barbeque that didn't come neatly on a bun. When I saw the word barbecue in Texas, I was quite confused. Kansas further added to my confusion, but that's another story.
To further complicate matters, some of my northern friends (years later) invited me to a barbecue. I was thinking pig again, and they had hamburgers. Whew. That was odd (back then). I finally figured out that my northern buddies called anything grilled out barbeque. They were using the word as a verb (what I'd call grilling) while I used it as a noun (chopped pork on a bun). At least, those burgers were on a bun and not messy to eat like the Texas BBQ ribs. I love grilled burgers and cook up some great ones. I've got some great tips for burgers if that's your idea of BBQ.
Now I understand that barbeque is a mixed bag. And, I'm old and worldly enough that I'll flat out ask what folks are talking about. I do love all kinds of barbeque, barbecue, or BBQ. I do, however, like to know what to expect. It is rather a shock to think I'm getting pork on a bun and then to get ribs or to think I'm going to a pig roast and find out that it's going to be hot dogs on the grill. On the flip side, I know to let folks know (from other parts of the country) that if they are in these parts and ordering barbeque that they'll be getting chopped pork with slaw served on a bun or white bread. It's fun, in fact, to not say and watch the expressions, but I like to be a kind person. Our local barbeque is rather an acquired taste I'd say, so I'm usually one to step up to the plate and explain the local customs.
Folks in the south take barbecue pretty seriously and don't play around with the words. If you tell a southerner they're getting barbeque, then they are going to be shocked if you give them ribs or grilled chicken. They aren't trying to be difficult. They are just being southern.