Saturday, March 10, 2007
On March 3, Pink Ginger wrote about an experience that made her happy. It triggered my idea for this post.
Pink Ginger was invited to lunch with a male friend, their first lunch together. His office was across the road, opposite her office building. He suggested a restaurant behind his office. Because Pink Ginger would be passing his office to get to the restaurant, she prepared to walk over to meet him in his building's lobby.
He called just as she was leaving her office to say that he was waiting for her in the lobby in her office building. She was impressed. She hadn’t expected him to come over. She was even more impressed when, after lunch, he insisted on walking her back to the lift in her building’s lobby. The distance between the buildings was so short that it usually would not have been considered necessary for the man to pick Pink Ginger up or drop her off.
Pink Ginger’s pleasant experience is easy to explain, of course: She is probably the prettiest woman in Singapore and should get over being surprised when men go out of their way to please her. But was her happy reaction to what she considered an unusual act of courtesy which reminded me of how “good manners” have changed during my lifetime in the United States.
I grew up a long way from Singapore and from Pink Ginger’s Chinese culture, and so I’m not able to compare her world with Florida, where I received my etiquette training as a boy in the mid-1940s and early 1950s.
My parents considered courtesy and politeness so important that my two younger brothers and I were given more than a casual introduction to good manners. It was part of my parents’ Deep South heritage (I hope “Deep South” means something to people from other parts of the world, who perhaps have at least seen “Gone With the Wind”), and it was shared by the families I grew up among.
At supper, and weekend dinners, (“dinner” was the noon meal) we boys were taught to stand behind our chairs until all five of the family were at the table – and someone would always pull out my mother’s chair so that she would be the first seated. You might get the idea that there was some stiffness or formality involved in my family, but that wasn’t true at all. (I knew boys who had to address their fathers as “Sir”.) As my father was more fond of saying than I was of hearing, “We’re just plain folks.” I did not want to be just plain folks, but that's beside the point. The dining table routine was considered basic decency, like not talking with your mouth full, and regularly saying “please” and “thank you”. It included being excused from the table rather than just getting up and leaving.
Telephone lessons: Making a call: “Hello, this is Fleming. May I please speak to. . .” (Always identify yourself before asking for the other person.)
Answering the phone if the caller was too uncouth to identify himself: “Who’s calling, please?”
Many were the things I was taught by my mother that would help me please girls when I finally got the coveted driver’s license: Always stand up when a female enters or leaves the room. Always offer her your seat. Always help a lady put on or take off her coat. A lady always goes first. Open every door for a woman and stand back while she enters ahead of you.
When I finally did receive the driver’s license my mother walked out to the car and we went through a little drill of my opening the passenger door and helping her in and out of the Pontiac until I felt quite suave about my first evening out with Patsy Ray. Of course I was coached always to go up to my date’s front door and ring the bell, never to honk the horn.
I assumed when I moved to Washington State at the end of 1959 to begin my first teaching job, that I was now prepared to feel at home as a gentleman anywhere in the world. Boy, was I surprised! And I became more surprised during the following years in the north. I almost knocked a woman from New Jersey down when we both went for the car door at the same time, and it took awhile for her to understand what I was trying to do. If I pulled back a chair for a woman she’d look surprised and might say, “Well, thank you. How nice.” Or she’d be halfway to my car before I could make it from the curb to her front door. In those early years in Yankeeland my manners seem to be considered quaint but charming. A Japanese girl in Ohio complimented me, “You’re the only American I’ve met who behaves like a Japanese man.” A British woman said, “You seem more English than American.” I felt happy about those words. I preferred being thought oddly courtly to being coarse and unmannerly.
But things changed even more. I don’t know when American Feminism happened, but I missed it. Maybe I was too wrapped up in females to notice, or maybe it was because I lived overseas from the late 1960s into the early 1970s. Maybe it was partly because I don’t read newspapers or magazines, and watch as little television as possible. In any case, unbeknownst to me my world of social customs was spirited away and a new set was dropped onto the stage. When I returned to America a woman would not only be surprised when I started to open a car door for her, but would say firmly, “You don’t need to do that”. She might even add, “I’d rather you didn’t do that again.” When I opened the library door for a fellow law student and waited for her to enter ahead of me, she snapped rudely, “If you do that again, I won’t go out with you.” I was stunned. Another woman said, “Okay, I’ll go first this time, but we have to take turns,” and she insisted on opening every other door for me. I was routinely hearing “dirty words” from women’s mouths that I would have been sent home from school for. And for the first time I learned that “girl” was a dirty word when it came from my mouth if I could possibly have used “woman”.
What had happened? Had females gone insane? Why were they demanding to be treated more shabbily? It seemed that women were voluntarily giving up most of their advantages and asking nothing in return except what males see as the very dubious privilege of working in an office eight or more hours a day.
My virtues were now liabilities. I adapted as best I could, cheered by the rare woman who was charmed by my deeply engrained way of behaving. I found “Ms.” easy because in the South we’d used “Miz” for both “Mrs.” and “Miss” before the feminists thought of it. (Not so the awkwardness of writing “his or her” instead of “his” as the general pronoun.) And there were other compensations. For the first time, a woman asked me to go out with her alone on a date, and not in a group. I loved that. After I’d gone out with a woman she might call me up instead of waiting to be phoned. A definite improvement. Occasionally, even, a date would not assume that I was paying for dinner, and I learned the advantages of going Dutch. Best of all, since it seemed that a lot of women were trying to be like men, and men were notoriously lustful and promiscuous, my life became much more pleasant than before. Yes, feminists, hate me! I give loud thanks that I was alive in the era which saw the inception of the bikini, the miniskirt, and women’s sexual liberation.
Just as “Women’s Lib” and the Feminist Movement (are they different?) went right by me while I wasn’t looking, I think something changed as the United States moved through the 1980’s and 1990’s. I stopped encountering women who got angry if I opened a door for them, or who got tangled in their jackets because no man had ever held a coat for them before. One woman even walked up to my car and waited at the passenger door until I opened it. Excellent.
Since I began blogging I’ve noticed more than before how much faster things have changed in the last hundred years than in previous centuries. This is as true of customs and manners and language and social attitudes as of technology. When, as a college student, I began looking for old books at library sales and used book shops, I developed a hobby of collecting old etiquette books. They made me laugh. The rules of etiquette which ruled my grandparents at the beginning of the 20th century (and even the more “modern” rules my mother would have read about when she was married in 1927) were so different from the rules of the 1960s and 70s that they seemed to reflect an entirely different world . . . which they did. (Click on "Emily Post" to see a reprint of her famous 1922 etiquette book.)
So, it gave me special pleasure to read Pink Ginger’s appreciation of a man’s courteous attention, and to know that what I was taught as a boy has not entirely vanished.