Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Finding My Knight in Shining Armor

Although I love the East, Utah has gained a special place in my heart. I had a lot of culture shocks moving to Utah from New England. Some made me wonder what I had gotten myself into, and others put a smile on my face. One of the most interesting was the day a young man, a complete stranger to me, walking ahead of me into a building on campus, opened the door, stepped aside, and motioned me through. I almost had a heart attack. No one does that in Connecticut. No one.

I've repeated this experience countless times since, though such behavior has ceased to shock me. I now think of it as part of a different culture. And I like it. I like being treated with respect and dignity by men. And though I may disparage chick flicks, I'm still looking for my knight in shining armor.

I've read (and disagreed with) essays from those that others pejoratively label "feminists," which decried this so-called "gentlemanly" behavior as smothering and patriarchal. I've scoffed at women who took insult when a man held a door for them. I freely admit that I revel in chivalry, and that my heart would melt if my sweetheart stood up out of respect when I entered the room (an old practice that seems to have fallen out of vogue).

But I've come to see chivalry in a new light. It seems to me that a man's desires to be courteous to the women of his acquaintance should be encouraged. But it also seems that those desires should be directed towards making life easier and more pleasant for a woman, rather than simply following a list of rules that presuppose a set of gender roles more appropriate for an earlier era.

I've been with men who couldn't be bothered to so much as unlock the car door for me before they started the car. And I've been with men who refused to allow me to get out of the car without their assistance. I've been with those who expected to go dutch for any activity, and with those who chided me for opening the door of a building on my own.

As an engineer, I live, work, and study in what is largely a man's world. The men I associate with therein don't give me any ground because I'm a woman, and I don't expect any. I compete at their level, woman or not. I work hard, I study hard, and I'm altogether a pretty tough girl. I was raised to be an independent woman. My mother dug up the septic tank with a backhoe, changed the oil in our car, and poured concrete footings for the deck. She could talk shop with the best of the men. She didn't need to be handled with kid gloves, and neither do I.

So while I love being treated like a lady, I hate being treated like an invalid. If you want to hold the door of a building for me, fine. If you don't, I'll open it myself. Just don't expect me to stand in front of the door waiting for you to come open it for me, if you happen to be a few steps behind me. That's annoying and unnecessary. For those of you whose fathers trained you to be gentlemen, I salute you. Please don't take it as an insult to your manhood when I use my perfectly functional arms and legs to meet my own needs. I understand that you want to be courteous. Please understand that sometimes courtesy involves honoring a woman's wishes and recognizing her contributions rather than blindly following the rules of a bygone era.

A lot of the confusion and bad feeling on this issue comes from misunderstanding what the real purpose of gentlemanly behavior is (or should be). The intent, it seems, should be to make the woman feel cared for, special, and at ease. And when I'm with a man whose I can tell finds pleasure in my company and genuinely wants to be good to me, I'm happy to let him open my door or carry my groceries—in fact, I feel flattered.

The same actions, however, performed because of a sense of duty or obligation, can have quite the opposite effect. When I feel like he’s getting the door because he feels like he ought to, because he’s the man and I’m the woman, I feel like a burden on his time and an annoyance in his life, and I’m much less likely to feel flattered by his gentlemanly overtures. I’m only too happy to let a man do a large part of the heavy lifting and bug-killing that needs to be done. But I chafe when a man chides me for acting like a capable adult, as if his desire to pull out his breastplate, helmet, and sturdy white stallion should stop me from lifting a finger on my own behalf.

I suppose the solution lies in keeping a proper balance. The times are changing, true, but we needn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. When we let rudeness and apathy replace attentive courtesy and care, we undermine the very foundation of good relationships. On the other hand, when we cling so tightly to the rules of a chivalric code that they become an end unto themselves instead of a means to an end, we risk stifling the organic growth and change that give good relationships their richness and depth. When men and women demonstrate respect to each other in a manner pleasing to them both and in keeping with the roles with which they feel most comfortable, they end up being far happier than when they arbitrarily subscribe to the roles and modes of interaction preferred by their grandparents.

At least, that’s been my experience. Your mileage may vary.

Picture from http://lib.store.yahoo.net/lib/carenginecare/

4 comments:

  1. In defense of the men in your life (all unknown to me), I have to say that some of the behaviors you describe and value must be taught to them at their own mother's knee. If not taught, probably they won't be lived. I know from my own personal experience that many of the rough edges in my personality were knocked away by my loving wife. It has been said (by LeGrand Richards, perhaps), that it takes a man 25 years to be married, and I am worried because I think there will be a quiz waiting for me when I get there in 5 months. Yikes.

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  2. Keep the faith sister! I love to hear wonderful things from good women who choose the right!

    God bless,
    Jeff

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  3. Your post reminded me of a little story I heard years ago. A man was getting into an elevator and saw a woman approaching to also get on. He held the door for her.

    She, a staunch women's libber, angrily snarled at him, "I hope you didn't hold that door for me because I am a woman!"

    He, graciously, said, "No. I held it for you because I am a gentleman."

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