Miss Manners: Courteous little gentleman is no threat to equality

September 13, 2011

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I have a 5-year-old only son, a lively child who enjoys being helpful. He has begun holding doors for people regularly and enjoys being praised for other courteous behavior, such as helping to clean up a mess without being asked, or politely asking if he may be excused after dinner.

He very badly wants to be a gentleman, and to be seen as one by others. Naturally, I support this goal, as I am well aware that true gentlemen have happier and more fulfilling lives than cads.

How do I teach him to conduct himself with respect to ladies in a feminist era? On the one hand, the old forms of gentlemanly conduct can certainly be genuinely useful to others in need of assistance. (And often, as in the case, for example, of offering one’s seat to a person in greater need on public transportation, I believe they should be considered proper ladylike conduct as well.)

And while I am a fierce feminist, I do think that a gentleman who holds a door for a lady — or assists her with her coat, or allows her to precede him into a room, or removes his hat indoors — provides a social grace note and shows his consideration for our culture’s rules of polite behavior without doing any actual harm to equality or equal justice.

Note that I do not demand such behavior from gentlemen of my acquaintance, or necessarily think less of a gentleman who does not do those things. After all, we live in a multicultural society, with disagreement even within cultural groups as to what is expected — he might have been raised by a different set of rules, and might have different ways of showing courtesy. But I do receive such courteous gestures with polite thanks when they are offered.

GENTLE READER: Please receive polite thanks — make that immense gratitude — from Miss Manners for understanding that feminism and courtesy are not mutually exclusive, and, not least, for rearing a feminist gentleman.

She is particularly impressed that you have not only rules to teach him, but also the flexibility and toleration that you understand and practice. It is particularly difficult to know the rules and yet obey the rule of not embarrassing people who do not.

Yet there is an aspect of these rules that you have not mentioned. Perhaps you are referring to it when you speak of deference to ladies as “a social grace note.” It is that gender-specific deference is, indeed, social and does not apply in the workplace, where precedence is according to rank.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: We received a wedding invitation from a couple, of whom we are friends with the parents of both the bride and the groom. My husband wants to attend the reception only. It is immediately following the wedding, and I feel that it would be in poor taste to skip the ceremony and then appear at the reception.

What is proper etiquette in this situation? We certainly wouldn’t want to offend anyone or embarrass ourselves.

GENTLE READER: Then go. Or explain to Miss Manners how “We’re not interested in your marriage, but we are interested in your champagne” is not insulting.

Visit Miss Manners at her Web site,www.missmanners.com, where you can send her your questions.

2011, by Judith Martin

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