Passing Chivalry

Scott Farrell comments:

Little acts of kindness and consideration are deeply woven into our cultural fabric. Whether you call them “chivalry” or just good manners, things like holding a door, standing when you meet somebody or letting someone ahead of you in line are the sorts of actions that distinguish someone as a lady or gentleman “of good character.”

But in the debate over the place of chivalry in today’s world, there is a distinction that is often overlooked: What happens when an act of kindness becomes expected or obligatory? When chivalry is demanded of someone, is it really chivalry at all?

In a blog on the topic of chivalry in modern society, Ambrose Tan proposed an intriguing “thought experiment” on both the actions and motivations that define chivalry. The questions he poses may help us all to recognize the boundaries of chivalry – and remind us that no act of kindness or respect should ever be taken for granted.

Consider the following situation: A man and a woman approach a place where their paths intersect. At the intersection, they both stop momentarily. Perhaps they wish each other, “Good morning.” Then …

  1. The man gives the woman passage first and bids her a safe journey if they have exchanged greetings. He then resumes his passage.
  2. The woman does not stop, assuming her right to passage first. The man stops momentarily, having no choice, then resumes his passage after the woman passes.
  3. The man resumes his passage first. The woman is momentarily taken aback but continues her journey.
  4. The woman does not stop, assuming her right to passage first. Alas, the man does not intend to be forced to stop, and speeds up, narrowly passing the woman first. The woman is momentarily taken aback but continues her journey.

In which of these cases has chivalry not occurred?

Let’s see what the Compact Oxford English Dictionary of Current English says about chivalry: it is “courteous behaviour, especially that of a man towards women.” Now let’s see what it says about being courteous: it means to be “polite, respectful, and considerate.” Neither “being chivalrous” nor “being courteous towards a woman” is an act that does not involve deliberate choice.

The obvious answer to the question above is 3, and many will say 4. And there are many who will not think the same of 2. I say otherwise. Of course, 1 is a case in which chivalry has definitely prevailed, but can 2 truly be called chivalry, and is 4 definitely only the fault of the man?

The difference between 1 and 2 lies in the mentality of the party “expecting” chivalry in 2. Chivalry is a choice, but in 2 instead the man has been forced to accede to a particular outcome of the encounter, a farce of “chivalry”, and to accept the disrespect of being on the receiving end of bad manners. In 4 he has bravely stood up against it but will later on be castigated for his actions, somewhat unfairly.

I suspect what many of today’s women lament about, especially (some of) the highfalutin “educated elite” types who like to place themselves on a pedestal, on the lack of “chivalry” on the part of today’s men, are occurrences of case 4 rather than 3. But they have taken it for granted, and to lament about the lack of something when it is being taken for granted is to be pompous, conceited, arrogant and even presumptuous.

Lament about it when you have respected the other party and the right of choice, treated the other party with good intentions and he does not show chivalry to you. He may be crossing your path, but remember that you are crossing his too. Learn to respect others and you may stand the chance of having it reciprocated (which should be) and you might find yourself pleasantly in case 1.

But take another person’s courtesy for granted and you may find yourself rudely confronted with case 4 as retaliation for your self-aggrandizement and disrespect of others — assuming your “right” to a shared space, “just because”, as in cases 2 and 4. Chivalry does not mean someone else has to accept your lack of basic manners — this is the fine line, and you may only have yourself to blame if you choose to cross it and find yourself in case 4.

Finally I want to say that men should be chivalrous. But chivalrous because they want to be, not because others force them or want them to be. And women who demand chivalry? Chivalry is something that is given, not taken.

Chivalry is a two-way street, not one.

Ambrose Tan’s blog is Varnish Is Pretty. It Smells Bad, which is where this article was originally published  (Link no longer available).

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