Thursday, July 16, 2009

La Vieille Ecole

I open doors for women--car doors, restaurant doors, front doors. I am old school, raised in Europe where, among the middle bourgeoisie, it would be unthinkable to sit for dinner before the woman of the house does so, boorish to not carry her parcels, and unthinkable to climb stairs ahead of her.

I walk on the outside, even if the likelihood of a runaway coach is slim. I know as well, that treading on the lady's right was to protect her from refuse thrown out of windows. I am aware that few people use chamber pots nowadays, and even fewer would discard the contents on the sidewalk where I woman might step.

My father and mother taught me a list of things to do and not do in the presence of a woman. Carry her gloves if she asks, pull out her chair, rise when she does, help her on and off with her coat. If she is single, you may shake her hand. If she is married, a kiss on the back of her right hand is mandatory, though every one knows that actually, you do not kiss the hand, you kiss your own thumb, judiciously placed as you bow and raise her hand to your lips. This backfired on me once. I was attending an embassy party in Washington, and an American matron whom I did not know approached. I was introduced to her, raised her hand to my lips, and she punched me in the nose. Perhaps she thought I wanted to bite her.

Recently, I was in a store with a young woman friend who told me she found my commandeering the shopping cart somewhat disconcerting. I answered that I did not want to incur the wrath of my late, very European father, whose designated job was to follow my mother around, holding the goods she purchased. He was not alone; when I was a kid the streets of Paris and particularly the shopping districts were always full of men struggling beneath towers of boxes and and large shopping bags. They never complained, exchanged discreet and understanding smiles when crossing each others' paths while escorting empty-handed women.

I believe many of these ancient rules of politeness and behavior originated not in courtliness but in a deep-seated male need to protect women from harm, an intuitive knowledge that, all told, women are far more important to the survival of society than men are, and shielding them is not so much an act of propriety as one of continued existence. Men, by their very natures, are disposable if not downright obsolete. Women, on the other hand, are mothers, nurturers, the heralds of the future. I do understand that times have changed radically, and that yesterday's manners may seem to be today's affectations. And yet all will admit that bad examples are being set at every level of society from sports stars to TV personalities; professional workers to trades people; politicians to public servants. This is not a good trend. It dehumanizes us, makes crudity and poor conduct an accepted norm. We are already mired in mediocrity; why look for the lowest common denominator as acceptable?

Therefore, I have no intentions of changing, and, more to the point, would gladly lead a return to the politeness of another century. I believe in leaving the toilet seat down, pouring the lady's wine, and still find it proper to kiss a matron's hand, even if once in a while, this may earn me a punch in the nose.

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