When I got out of the truck last night, headed for a movie, I walked to the front bumper and waited for my girlfriend to catch up. I allowed her to pass, then took her right hand in my left before turning right down the sidewalk. As we returned to our parking spot after the movie, sides were switched–her left hand now in my right.
Later that evening, as we ate ice cream out of the carton, we remembered our first date a couple of months ago. After a burger and a beer that December night, we walked down Market Street and across the river. “Do you remember which side of me you were on as we walked across the bridge?” I asked her. “Of course. You were on my left, as any gentleman would have been.” I smiled. Never had we discussed how we would arrange ourselves on a given sidewalk, but every time, instinctively, that is the way we do it. What I didn’t realize until this conversation, however, was that she was always making room for me in expectation of my positioning myself between traffic and her. And she had no way of knowing that I would have felt terribly amiss had I not taken that place.
She also had no way of knowing that on Sunday mornings when I was a young boy my father would always walk with me, a little faster than my mom, my sisters, and any other ladies heading from their cars to the church door, so that we could, together, open and hold it for them. We would continue holding that door for men, women, boys, and girls until either there was a long break in traffic, or another gentleman insisted on taking over duties for us.
When thanked for our behavior, we would respond with “You’re welcome ma’am or Sir,” though no thanks were ever expected. That is simply the way we did things.
Since moving back to the South nearly six years ago, I have been surprised and more than a little troubled to find that the attitudes I experienced in the upper Midwest regarding manners have crept into our southern society. Even here in the South, I am chastised for “Ma’aming” someone, told that “I’m not that old!” or educated that “I can get the door myself,” by women unaccepting of polite, respectful behavior. Ironically, I’ve never had a man complain about holding his door, or calling him “Sir”, and when I unlocked and opened the car door for a good friend (a heterosexual man of 37, by the way) before walking around to my own door, I received a simple “Thanks, Man” in return.
Then, today, while having my truck worked on at a local dealership, I was offered a loaner car for the day. Before signing the rental agreement, I was encouraged to walk out and inspect the car inside and out. Beginning on the driver side, I inspected the paint all the way around until I came to the front passenger door, at which time I reached in my pocket for the key to have a peep inside. But when I looked down at the door handle, I found no keyhole. I held the key close to the door, thinking it must be some kind of new smart lock. Nothing happened. I looked at the key for a remote entry button. None.
Walking back around the car, I found the only keyhole on the vehicle in the driver’s door. This was, of course, fine for my purposes. I unlocked the door and sat down to have a look for dirt, grime, tears, or other offenses. But what if I had been walking hand-in-hand with my girlfriend and approached her door first, or dashing to the car during a driving rain after lunch with my buddy? I would be completely unable to open the door without walking around the car, unlocking it, and walking back, by which time she would have opened the door herself and let herself in, or he would have been soaking wet.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not into Chivalry. I don’t think that able-bodied women (or men) need my help or are any less capable than I am of protecting themselves from oncoming traffic, heavy doors, or confusing, newfangled car door latches, but I do know that doing the little things for each other, putting others’ safety first, being polite, or showing a little respect makes me feel good. And being shown the same courtesies from others has a similar effect on me.
Maybe that rental Sentra comes with a remote opener that I was not afforded for our few hours together, but even if so, eventually batteries die and electronics wear out, so why not a little backup, just in case? Would it be that big a deal to put a little keyhole in the door like we have done for decades? And maybe the guy behind you at the store hasn’t earned having a door held for him, or perhaps you just had a fight with your girlfriend and think she deserves standing in the rain while you walk around the car… Fine, don’t do it for them. But try, just once, doing it for yourself and see how it makes you feel. You might be pleasantly surprised, and so might they.
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“What price Chivalry?” (or) “A hundredth of a penny saved, keeps the stockholders away”
Car parts are priced to the 1/100th of a penny, That passenger door look might have cost a dollar, but won’t sell cars like a remote door opener. A dollar here and a dollar there over a million vehicles adds up. And door openers won’t fail in the first 3-5 years, by then you’ll want a new car. (or so says the people that watch the buying public) I think the last 3 cars/vans I’ve had were missing door locks, but all had remote car entry.
“..the attitudes I experienced in the upper Midwest regarding manners have crept into our southern society.”
Having spent my youth in the upper Midwest, I feel somewhat qualified to comment on this. My experience was more like your own – holding doors, being somewhat protective as a matter of course, saying thank you. Perhaps what you have experienced is more isolated to more densely populated environments?
Being a woman, I think I can speak to some of the offense you’ve received. I know that I sometimes get my feathers ruffled at being called Ma’am if for no other reason that I would much prefer to be called Miss (and I think most women would prefer that “mistake”), but much more often it is because someone before you has called me Ma’am in a way that dismisses me as less than a full-fledged person, as someone who not competent to speak up or be counted. I think it gets under your skin a little–just four little letters that manage to write you off as a human being.
Please, don’t take it personally if some women get upset at your attempt at kindness. My family also helped hold doors at church (usually while we were waiting for my mother to stop talking with folks) and I always found it to be appreciated. Now I do it at my children’s daycare for those who have their hands full. I’ve noticed that once I start it, it will continue for as long as it’s needed.
Thank you Jean for adding that bit about Ma’am and Miss. I’ve always said Ma’am but never Miss. Ma’am always seemed more respectful and equal sounding, while Miss leaves me feeling like I’ve somehow just told you that you are less than equal to me.
Maybe that is because Mr. is commonly used but Master is not. The only alternative is Boy, and that would never do.
Ah, but Ma’am and Miss also imply age. A well-placed “Miss” can be considered quite the compliment no matter a woman’s actual age–you are implying that she appears youthful. (it’s a little like being carded when buying alcohol. I recently did not get carded and saw a sign that said “we will ask for identification for those who appear to be under 40 years old.” I’m only 34. Ouch.) Our general American culture does not look very kindly on the aging woman I’m afraid.
Though, perhaps the perception and use of Ma’am and Miss vary depending on the area of the country. That would make it much more difficult for someone who travels to remain respectful.
You also raise a very interesting question about equality and the very terms we use for honorifics. Mr. is Mr. no matter if the man is married or not. Miss implies an unmarried state. Ma’am or Mrs. a married or widowed one. Ms. while being vague as to the married state still holds a rather confrontational tone, I think, though its usually what I go with as I often don’t know the feelings of the women I deal with as to their feelings on any of the appellations. I think it’s a very murky issue for man or woman to navigate and still result in a equal but gentile state of affairs. We are bound to have a few missteps on occasion. I suppose we can only try for the best.
*doh! that should say “genteel”–not “gentile” sigh…
It is my understanding that “Madam” is a respectful address for any woman, not only a married or widowed one, something confirmed by my dictionary.