Defining ‘Chivalry’ in the Modern World

February 6, 2012 | By | Comments (10)

A reader named MarkWA, who was raised by a father who taught him it’s polite to hold open doors, lift heavy things for others and pay for restaurant meals to which he has invited someone, wrote last week to say my latest Real Simple column about chivalry offended him.

“To imply that my holding the door for someone or lifting something for them could be construed as chauvinism offends me,” MarkWA wrote, “and I am sure would offend my father as well.”

This got me thinking.

MarkWA was referring to the fact that in the magazine’s March issue, I wrote that not so long ago:

“…chivalry was fairly easy to identify: A gentleman would open a car door for a lady or walk on the outside of the sidewalk when escorting her down the street. Such gestures, both small (fetching a damsel’s purse) and grandiose (throwing his jacket over a puddle), were greeted with nearly universal approbation.

“But nowadays,” I wrote, “women aren’t considered the weaker or gentler sex (thank goodness for that), and such acts are viewed differently; they can seem old-fashioned—or even offensive. For example, if a man says, ‘Here, let me lift that box for you,’ you may wonder: Is he being courtly or condescending, implying that I’m too frail to pick up the parcel myself?”

After all, in a world where women have for years fought for equal opportunities, any gesture that makes them feel they’re being relegated to play a second-class role as helpless, modern-day damsels in distress may be unwelcome.  That’s why women may bristle, particularly at the office where promotions and raises are at stake, at any suggestion that they might be weak or inferior.

But MarkWA raised a different, and equally compelling, point: Why should we equate simple courtesy with gender roles?

“I would hope that everyone, male and female, would be willing to assist those who need it, and would also be appreciative of any assistance given,” he wrote.

He’s right, of course. We should welcome any considerate, respectful behavior—displayed by either a man or a woman toward someone else—as chivalrous.  This will free you up to do a nice thing, or to accept a kind gesture, with a light heart.

Some examples:

Helping someone with a coat: Lend a hand to anybody struggling with a sleeve.  Say, “May I help you?” to show deference instead of implying that you think the person is helpless.

Hoisting a suitcase into a plane’s overhead compartment: If you see someone struggling, ask neutrally, “Can you use a hand with that?”

Holding open a door: Whoever gets there first holds it, unless that person is noticeably impeded (holding an armful of heavy packages, for instance, or walking with a cane).

Carrying heavy things: If you see someone struggling with a baby stroller on a staircase, by all means offer to help.

So thank you, MarkWA, for the reminder that chivalry is neither dead, nor the sole purview of one gender.

When was the last time someone held a door for you? How would you define chivalry in the 21st century?

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