I’ve been dwelling on this post about chivalry, which I mocked briefly in my epic “feminism Google Alert” blogaround earlier. The dude in question is anti-chivalry, a stance which I applaud, but seems to have a very poor grasp of what that actually entails. For example, consider the following quotes:
Now don’t get me wrong. Sometimes I’ll play the doorstop.
If anyone — regardless of sex — carries something heavy, I might take a second out of my day to help.
Some doors are more easily opened from one direction or another, and I might give a well-timed nudge when a stranger is on the wrong end of hydraulics.
To be clear, I do these things, not because I have to, but because I want to.
And occasionally if I’m on my way to class — and an especially good-looking female follows — I’ll snap the door shut behind me and sing, “fatty, fatty, two by four, can’t get through the schoolhouse door.”
Not because I have to, but because I want to.
Yeah. Not really sure he’s getting it, here. Chivalry is bad, yes. Politeness is still good, though. They’re, um, not the same thing. Which is why chivalry is bad– it promotes the infantilization of women by turning perfectly ordinary, polite acts into “special privileges” for women.
In the interest of re-education, I have composed… a quiz! Yes, I shall describe a variety situations, and ask you to tell me, is the behavior described polite, rude, or CHIVALROUS?
On holding doors:
You are approaching a building that you wish to enter. Ahead of you is a woman, not carrying anything, ambling along pleasantly, also in the direction of the building. You run ahead of her to reach the door first, then pull the door open and stand to the side, holding it. She is still a fair distance from the building, and jogs the rest of the way to enter.
Are you, in this situation, being…
The answer here is rude. Also, CHIVALROUS! You can tell because you’ve gone out of your way to “help” someone, despite the fact that she has demonstrated no need for such help, and have actually inconvenienced her in the process by making her jog towards the door so you’re not left standing there for too long! For extra chivalry points, refuse to walk through any doors that she may subsequently hold for you, therefore reinforcing the idea that your sense of her helplessness is more important than convenience or politeness for either of you!
But Eloriane, you cry, I was only doing that out of the goodness of my heart! I wanted to be nice! Too bad. It’s not nice to make a big to-do out of running ahead of someone to get the door, and it’s downright rude to refuse to go through a door they may hold for you. What would nice behavior look like? Try the following:
You are entering a building at a busy time of day. Someone else is right behind you, also wishing to enter through the same door. You hold the door open behind you as you walk through, allowing the person behind you to easily grab the door and also walk through.
This time, you are being polite. You can tell because it’s the sort of thing one ought to do for any person, regardless of gender or other factors. Also, it would be actively impolite to refuse to hold the door, since that would allow it to slam shut in the face of the other person. But this isn’t quite the same as holding the door open for someone. Is there a polite way to do that?
You are approaching a building that you wish to enter. Ahead of you is a person who looks potentially desirous of aid– perhaps he or she is carrying something heavy or bulky, or is pushing a stroller or dolly. When you are both near the door, you step ahead of him or her, pull the door open, and stand to the side, holding it. He or she passes through with greater ease.
The key difference is that your decision to hold the door for someone is not determined by their gender, but by the likelihood that they might have difficulty with the door. Mothers pushing strollers qualify, but so would men pushing dollies, for example. A person with a disability aid might qualify, although they are much more likely to have already developed a good way to open doors. If you are particularly close by, I would suggest opening the door, but be aware that the person in question probably does not particularly need your help. (Would anyone with a disability like to weigh in on the most polite way to approach this situation?)
In no case should you make the act showy, or run ahead of someone to open the door, or create one of those awkward situations where the person being “helped” must run because they are not close enough to immediately pass through your opened door. The goal must be to serve the person in question, not your own vanity, and so anything that makes a fuss about how nice you’re being is probably not nice at all.
On carrying bags:
This one really falls under the same rules as opening doors. If you see someone obviously struggling with more items than they can easily carry, it’s polite to offer to carry something for them, regardless of your gender or theirs. However, though chivalrous, it would be rude to offer to carry something for a woman when she is not having trouble carrying it. Look for visible grunts, funny faces, or items being dropped. A single bag is not going to qualify. When you offer to carry something needlessly, it’s indicating that you believe, based on your respective genders, that you are inherently more capable to carrying whatever-it-is, despite evidence to the contrary. Which, though chivalrous, isn’t altogether polite.
On paying for dinner:
This one seemed to give our poor original poster particular trouble. Let’s take a look at his suggestion:
Gentlemen, the next time you sense a girl wants you to take the check, lean back in your seat and pre-emptively thank her for treating you.
Have fun with it.
Yes. Very polite. Unfortunately, if you think “a girl wants you to take the check,” it is probably because you have somehow indicated you intended to pay. As a general rule, the one who suggests the outing pays for the food, unless you have a prior agreement to split the bill. What does that mean? Well, don’t worry, I have another instructive quiz!
You say to your romantic partner, “Hey, why don’t we try that new restaurant downtown?” Your partner says, “I don’t know, it’s a little expensive.” You say, “But it looks really good! We can make it a date.” Your partner agrees, and you have a lovely, if slightly expensive meal that that new restaurant downtown. As you finish your dessert, you say, “Thanks so much for treating me, honey,” and nudge the bill towards your partner.
