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In Praise of Chivalry

chivalry noun
1. qualities of ideal knight: the combination of qualities expected of the ideal medieval knight, especially courage, honor, loyalty, and consideration for others, especially women
2. chivalrous behavior: considerate and courteous behavior, especially shown by a man toward women

Chivalry occasionally gets a bad press, both from women arguing from a feminist viewpoint and from men feeling that they get a pretty raw deal out of it. This article is intended to combine a discussion of the attitudes towards certain chivalrous acts, for example the opening of doors for ladies, and a lighthearted guide to the proper form for gentleman who wish to be considered chivalrous. I hope that coming from England, where in medieval times the term was first coined*, gives me sufficient credibility to enlighten and educate as well as entertain.

The chief argument against chivalry seems to be that it is patronising. Women have fought hard over the centuries to be seen as equals, for the right to vote and for fair treatment in the workplace. As such, we are perfectly capable of opening our own doors, and if we get there first we’ll open it for the man behind us if we want to. I think that the difference between being chivalrous and patronising is all in the attitude. A true gentleman can convey the impression that although he believes you are more than capable of opening your own doors, carrying your own bag or putting up your own shelves, he is thoughtful enough to realise that you may not always want to.

Sometimes chivalry is just a habit, often culturally based, and I have encountered men who could no more walk through a door in front of me than fly to the moon. They just seem to have some kind of mental block about it from years of training. This can occasionally result in amusing stand-offs outside buildings, with both parties refusing to walk through the doors at all, or hilarious little scampering runs between closely-spaced sets of doors double doors. Revolving doors can also cause extreme agitation in this kind of gentleman. Laughing out loud in these situations, however, is most unladylike.

Another problem is that these polite gestures can be misconstrued as ingratiating or even creepy, which works on the assumption that the man in question is doing them purely to impress and has sinister ulterior motives. This is utterly against the spirit of chivalry, which is intended as an act of love, respect and honor to an unattainable ideal, going back to the tradition of knights and maidens in medieval England. While it may sometimes be the case that the knight in question has a less pure and idealistic interest in the lady he is opening the door for, she should at least give him the benefit of the doubt until he gives her reason not do (such as slapping her on the behind as she walks through, which is definitely not acceptable!).

The main argument from the side of the men is that all of this puts the burden too much on them. Why should they be the ones who are supposed to pay for everything, stand up and lift heavy objects? At HBS it is entirely likely that any given woman can both earn and bench press more than her male counterparts. My view on this is that true chivalry is offering to pay, but immediately and gracefully acquiescing when she offers to (which, by the way, she should if its her turn!). Insisting on paying would be the height of rudeness in this situation. Likewise grabbing her suitcase and refusing to give it back, which I actually saw a well-intentioned but misguided sectionmate do on the way back from Spring Break…

There are a few gestures which are personal preferences, such as ordering for a lady in a restaurant. I don’t mean deciding what she will eat (that could be anything from annoying to extremely awkward if, for instance, you don’t know she is vegetarian), but once she has told you her choice, dealing with the business of detailing both of your orders to the waiter. I personally find this both charming and time-efficient, but I am aware that many women do not. I would suggest trying it, and if next time you have dinner she avoids telling you her choice and then jumps in first when the waiter comes over, take the hint and drop the idea. Another dining-related one is standing when a lady rises to leave the table, which I find adorably old-fashioned (my grandfather always used to do it) but possibly a little overdone if you are in McDonalds. I would suggest reserving this one for the better class of restaurant, but again I know of men for whom this is more a reflex than conscious thought, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Ditto for helping ladies on with their coats (bonus points if you can remember what her coat looks like without being reminded).

There are of course innumerable other small courtesies that a gentleman can extend to a lady, which I do not have time or space to go into here. It is my humble hope that I have shed some light on the situation, and perhaps even inspired a few HBS boys to try some old-fashioned manners.

Oh, and ladies? If someone opens the door for you, remember to say thank you.

*OK, technically it originated in France, but as with so many things, the British boys do it better. Just look at the Common Agricultural Policy.

April 10, 2007
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