Scott Farrell comments:
We often hear people — especially young people — using today’s “singles’ scene” as a demonstration that chivalry is both dead and obsolete. People out on a first date routinely treat each other with flippant disrespect — using profane language in conversation, for example, or not bothering to dress for the occasion — perhaps in an attempt to prove that they’re not stuck in old-fashioned social conventions, or perhaps just because they’re supremely bewildered about what is expected of them while they’re on a date.
Columnist Esther Kustanowitz addresses dating in today’s world in her blogs and writings about Jewish culture in America. When a friend recently related a dating horror story to her, Ms. Kustanowitz decided to look into the concept of chivalry to see if it was as dead as she, and other women of her generation had been led to believe. In considering the “chivalrous” customs of a bygone era, she began to realize that respectful treatment — regardless of gender — is a crucial element in a long-lasting relationship. If we can’t treat each other with a little common decency, is it any wonder that today’s young people are having trouble feeling connected as they play the “dating game”?
Once, I went out with this guy who was really traditional — not Jewishly, but when it came to dating. He believed in chivalry: If we drove somewhere, he would always run around to my side and open the door, even though it took longer and I was perfectly capable of opening it myself. I used to worry about encountering a mud puddle, anxious that he might try to put his coat over it and encourage me to walk on it, resulting in an extremely well-intentioned disaster for both me and the coat.
He also insisted on walking between me and the curb, because he said that was the tradition in days of old, to protect the woman from the dangers of the road. “But what if someone comes at me from the other side and pulls me into an alley?” I wondered. (We’re not together anymore.)
I’m a pretty big sucker for romantic gestures, but there’s something so antiquated about a level of consideration that puts the “court” back in courtesy. I’m all for courtesy. If someone wants to hold the door for me, b’vakasha (please). I hold doors for many people — men and women — in the course of a given day, and I’m pretty sure I’m not dating most of them. If “all the people of Israel are responsible for one other,” then why wouldn’t we treat each other with respect, regardless of our marital status and with or without chivalry?
According to Wikipedia (the modern writer’s research tool, indispensable despite questions as to its accuracy) chivalry is “related to the medieval institution of knighthood … usually associated with ideals of knightly virtues, honor and courtly love.” Originally from the French (chevalier: one who rides a horse), today, chivalrous is “used to describe courteous behavior, especially that of men towards women.”
Today’s chivalry, if it exists at all, would have to be very different in action, if not in principle, from its medieval progenitor. One JDatersAnonymous.com reader said that for her, chivalrous behavior would consist of “asking for a woman’s number and calling her.” She related that she had e-mailed someone on JDate, who responded with “I’m not a computer person. You call me.” She found this e-mail “disturbing.” “Whatever happened to chivalry?” she asked. “Whatever happened to the man asking for the woman’s phone number and calling her? I find that JDate and other online sites are killing romance and chivalry.”
While I might find it personally inconvenient (or even annoying) when someone claims to “not be a computer person” in today’s technology age, I understand that not everyone prefers the same mode of communication. Some people are not “phone people,” but they get over it because they have to in order to communicate. If the profile interested her and if she felt comfortable, I advised her to be a little more forgiving. If it was so important to her that he make the first call, she should offer her number. Or she could tell him that she’s more comfortable handing out her number after a few e-mail exchanges. That reframing still indicates her interest, but also conveys that she’d like him to initiate communication.
Another reader went on a date with someone who did not pick her up and didn’t offer to buy her a beverage or anything to eat. To her, chivalry was simply “when the male picks the female up and walks her home. It means she feels cared for. It means she is offered a bite to eat (does not need to be expensive) or at least a drink.”
If chivalry is dead, it’s because of a conspiracy— with shots coming from the men in the book depository and the women on the grassy knoll and maybe some Communist sympathizers — rather than a lone gunman. We wonder how today’s more equal social and economic ladder between men and women changes the rules of courtship. Some women are uncomfortable with chivalry, while others expect it. Men never know what’s expected of them. And everyone’s confused.
Maybe chivalry is not about holding a single door open or paying a dinner check. It’s about being made to feel like someone would ride a horse to get to you, and then treat you with respect even above the normal level they’d show a stranger, transforming your relationship with that person to a different level, one that’s more special — a love for the ages and a courtship of connection.
About the author: Esther D. Kustanowitz took a class in Arthurian Romance in college and always suspected it would come in handy someday. She is a widely published writer who blogs at MyUrbankvetch, JDatersAnonymous and Jewlicious, among other places. She is also the senior editor of PresenTense Magazine. This column originally ran in the NY Jewish Week (link no longer available).