I married a man with impeccable manners. In our early days together, he had to teach me, a liberated woman, how to act in the presence of a gentleman. Seeing him pull out a chair at a restaurant, I would grab the other chair and sit down. “Silly” he would say “I was pulling out your chair!” After learning to take the chair he was pulling out for me, I had to learn not to sit down heavily as he was trying to push the chair in for me. “Okay now, you have to help me here! Sit down slowly to give me a chance to push your chair in.” The same thing would happen when he was giving me my coat to wear and instead of letting him help me, I would just grab the coat. It’s surprising how quickly a liberated woman who had learned to despise such little attentions – “Do you mean I can’t pull out my own chair?” – gets used to being treated like royalty. When, as a military officer, he was deployed to Kosovo, I didn’t fully appreciate these little attentions until a family friend opened my car door for me. I started to cry: it was the first expression of gallantry I had encountered since my husband had left three months prior.
I am now used to men, young and old, smoking-up mall entrances while I struggle with a toddler and a stroller. I still notice fathers and sons sporting baseball caps indoors but they don’t annoy me as much as they used to. In fact, one of my university students wore his baseball cap at every class and I didn’t ask him to decapitate even once! But even with low expectations, I wasn’t prepared for my latest appointment with the end of chivalry.
Last weekend, I drove my large SUV – I have six children and they don’t fit in a Prius – to the grocery store and parked it neatly between two cars. I always back into my parking spaces and I make sure to be centered. Still, there is never a lot of space between my truck and the next one, particularly if that other SUV is not parked straight. I was in the process of taking my two youngest children out of their car seats, holding the 3 year-old with one hand while balancing the baby on my hip, when the owner of the next vehicle, a man about the age of my own father, came up to me and barked: “How do you expect me to get in??” Trying not to loose my cool in front of the older children I replied: “I’m sorry. Would you like me to pull out so you can get in?” “Well, you better!” I plunked the little kids back in the truck and hopped back in without resisting the urge to quip “It would have been easier if you were parked straight,” which for me falls squarely in the category of losing my temper. My oldest daughter looked away and said: “Wouldn’t hurt him to lose a bit of girth. Then he could get in easily.” I tried to make this into a teachable moment about passive-aggressiveness and the many polite ways to ask a driver to move her car. But I think that all it turned out to be was a teachable moment about selfish pricks and their expensive SUVs.
Manners and gallantry are just a few ways in which we are people for the ethical treatment of people (I have my t-shirt, do you?). Which part of our declining – some would say altogether absent – moral standards is directly linked to the degradation of small marks of attention and respect?