Friday, July 11, 2014

Ladies and Gentlemen: The Courtesy of Control?

I rode the train for many years into Camden, to Rutgers, for most of my undergraduate work and for all of my graduate work. Sometime, I would be on crowded rush-hour trains and sometimes not so crowded. But the rush hour trains provided the same challenges: proximity and social graces.

For a week I have been as I previously mentioned, riding that same train, but to the end of the line in Philadelphia. The same challenges exist. People are boxed in and they are close to each other and they glance around nervously. Or, they poke their heads into books or newspapers to avoid talking; some people shut themselves off with ear buds, listening to music. 

It was the same in the late eighties and early nineties, except the tunes were on CD Walkmans and no one had an e-reader. But there is a level of uncertainty now, on one level, that didn't exist then. 

Even as late as the nineties, it seemed to me it was a given that a man would give up his seat for a woman, if she was standing and holding the seat handles. Now, it seems less like a loss of "manners" than a guessing game.

A few days ago, a college student, a few rows in front of me, offered his seat to an older woman. She graciously accepted and sat down with a sigh.

The next morning, another guy offered his seat to a younger woman, but she answered, "No, I'm fine." But her answer didn't carry the tone of thanks, it felt more like a -- what? -- a reaction to insult.

Maybe I'm over-reading it, but, do some women feel as if they are being accused of weakness when offered a seat? I guess it could be so; for a long time, it has been a stance of some feminists that chivalry is a form of control dressed up to look like courtesy. 

Still, I think I will risk it and offer my seat to a lady if she needs one. If she gets mad, I guess I will just live with the knowledge that I was just trying to be polite.

Along those lines, I am ecstatic to have finally found this skit, from The Carol Burnett Show, that I have been trying to find for years; I remember it from when I was a lad. A great discussion piece, if nothing else. Though, I swear I remember it ending with the two of them trying to get through the door at the same time and getting stuck...which would have made a whole different point at the end... Food for thought, anyway. 


  1. I'm not so sure that it's control disguised as courtesy (I think it's going a bit far to say that some of the more gender-based practices of our society are rooted in some kind of rejection or insult to women), but when this comes up, I always have a counter example.

    Once, back when I was in my early years of high school, I was sitting at lunch, and there was a guy from another school shadowing one of my classmates. He seemed like the center of the bell curve for a high school guy: confident and extroverted. However, our table was filled, so he was standing up, leaning on the table with his arms from the side. Out of an effort to be courteous, I offered him my seat so that he could sit next to his shadow.

    If you could see the look of torn feelings and embarrassment on this boy's face, your knickers would twist in a knot. He politely declined with a stutter and a smile, but at least to me, it was very obvious that he wanted to take the offer. When you're a guy, though, and you're surrounded by people looking at you as a girl offers you her seat, you're more likely to take the stance that's expected of you.

    So while it isn't insulting or controlling per say, I think it is a statement of gender roles. The guy always offers the seat to the girl, not the other way around. If a girl tried the same thing, not many guys would take the offer, in my view. Some girls don't like that, especially feminists. I do think, though, that there's nothing wrong with you offering your seat to anyone, whether it be a man or a woman. Everyone should make such an effort.

    1. Er, sorry that I rambled. I didn't realize how much I typed...

    2. Stop apologizing, you! Haha. No biggie. Did you watch the little video? That skit touches on your points, I think. It is interesting. I also once had a friend (quite homophobic, if you must know) who thought it was weird to hold a door for a guy. If we were going into the same store and I tried to hold the door for him, he would flip out. Ah, machismo...

    3. Ah I can't help it. Some people tell me I talk too much.

      I did see that skit, and I thought it was hilarious. Thanks for providing, yet again, more thought provoking content that I can show my friends.

    4. You just keep on talking... You're good at it.