Illustration by Dave van Patten

Can Chivalry Be Anything Other Than Chauvinism in 2017?

Good manners were never intended to be about gender; they were a matter of class

“When was the last time you lay your coat down over a puddle of mud for a woman?”

That’s the question Emily Post’s great-great grandson, Daniel Post Senning, asks men hell-bent on being knights in shining armor. Their answer, of course, is obvious. “I don’t see anyone insisting they do that any longer,” he tells me. “Everything evolves.”

The chivalric code of conduct emerged in the 1100s and was originally designed to show respect for a group of people who weren’t always afforded it: Women. “It’s hard to believe how minimized and disenfranchised 51 percent of the population was by the social codes of the time,” Post Senning explains. A few examples of that disenfranchisement: Women weren’t allowed to marry without their parents’ consent; they weren’t allowed to divorce; they couldn’t own a business or property unless they were widows; and they couldn’t inherit land from their parents if they had any surviving brothers.

In modern society, operating from an outdated premise of inequality — even in the name of etiquette and good manners — could have the exact opposite effect. “Men who open doors for women are guilty of ‘benevolent sexism’ according to a new study by feminist psychologists,” the Daily Mail reported back in 2011. “Helping ladies choose the right computer as well as carrying their shopping are also signs of ‘unseen’ sexism in society, according to the report.”

But can that possibly be true? Is a man sexist if he opens a door for a woman? Holds her chair? Orders her dinner? Stands street-side as he walks with her down the block? We asked Emily Post’s torchbearer — and a handful of female friends and colleagues spanning a number of different generations — for their take on chivalry circa 2017…

What’s the etiquette on holding a chair or opening the door for someone?

Post Senning: If those traditional courtesies are important to you, do them. But don’t impose them on anyone; ask permission. It can be as simple as, “May I get that for you?” She may reply, “Thank you so much! No one has offered to hold a chair for me in 20 years, but that’s all right, I’ve got it myself.

Some courtesies are easy to adapt and aren’t gendered at all. My cousin Anna says, “It’s not about men being courteous to women, it’s about people being courteous to people.” If you would hold a door for someone of either gender, absolutely hold a door for someone of any gender.

Claudia, 30-something writer: I always feel impolite if I don’t open the door. I try to force myself, sometimes, to remember you’re supposed to let a man do that stuff, but I always feel like I’m doing something wrong if I do.

Kristin, 40-something nurse: My last Lyft driver imparted some advice that stung a bit. He said, “You’ve got to let your man be the man sometimes.” I guess this is what he’s talking about.

Kelly, 50-something author: I often think about the mixed messages we all receive about this. As a woman I love a man opening a door, etc. but then a part of me feels — why does he have to be the chivalrous one if we’re equal?

Should a man stand up when a woman leaves or returns to a dinner table?

Post Senning: That’s a little trickier because asking permission introduces awkwardness. Like, “May I stand when you return from the restroom?” If it matters to you, you can always indicate that you’ve stood a little bit: i.e., push back from the table and begin to rise.

Jessica, 50-something real estate agent: My husband does this. It still confuses me at first, then reminds me why I married him.

Sarah, teenage student: This is a thing?

Mary Ellen, 60-something retiree: I’m totally open to that. I also appreciate holding my coat, putting my carry-on bag in the bin in a plane and a helping hand to get off the bus.

Is it good etiquette to walk on the street side of a woman?

Post Senning: This came up on our podcast recently. The origin of the etiquette was that most men are right-handed, so you give the woman your strong arm. In the medieval, chivalric time, your sword was on your left hip so this left your sword free and available. When men began escorting women on muddy city streets, one would walk on the street side to offer protection from cars splashing and horses urinating.

https://omny.fm/shows/awesome-etiquette/episode-132-may-i-offer-you-an-arm

This has evolved as well because there aren’t horses and carriages in the mix. Still, for a man to offer his right arm remains a good impulse. After that, whatever takes the most care with your companion or escort is best. If you determine it’s best to be on the other side, walk behind your companion, not it front of him or her. You don’t want to erratically jump from side to side. You want a carriage of grace and poise about you.

