Monday, 25 June 2007

Good manners in the 21st Century

One of the comments that inspired this blog was a lady who said she was offended (I presume mildly) that a man gave up his seat to her on a bus. I have heard this before, the reasons for being offended range from "I'm not old" to "I'm equal to any man and can stand on my own two feet".

I have also heard offence being taken over men opening doors for women/ladies and for offering to help them carry... heavy stuff.

Is it true that chivalry is dead? Outdated? Are good manners a thing of the past?
There certainly seems to be a bit of a conflict between gentlemanly behavior and this new century. But it just takes a bit of thought and different angle of approach.

Firstly, lets deal with the idea of the gentlemen standing when a woman enters a room (or leaves the room). This probably seems the most outdated of them all.
Let me confess that it's late at night and I'm not inclined to research the origins of this strange custom, but I'll take a punt and guess that it is much like raising your hat to a lady, it is a gesture of respect. When I was at school, at least in the 1970s, we had to stand when a teacher entered the room. In court, you stand when the judge/magistrate enters the room. Soldiers stand when an officer enters a room ['As you were']. You stand during the national anthem.
And I understand there are some standing up bits in church (not that you will ever find me there) and I suspect that this is where the custom might have it's origins. Although, I do wonder if it were customary in pre-Christian times? Probably. I will tell you this, last time I was in a Christian church, I seem to remember spending more time kneeling on the floor than standing... I seem to remember reading that our pagan ancestors preferred to meet their gods as equals rather than what they considered groveling on their knees.
Is this relevant? I think it is. I think that when a person enters the room, you should stand and greet them eye-to-eye. Man or woman, you should move towards them as they move towards you, (meeting them half way) and you should greet them with a firm hand shake or a hug and a kiss, whatever is appropriate. Sitting there like a king on your thrown waiting for them to come to you is bad manners.
But from then on, standing whenever a woman enters or leaves the room is just over the top. In an informal gathering, you would just look a pratt, unless of course this is the social norm among your friends (That would be very few of us). If you were out to dinner with a lady, frankly, a lady of my generation (and I'm in my 30s) would most likely be embarrassed. It would be worse if you were out to dinner with a group of people and you were the only 'gentleman' to stand whenever a lady needed to visit the powder room -- you would make the other gentlemen feel awkward.
In this age of equality, a far better way to show respect to a lady would to be to treat her like an equal, to talk to her like a human being... some of us men still have difficulty with this.
And to end this one with, much as the same as you should stand to greet people, you should stand to say goodbye.

Next, lets deal with giving up your seat on a bus or train. I have done this many times on the train to London. It's simple... just don't make a big thing of it! Make eye contact, smile, get up, move aside, turn away. There really isn't any need to loudly announce "Here! take my seat ma'am", with a sweeping bow and slapping of the thigh.
Another approach to this is to pretend that you were getting up anyway because its almost your stop, or that you need to stretch your legs. I have used this tactic ever since an elderly lady cried out to all the other old dears, "Ooooh! Did you see that? A proper gentleman! His parents raised him right! You can tell he isn't from around here! That's a rare thing these days... etc. etc. etc." Did I mention that I blush?
I find the 'pretending I was getting up anyway' particularly useful when giving up my seat to elderly men. Their knees may be knackered but their pride is intact, but like all male pride, easily bruised.

Good manners are practical, an elderly person needs the seat more than you. A pregnant woman needs the seat more than you, and woman of the same age as you needs to conserve her strength for the bedroom... just kidding!!! But seriously, if you are giving up your seat to somebody you feel needs it more than you, then remember you are doing it for them and not for effect, not even because it is good manners (action without thought), so don't do it with great flourish. As for the woman the same age as you, or younger... this is the age of equality. And it is also an age where people haven't been raised with expectations of good manners. So even if you have seen this hypothetical woman carry huge amounts of shopping onto the bus, be aware that she may well see you as her equal, she may not expect special treatment, she probably won't expect to encounter gentlemanly conduct. She will probably interpret it as courtship ritual. So there is no telling what her reaction will be. So what do you do?
A gentleman would never risk offending someone, but a gentleman should give up his seat. So he should do the 'I was getting up anyway' thing. It is the only thing you can do.

As for opening doors for ladies... ladies are highly unlikely to stand staring blankly at a closed door waiting for you to open it for them in this day and age. And frankly, women are more than capable of opening doors for themselves.
Lets get one thing straight... back in the old days, these customs came in two parts. The gentleman was playing an active role, but the lady was also playing a passive role in these little scenes. The lady would wait to have the door opened, the gentleman would open it. The lady would expect the gentleman to give up his seat, she may even stand before the man she wished to give up his seat for her (to see if he would reciprocate). A lady would expect the men to rise as she left the room, the gentlemen would comply (those most interested would be the first to rise). This isn't just about gentlemen doing 'stuff', it is a dance for two, and often it was a courtship ritual. But these days there is no expectation by the ladies, and they are not playing out the role, regardless of how passive it is. (There is nothing as embarrassing as watching a man dance alone.)
This doesn't mean that we can't do these things and we should do these things as they are nice to do. But we just have to remember that it is no longer a dance for two so we can't do them in the same way they were done of old.
So when it comes to opening doors, we leave behind the courtship ritual and instead see it as practical. You don't let the door slam in a persons face. If given the opportunity, hold the door open for anyone regardless of gender, and graciously allow them to open a door for you.

As for letting the lady go first (And saying "After you"), it depends on the door. If the door is open, let the lady go first. If the door opens towards you, open the door, step aside and let the lady go first. If the door opens away from you, you go first opening the door as you go, hold it open and let the lady pass you. But be aware with this last one, if you do this to a man, they may take offence... it is a subconscious thing, as you are putting them in the role of female. So don't let them pass you, especially if the door leads to a bar of some description as you are not only treating them like a woman, you are ushering them forward to buy the first round! It's better to get to the bar, say "What can I get you" and then allowing them to reassert their manliness by winning the "No, I'll get this one" ritual. (See, us men are just as strange as women).

So, that's my take on these rituals, and that's how I do them. Manners are social expectations, unwritten rules of behaviour designed to avoid causing offense. If doing 19th/20th century rituals causes offence in this century, then they should be dropped, or done in a way so as to avoid offence. On the whole, you can get away with anything if you do it with a smile.

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