You’ve finished a lovely dinner together, enjoyed a bottle of wine, and now you’re walking through the restaurant’s parking lot with your date, Maggie, who last week won her black belt in karate.
Suddenly a big man, cursing, clearly intoxicated, and fist raised, lurches toward you from the shadows. Do you 1. duck behind Maggie, who is smaller than you but trained in hand-to-hand combat or 2. step in front to protect her?
When I used to put this question to my male students, they might shift uncomfortably at their desks, but none of them ever voted to push Maggie toward the attacker. They gave numerous reasons—“Karate is overrated,” “The dude might be armed,” and “Maggie’s too small”—but always one or two of them would blurt out, “Guys just don’t do that sort of thing.”
Guys don’t do that sort of thing.
Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122–1204), who by the standards of her time was a feminist, helped devise the idea of a gentleman-knight, a standard of ideal conduct soon planted throughout Europe by troubadours. For 35 generations, this code of chivalry regarding women and how men should treat them was a given of Western civilization. It evolved, becoming more refined and attuned to changing times and circumstances, but the essentials of the code remained.
A woman who acted like a lady while passing through Texas on her way to California in 1880, for example, was treated as such by the roughnecks and cowboys she met along the way.
In our own time, this long-practiced etiquette has taken some hits. Our postmodernist society has declared chivalry dead, and some have locked the white knight in the dungeon of his castle. Offer a seat on a bus to a woman, and you may be called a misogynist. Compliment a co-worker on her appearance, and you may well find yourself in a meeting with the HR department, facing termination from your job. Many colleges and universities have issued exacting and specific guidelines regarding relationships between males and females, reducing the sweet calculus of romance to joyless elementary school arithmetic.
Is Chivalry Dead?
Google that question, and you’ll discover a battlefield of opinions. Some feminists contend that once-common gentlemanly acts—pulling out a chair in the restaurant for your date, opening the door of the car, paying the tab at the wine bar—demean women, making them appear the weaker sex, reinforcing the view that women need men to help them.
In opposition, Suzanne Venker writes that “chivalry is dead because women killed it,” but then defends chivalry and urges women to bring it back if they wish to encourage the making of “mature, respectful, marriage-minded men.”
She adds: “Women have the power to turn it all around—because they are the relationship navigators. Men only changed because women did. That’s because men are born to please women. Modern women don’t know this, for they’ve been conditioned to think of men as oppressors … Instead, embrace chivalry. Praise chivalry. Praise men, for God’s sakes!”
Venker may be correct that only women, as did Eleanor of Aquitaine, can produce an etiquette between the sexes that will give us more mature and responsible men and women. If we wish to see such a restoration, however, we men also must do our part. Here are some tips gleaned from living, conversations, movies, and books that have helped me along the bumpy path of relationships with the opposite sex.
We can win the love, friendship, and trust of women with one simple tool: listening.
To many women, men—and I very much include myself—are often obtuse creatures when it comes to communication. Sam listens to Martha complaining about her workday and immediately offers suggestions as to how to improve the situation, unaware that Martha doesn’t want solutions, but just wants Sam to listen to her. In a situation taken from real life—I have changed the names—Steve wonders aloud to his wife of 30 years whether they’re too old to go on celebrating Valentine’s Day. Here, I will leave the conclusion to that conversation to my reader’s imagination.
Long ago, my wife and I were meeting with a real-estate agent in the kitchen of our bed-and-breakfast to put the place on the market. I knew Kris was reluctant to sell, but thought she and I had come to an agreement. She was standing beside me, but when the agent handed me a pen to sign the papers permitting him to show the property, I realized I was suddenly alone. I went to the living room, found Kris weeping by the fireplace, returned to the kitchen, and said to the agent, “I don’t think we’ll be selling the house any time soon.”
What Kris and I experienced was, as the line from the movie “Cool Hand Luke” goes, “failure to communicate.”
When Kris and I were engaged, we met an elderly couple in a German language class at our local community college. When they learned of our engagement, they expressed their delight, and the husband leaned toward me to say, “43 years married,” he said. “And you know why? Respect.”
Listen, truly listen, and you show respect.
Sense and Sensitivity
Many women want their male companions to “express your feelings.” We men are often awkward about doing so—few of us would ever press our male friends to “let it all hang out”—and when we do enter into the auditorium of emotions we hem and haw, tongue-tied and inept as a shy schoolboy required to give a speech to his classmates.
We fear saying the wrong thing, we can scarcely keep up with the thoughts and nimble speech of this woman we love, and we frequently find ourselves with words in our head that we somehow can’t push to our tongues.
But there is an antidote to our awkward, tumbledown speech: Sincerity.
In the film “Kate and Leopold,” the sophisticated English gentleman Leopold (Hugh Jackman) offers these words to a young American friend Charlie, who is pursuing a woman: “Everything plays a farce to you. Women respond to sincerity. This requires pulling one’s tongue from one’s cheek. No one wants to be romanced by a buffoon.”
Sincerity, not adept speech, wins the hearts of most women.
Mysteries and Manners
Sigmund Freud once asked, “What does a woman want?”
The question is absurd on two levels. First, it lumps together more than half the world’s population, asking them what they want. Second—and this is from my own experience—women want from a relationship what men want: respect, love, affection, a listening heart, and a companion.
Yet mysteries and differences also abound.
Playwrights, poets, and novelists have celebrated those mysteries and differences throughout our history. The Greek playwrights, Chaucer’s pilgrims, Shakespeare’s characters, Jane Austen’s brilliant portraits of men and women all reveal the conundrums existing between male and female that postmodernism can never erase.
Some men and women I know, puzzled by the behavior or opinions of the opposite sex, become frustrated. They ask, as Professor Higgins did in “My Fair Lady,” “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” and vice-versa. As for me, however, I delight in these enigmas, preferring in this case mystery to dissection.
Accept the mystery, or better still find joy and amusement in the gulf between women and us, practice manners, and enjoy the ride.
A Final Note
When we treat the women in our life—family, friends, strangers, and that one we love—like ladies, we not only transform ourselves into gentlemen, we also help shore up and repair the walls of our broken civilization. We bring a dash of civility and grace into a world much in need of both.
Of course, we must always remember and practice the most basic way we men can honor the ladies in our lives.
In a song from the play “Camelot,” Arthur remembers asking Merlin, “How to handle a woman?” Merlin responds by advising his young charge that “the way to handle a woman is to love her … simply love her … merely love her … love her … love her.”
Guys do that sort of thing.
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.