Thursday, March 13, 2008

Chivalry, Modesty, and Other (Not Quite) Lost Arts

Last semester, I knew a guy--we'll call him Ben--who liked to fetch chairs. He wasn't really one of my friends, but I had a class with him and one of my good friends was likewise one of his good friends, so we saw each other pretty often. It sometimes happened that I would be looking for a seat in the Caf, notice my friend sitting with her little group, and go to sit with them. Sometimes it would happen that there wouldn't be a free chair. When that happened, everybody would start moving their chairs a bit to make room, and Ben would get up and get me a chair. Every time. It didn't matter if he was in the middle of his dinner or if the nearest free chair was quite out of his way, he got up and got me a chair. I let him. It seemed to make him happy and it didn't hurt me any--in fact I rather liked it. It's not that I'm not perfectly capable of getting my own chair, because I am and I have done so on numerous occasions, but if a gentleman wants to get up and get me a chair I'm not going to be offended. I find it rather charming, in fact.

Ben has since transferred, but there are still plenty of gentlemen running around here. Franciscan is full of them. A good example would be my friend and fellow blogger Scott. Scott makes a point of holding open doors. On second thought, perhaps that is a bad choice of words. He doesn't make a point of it in the sense of, "Hey, look at me, I'm being chivalrous!" He just puts special effort into being the first one to get to the door when we're walking together. I let him. In fact, I give Scott more room to be chivalrous than I do most guys. You know what I mean when I talk about there being two sets of doors leading out of a building? There's one set, and then a little anteroom, and then another set. How it works is this: Scott opens the first one. I go through and then pause. Scott opens the second one. I go through and we continue on our merry way. The pause is the part that's unique to interacting with Scott. Usually when I'm going through two sets of doors and somebody holds open the first one I thank them and then keep going. Every now and then a guy will be quick on his feet and manage to open both, and if he does I thank him again, but I don't stand around waiting for him.

Another thing Scott does that I only just figured out: When we are walking along and happen to cross a street, he will make a little half-stop. At first this confused me and I would stop too. Finally I figured out that whenever Scott stops, he resumes walking on the other side. That is, if we are walking with me on the left and him on the right, and we cross a street, Scott arranges it so that he will then be walking on the left and me on the right. Why? Because gentlemen walk on the street side of the sidewalk, and ladies let them.

I want to reemphasize that second point. Men have really hard time being gentlemen unless women cooperate by being ladies. In all of the above examples, I could have gotten offended and refused to have my chair fetched/ have the door held open/walk on the inside of the sidewalk. I hear that some women do that. I personally don't understand that. When a man acts like a gentleman it doesn't make me feel condescended to (as if I can't do the things they're doing for me); it makes me feel special. When I know my companion is going to treat me like a lady, I'm more disposed to act like one.

Here I would like to make a little side note, concerning the distinction between courtesy and chivalry. Courtesy is a very good thing, I don't want to downplay it at all, but there is a difference. Courtesy is when I hold open the door for the people behind me because nobody wants to have the door slammed in their face. Men can be courteous towards women--and I am quite thankful for the men who have considered my feelings and not let the door slam in my face. Men can, however, also be chivalrous. Chivalry is a bit more gratuitous than courtesy--when a man's being chivalrous, he's not holding the door open because I happen to have been walking behind him and I deserve not to have the door slam in my face. He's being chivalrous when he gets to the door first on purpose and holds it open for the simple reason that I'm a lady and he's a gentlemen and that's how it works.

I suppose it's quite possible for a man to act like a gentleman without really being a gentleman--just going through the motions without really caring about the ladies he's being chivalrous towards. I don't think that happens very often nowadays, though. Maybe it would have happened in Emily Post's day when people were expected to do that kind of thing, but in the good old 21st century, if a man acts chivalrously he probably means it, because the prevailing social conventions are, for the most part, anti-chivalry. You can hold the door open for someone who's carrying a heavy box, for instance, but heaven forbid that you should hold the door open for someone simply because she's female. The brave few who do that anyway are probably going to be real gentlemen. How do you tell a real gentleman from an imposter? Simple: you just know. We're women, after all, and we're entitled to our intuition.

I don't want to give the impression, however, that "it's the thought that counts" and chivalrous actions don't really matter. We're an incarnate people. We need symbols, visible and tangible things, to comprehend unseen realities. I am perfectly capable of opening a door, but when one of my guy friends holds it open for me it's a symbolic way of saying that he respects me. The more respectfully men treat me, the more likely I am to respect myself. It works the other way too: The more I respect myself, the more likely men are to respect me.

Which brings me to the second topic of my post: modesty. Modesty is in its essence an interior disposition. There's a story that says Marilyn Monroe could walk down the street in a nun's full habit and still find a way to be immodest, while a nun could walk down the street without a stitch on and still find a way to be modest. That's true, but we're still incarnate and symbols are still important, so in the normal course of things women ought to dress in a way that is befitting their feminine dignity. I'm not one of those people who thinks a woman's being immodest if she wears pants (I happen to be wearing pants today, in fact) but I do think that makes a difference. I feel different in pants than I do when I'm wearing a skirt or a dress. When you're wearing a skirt you have to be more careful about how you carry yourself, how you sit down, etc. There are times when you don't want to have to worry about things like that: horseback riding, carrying firewood, playing Twister--and those are times when I think a woman ought to wear pants. I also think, though, that barring times when a skirt would be a severe hindrance, women should try to wear them as much as possible. How you carry yourself is important, how you present yourself to the world is important. I might be as ladylike as can be on the inside, but if the way I dress and the way I carry myself doesn't indicate that I respect myself, then how can I expect men to respect me?


Christian said...

We have a lot of courteous guys here at Lansing Community College but unfortunately the chivalrous ones are far and few between. It's sad; no one wants to be a gentleman or a lady and most of the student body despises the idea, but they complain endlessly when people don't treat them with respect. The longer I'm here the harder it is to wait for when I transfer to Steubenville.

Andi said...

There are a lot of gentlemen at JP Catholic as well, and we (myself and a few other students) happen to spend most of our time discussing what makes a gentleman and what makes a lady. If you don't mind, I would like to post this on my blog for all of those particular people to read. I think they'd enjoy it and it would give them something to ponder.

The Sojourner said...

Go ahead, A. Just cite your sources. :)

Andi said...

Of course.