Friday, April 29, 2016

Old Habits

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

To this day I walk on the outside, even if the likelihood of a runaway coach is slim. I know as well, that treading on a 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 onto the sidewalk below where a woman might step.

My father and mother taught me a list of things to do and not do in the presence of the opposite sex. Pull out her chair, rise when she does, help her on and off with her coat. I have already forsworn many of these actions, with great difficulty. If a woman you are introduced to is single, you may shake her hand. If she is married, a kiss on the back of her right hand is mandatory, though everyone knows that actually, you do not kiss the hand at all, 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.

Some months back, I was in a store with a woman friend who found my commandeering the shopping cart somewhat disconcerting. I had done so without thinking. I told her 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 large shopping bags. They never complained.

I believe many of the ancient rules of politeness and behavior originated not in courtliness but from an intuitive male knowledge that, all told, women are far more important to the survival of society than men. Assisting them is not so much an act of propriety as a small step in fostering continued existence. Men, by their very natures, are disposable if not downright obsolete. Women, on the other hand, are still mothers, the heralds of the future.

I do understand that times have changed radically, and that yesterday's manners may seem today's affectations, but all recognize 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?

I respect the changing face of civility, but I do not necessarily approve of it.

My friend Arielle, who has at times called me old, describes herself as—and is—a fiercely independent woman. She occasionally smiles indulgently as I attempt to apply old learned behavior to new environments. Arielle as a norm walk about with sixty pounds of varied property spread between an ever-present knapsack and a largish cloth bag. I have tried on numerous occasion to lend a hand with these encumbrances and been met with ferocious, almost feral, resistance. “Help me with something useful,” she says. “I can carry my own bag.”

Well, okay. That was never in question.

The ascendance of the LBGT movement is likely to further confuse one mired in the old ways. I shall have to tailor my behavior a bit more. 

My wonderful friend Anne, an older lady who passed away weeks ago, knew how to perform the dance of civility with skill. Many of my younger women acquaintances appear to see what I consider basic politeness as an attempt to abase them, diminish their choices, or dilute their right to self-determination. I don’t think that’s the case at all.

I have no intentions of changing, and, more to the point would gladly lead a return to the politeness of another century. I still find it proper to kiss a matron's hand, even if once in a while, the practice earns me a bloody nose.



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