The other day, I was leaving the grocery store. I was walking behind a man and a woman, about my age. They reached their car, and the man accompanied the woman around the car so that he could open the door for her. She got in; he closed the door and began walking around the car again to get in himself. I was so taken aback by this unusual act of old-fashioned courtesy that, without thinking, I blurted out, “I can’t remember the last time I saw a man open the car door for his wife.”
Now, this was kind of a risky thing to say. For one thing, I had no idea whether or not she was his wife. Also, the fact that they were complete strangers to me allowed for the possibility that he or she could have gotten very insulted by my words. But I lucked out. Instead of being insulted, he smiled and answered, “I know. I’m really proud of the fact that I always open the car door for my wife.”
That night when Bill and I sat outside to have our cocktail party, I told him about witnessing this action. Bill was kind of insulted. “I open the car door for you,” he said. That is quite true. Bill will often open the car door for me, especially if we happen to walk up to the passenger side of the car together. Frankly, I wouldn’t even begin to think that he would – or should – walk all the way around the car to open it for me. I am perfectly capable of doing so myself.
Courtesies such as opening car doors or walking on the side nearest the street or opening and/or holding a door for a woman have become not only outdated, but insulting to some. The old-fashioned side of me is sort of sad about that. I remember 30 years ago when someone – probably Bill – told me he appreciated the fact that after letting me into the car, I would lean over and unlock the door for him so that he didn’t have to fiddle with the keys. Remember those days before all you had to do is walk up to a car and it unlocks itself?
I wonder if boys and girls are being taught those traditional manners these days. I know that all of my grandkids learn to say please and thank you almost as their first words. That’s nice. And I noticed that when we were at Wilma’s funeral, every time 12-year-old Alastair was introduced to someone, he put out his hand for a handshake. Man, that made me proud.
I think I did a pretty good job of teaching Court manners. I recall teaching Court to step back to let me go first when we would get out of the church pew to go to communion. But I certainly didn’t teach him to pull out a chair for a woman. I wonder if he’s ever done such a thing. I wonder if anyone does. I remember that as part of his Catholic elementary education, he had to take Cotillion, where he learned a lot of etiquette, or did if he was paying attention.
I also encouraged – no, really MADE – him sit down and write thank-you notes for Christmas and birthday gifts that he got in the mail. My rule was that he didn’t need to write a note for all the gifts handed to him by uncles and aunts and grandparents. However, the gifts from grandmothers and great-grandmothers and aunts and uncles that came in the mail required a hand-written thank you note. That way they would know that the gift arrived safely. I’m pretty sure it’s been 20 years since he wrote a thank you note. I’m not a whole lot better, I’m afraid. It’s too easy to email. Sigh.
There’s that fine line you aren’t sure whether to cross, you know, about courtesies such as pulling out chairs and helping with coats. As women continue to try and break through the so-called glass ceiling, the last thing a woman might want to do is to appear helpless. Still, courtesies such as these can go both ways. I often help Bill with his coat if he’s struggling in a restaurant or putting it back on at the end of our church service. He does the same for me.
Times change, and usually for the better. I will admit I miss some of the old etiquette customs, however. The days of men removing their hats when they enter a building are long gone. In this day and age, I’m just happy if the person sitting next to me at a restaurant isn’t talking on their cell phone or sharing their music with me.