Mary, 60-something retiree: A man should always walk between a woman and the street; it’s just good manners.

Nikola, 40-something art dealer: Keeping her from harm by walking on the street side to protect her from muddy splashes and rogue drivers with your own body and “handing” her into and out of a car as you both move about the world are ways to build a shell of protection so she feels safe when she’s with you.

Liz, 30-something analytics professional: I always thought the man walked on the outside because otherwise he was “pimpin’” the lady out if she was on the outside.

What about ordering food for a woman?

Post Senning: Unlike the other examples, in this case, you’re actually taking control over someone’s action. When you start ordering for someone else and start to impose on them, you’re denying them access or privilege of action. But you can always ask permission to perform the courtesy: “Would you like me to order?” “Oh that would be so nice, I don’t know the menu at all, what do you recommend?”

Sally, 30-something dating and relationship coach: Could be fun, could be presumptuous, could be creepy. It depends on how/why it’s done. Let’s say it’s a restaurant the guy knows really well and wants to help feature its best dishes. ASK permission. Be flirtatious. Be open to her saying, “No, thank you,” “I’d rather you didn’t” or “WTF? WHO do you think I am?”

Liz, 30-something analytics professional: I recently had dinner with a female friend. She arrived earlier than me, and when I showed up, she announced she’d ordered dinner for us both. I was rather put off by that, and she’s my friend! On the other hand, the man in my life knows my tastes well so I’d try something he ordered for me, but I would want him to ask if it was cool.

Tracy, 30-something writer: If it makes someone uncomfortable, no matter your intention, it’s disrespectful. And therefore, you’re fighting your own premise.

Is the “golden rule” good to follow here — i.e., “Treat others as you would like to be treated?”

Post Senning: You need to have the “platinum rule” in mind, too: “Treat everyone the way they would want to be treated.” Good etiquette is a combination of the golden and platinum rules. You need some concept and standard to be your guide everywhere you go (Golden Rule). But you also need to be a bit of a chameleon — when in Rome, do as the Romans do. So, Platinum Rule for manners: Respect other people’s traditions, customs, expectations and behaviors. At the same time, it’s the Golden Rule for principals: No matter where you find yourself, treat people with respect, consideration and honesty.

When does chivalry become chauvinism?

Post Senning: Good etiquette doesn’t need to be a discourse on the advent of feminism and the change of social norms in the 1970s. The intention of the chivalric code is to show respect; it’s key to adhere to that as times change. Manners and our expectation of each other change and evolve. So if someone ever feels disrespected by your behavior, that’s not chivalry — that’s an imposition.

Ilyse, 30-something writer: Chivalry can be sweet and romantic if it’s a little something extra, not if it’s meant to be a substitute for actual work and sensitivity on the guy’s part. For men who don’t help with the kids or housework and think a yearly rose will suffice, chivalry is stupid.

Sally, 30-something dating and relationship coach: In all things chivalrous, there’s more nuance involved than strictly adhering to the rules our parents and grandparents lived by. We’re all hanging out in life hoping to be acknowledged and seeking confirmation that we’re not invisible. Without becoming obsequious, simply remain aware and ask permission. “Here, lemme help you with your coat” should suffice.

Annie, 70-something actress/writer: I’m all for chivalry. It’s a discreet form of foreplay. What I don’t appreciate is when a waiter says, “And what will you have, young lady?” I’m sure he means well, but it’s annoyingly condescending.

Nicole, 30-something real estate agent: ALL my men are chivalrous regardless of if they’re gay or straight, and I love it and appreciate it! If a woman is offended by it well… wow. Poor thing.

Post Senning: Given that chivalry was originally meant to show respect for a class of people that weren’t always afforded it, it’s certainly not necessarily gendered. If we accept the premise that everyone is deserving of respect, consideration and honesty, who are the people in our culture and in our society that are the most disenfranchised? How can we show those people respect? Maybe it’s not by singling them out but simply affording them a seat at the table and a real spirit of inclusion, equity, diversity and fairness.