Are you, in this situation, being…
The answer should be obvious: you are being rude. However, if you are female and your partner is male, you may also be being CHIVALROUS!
But what if it was actually your idea to pay for the date that your partner proposed? How does that change things?
Your romantic partner says to you, “Hey, why don’t we try that new restaurant downtown?” You say, “I don’t know, it’s a little expensive.” Your partner says, “But it looks really good! We can make it a date. My treat.” You agree, and you have a lovely, if slightly expensive meal that that new restaurant downtown. As you finish your dessert, your partner says, “I had a great time,” and reaches for the bill. You take it out of your partner’s hand, and absolutely insist upon paying. Your partner tries to argue, saying, “Dinner was supposed to be my treat. I wanted to do something nice for you,” but to no avail. You pay for the dinner.
Are you, in this situation, being…
Hey look, you’re being rude again! And also, if you’re a dude dating a lady, CHIVALROUS again! It’s shocking how often those two things coincide. If you refuse to allow your partner to pay for the date that he or she proposed, you are being impolite. Now, if it was unclear who had initiated the date, which certainly happens in established relationships, then a bit of polite “I’ll get it,” “No, I’ll get it” discussion is to be expected when the bill arrives. In that case, it doesn’t really matter who pays, though over the course of the relationship it ought to work out about 50/50.
Key here is the dialogue from your partner (whom I am assuming is female for reasons of chivalry): she clearly indicates throughout that it had always been her intention to pay, and that she wanted to do so specifically as a kind of gift. To refuse to allow her to pay turns what should have been a happy moment for both of you (since people enjoy giving gifts in addition to receiving them!) into a power play that serves to assert your dominance. It says, not only, “I don’t want to receive the gift that you wish to give,” but also, “I don’t think you are or should be capable of providing this gift.”
On pulling chairs out:
This is an act that I don’t really understand regardless of gender. I find that having someone pull my chair out for me greatly increases the chance that I will fall straight to the ground. As in, I don’t think I have ever “missed” my chair on my own, but I land smack on the floor about half the time when people “help” me. I only ever manage to sit without making a fool of myself in cases where I am at a fancy restaurant, and the waiter seating me pulled out the chair before I got to the table. Any time it’s been an acquaintance, rather than someone working at the restaurant, I’m right on the floor.
Maybe I need to get better acquaintances, who won’t pull out my seat in silence. Or maybe it’s not actually a particularly helpful thing to do for another person. Regardless, it’s yet another display of patronizing superciliousness that really doesn’t need to exist any more.
On standing until women are seated:
I don’t even get the theoretical politeness of this one. I know a few people who do it, but I find it always makes me feel awkward. When a group is eating together, it’s desirable for everyone to sit at something close to the same time, so you don’t want to sit while everyone is still at the other end of the room mingling, but you also don’t want to stand while everyone else is going about the process of sitting. If you have picked your chair and are standing behind it while you wait for “the ladies” to be seated, the odds are good that you’re actually an obstacle to those of us still trying to get to our seats. And when the majority of people are seated, but there’s one straggling woman, your standing draws attention to her in a way that, let me tell you from personal experience!, sure doesn’t feel polite.
It’s like opening the door open for someone and then standing there, holding it, expectantly: it draws attention to that person’s activity, and can easily make them feel pressured to enter the building or sit down at the table more quickly than they would otherwise, so as not to leave the other person hanging. That induced worry seems to me to be a subtle way of reinforcing the idea that men’s concerns are more important than women’s. Theoretically, a woman could continue on at her pace and pay no mind to the man waiting on her– but is she likely to? No, because it’s rude to make people wait. And it’s rude to draw ostentatious attention to the fact that you are waiting. No matter how “chivalrous.”
On walking on a certain side of the sidewalk:
We’re getting into more obscure acts of chivalry, I think. In theory, men are supposed to walk on the road side of the sidewalk, to shield women from, uh… cars careening off the roads? I’m not really convinced there’s anything to protect us delicate flowers from any more, even if someone did want to go the chivalrous route. I always walk on the right, because my dad is deaf in his left ear, but I don’t think this is anything that deserved having much attention paid to it.
On leading a woman through a room with a hand on the small of her back:
I had no idea this was considered acceptable, let alone chivalrous-in-a-good-way, but in the comments to this article (one of my first google search results for the sidewalk-walking rule above), one woman says,
i love it when a guy puts his hand on the small of my back and leads me into a room. I am always nervous about being around a crowd of people, especially strangers, and the gesture just seems to make me feel that even if i mess up, he will be there to catch me when i fall. MY HERO.
A second woman agrees:
I LOVE the hand on the small of the back!
So, apparently this is a thing men do, and it is considered polite. Or something. Um. Really? I can kind of There is absolutely no way to make this into a gender-neutral general-politeness thing. A man physically moves a woman around according to his own will, via contact with a semi-intimate area of her body. Even in the context of romantic relationship, I can’t see that as anything but a patronizing show of power, making it really chivalrous, but not particularly polite.
Which is really what the whole thing is about. Chivalry is about reinforcing the idea that women somehow have to be looked after, and that men need to coddle them; it’s about the power imbalance. Decent manners are about treating fellow human beings with respect and kindness; it’s about equality.
And that is why chivalry deserves to die.