Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Realization about chivalry vs. manners

I've battled for some time this notion of how manners are supposed to work. This is especially in relation to how men treat women. For example: men should always usher women through doorways first. If a group of people arrives at a bar together and there are only a couple stools, the men should allow the women to decide if they want to sit first. A man should ensure that the woman he's with gets on or off the subway before he does. Etc.

Now, I have lived in New York or New Jersey since I left home to attend college, but I grew up in the semi-south of northern Virginia. My father is from the actual South and is this sort of gentleman described above. (It is no great stretch to put two and two together and see that I got this view of reality from observing my dad.)

Some of this sort of chivalry goes on in the North, but there is a lot of each wo/man for him/herself going on as well. And that always bugged me. On the one hand, I don't want to be bugged by it because I know deep down that there is NO reason for women to be treated differently than men. Why should a woman get on the subway first, right? A man could be just as tired at the end of the day as a woman and we women are perfectly entitled to dress however we want, so we can't say that we deserve the seats because we have to wear high heels. Many of us wear comfy shoes for commuting or comfy shoes all the time. I spend 95% of my work day with my ass parked in a chair. I really don't NEED to sit down for my 22 minute commute.

Most mornings I actually prefer to stand and I have this whole system where I hang back when people are entering the train so that I'm the last one on and can lean against the door. Since most people are rushing to get a seat that probably doesn't exist, it's very easy to hang back. I have been practicing this method for a few months now and not a single man has stood aside and ushered me onto the train first. If he did, I don't know what I'd do! He'd be foiling my plan! 

After reading this article, I had a realization. What struck me especially was this part:

To be sure, strict rules regarding courtesy and deference to others have historically been used as a way to enforce a social order in which women and blacks were considered less than full citizens.

In the Jim Crow era, blacks and whites lived with a code of hyper-politeness as a way to smooth the edges of a harsh racial system and, of course, keep it in place, scholars of Southern culture say.

As those issues faded, proper manners remained an important cultural marker that Southerners have worked to maintain. 

Ah ha! That's what it is! Chivalry of the sort outlined above (the kind where men let women enter the elevator first) really does need to die, assuming we no longer require this code of hyper-politeness to smooth the edges of a system in which women are inferior.

The other kind of chivalry, however, needs to be worked on by everyone, not just those of us in the North. There is no reason not to hold the door for the person walking right behind you. And there is no reason for that person to not say, "thank you!" It doesn't matter if it's a woman holding the door for a man or vice versa. It's just a nice thing to do for a fellow human being.

Phew! I'm so glad that I finally figured out why I had been battling that issue for so long.

(Photo is in honor of Halloween, even if it is a few days late.)


Kathryn said...

This is of particular interest to me. In fact, I just wrote a short story which included the following sentences:

"An odd thing, people were often courteous to her: offering to let her sit, opening doors for her, asking her if she needed anything, but this was one place where there were no allowances. Feeding onto the train was always a slightly hostile, push-pull event."

craige said...

What wonderful wording, Kathryn!