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On Why Kindness Is the New Chivalry

chivalryKaty Waldman of Slate wrote a piece this week on chivalry, specifically as it pertains to straight men and their behavior toward gay men, which is how Neal Broverman explored the topic in The Advocate. Waldman comes to the conclusion that chivalry isn’t dead and it isn’t bad, but that we need to view chivalry as a universal kindness toward one another. She writes, “a new world order of pan-chivalry might present logistical challenges at first (“After you.” “No, after you.” “No, after you.”) But I’m sure we’d figure it out. Perhaps everyone would wait for a moment when the elevator doors opened, until the person in the biggest hurry snapped back into action.”

That sort of thing is already going on in elevators all over New York, where I live, as far as I can tell. But there is also a general sense that without traditional chivalry and a deeply entrenched social order, selfishness often trumps courtesy, especially in big cities. That’s why the MTA has taken pains to remind bus and subway passengers that it’s not just polite to offer seats to pregnant women, the elderly and disabled people – it’s mandatory. It’s why train commuters hear announcements about not blocking subway doors and letting passengers off before getting on. But what you almost never hear or see on the underground rails anymore is young and middle aged men offering their seats to young and middle aged women – just because it’s the chivalrous thing to do. And that, for the most part, is okay.

People who are tired should sit, regardless of gender, and people who need help being accommodated should get that help, regardless of gender. If I’m sitting and I’m not tired and there’s a young guy with a lot of packages who looks like he should have my seat, I’ll offer it to him. And if I’m with my daughter when the train is bumpy and crowded and a man offers us his seat, I take it. I’ve had women offer me seats and I’ve offered women seats, as well. I like to hold doors for people. Anybody. Some men act surprised by it, some take it for granted. This pan-chivalry that Waldman calls for is about gender equality, which is great, but I’d like to add something else to her edict, too. In addition to being deferential toward one another regardless of sexual preference or gender, let’s also acknowledge the small gestures that are offered to us instead of walking through the door being held by a faceless person without saying, “Thank you.” Because, I have found, saying thank you in response to kindness is an act of chivalry in and of itself. A simple thank you can make or break someone’s day.

As far as the world of heterosexual dating goes, old-fashioned chivalry with a focus on the woman is still appreciated, I think, as long as the man doesn’t make the woman feel caged or restrained by it. I dated a guy who liked to always walk on the outside of the sidewalk, making him the one closer to traffic. The idea is that the man being closer to traffic is supposed to make the woman feel protected. It’s a sweet gesture, and I did always feel protected as a result, even though if a car were to hit the curb, chances are we’d end up going down together. Don’t worry, though – I’d let him out of the elevator first when we were leaving the hospital on crutches.

Photo credit: iStock

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