Men, women and chivalry: Who lays out the rules?

Men, women and chivalry: Who lays out the rules?

Dubai - Through the lens, lightly


Sushmita Bose

Published: Thu 23 Sep 2021, 2:20 PM

In response to last week’s column (on how to split the lunch/dinner bill after a gratuitous meal), a couple of women asked me what I felt about a scenario where a man and woman go out to eat: what is correctitude when it comes to settling the bill? And they don’t have to be tentative romantics out on a date to figure whether — or not — it’s worth either side’s while to take it a notch higher; they may well be old/new friends or colleagues.

It’s just the male:female equation: does being a man automatically accord him the “privilege” (or lack of it, as many would feel) to pick up the tab?

One of my erstwhile colleagues, a very independent-minded girl, who lived on her own, had paid her way through college by doing private tuitions, believed that man and woman are equal, the whole shebang, had a rather off-kilter notion of how things should pan out at a (restaurant) dining table once the meal was done with.

The man should pay.

“Now whether he does or not is up to his upbringing — a well-brought-up male should be imbibed with that value: when you are breaking bread or sipping caffeine with a lady, you take care of the bill. I’m alright splitting the bill, or even paying the whole amount myself — but, obviously, I’ll think poorly of the man in question.”

I reckoned that maybe what she has in mind was not really about who pays for a meal, but that age-old notion called chivalry. Men are supposed to be gallant. Open the door for a lady, stand up when a woman enters the room, offer to carry her bags if they look weighty enough… and perhaps pay occasional food bills like it were a courtesy — or a curtsy — to the one who dons the mantle of the ‘fairer’ sex.

Chivalry itself has undergone graphic evolution since the medieval times when the knights lived by the moral code of honour. In the 19th century, Louisa May Alcott (in Little Women) wrote: “Gentlemen, be courteous to the old maids, no matter how poor and plain and prim, for the only chivalry worth having is that which is the readiest to pay deference to the old, protect the feeble, and serve womankind, regardless of rank, age, or colour.”

Today, this paragraph-writer will probably be lynched at the virtual stakes of social media. “Protect the feeble”? That’s a misnomer straight off the bat — other than being hugely sexist and politically incorrect — because women, in a fell sweep, are being typecast. It’s the same niggle that bothers me whenever I watch Titanic: the minute the ship begins to sink, the public announcement on the runway to the lifeboats is: “Women and children first.” Okay, I understand children being given a free pass, but why are adult women being considered such doormats and limp failures? Why can’t they stand shoulder to shoulder with the men and help out? Maybe they won’t be able to lift iron anchors with as much dexterity as the boys, but surely they can pitch in with some effort?

So, I much rather prefer Amy Plum’s millennial description of chivalrous men. “He leaned forward and opened his door, politely standing aside to let me by before following me in. There are some advantages to dating a guy from another era, I thought. Though I am a big believer in gender equality, chivalry scores high in my book.”

In One Fine Day, I remember George Clooney telling an extremely harried Michelle Pfeiffer “After you” as the doorman holds open a door to a building in Manhattan. She was already running late for a meeting, but she insists that he should enter first; in her ‘feminist’-hazed mind, she didn’t want to appear to be the one who needed quicker passage because she was a woman. No concessions, since I am definitely not the weaker sex here — that kind of thing.

At this point, George Clooney says, “I insist.”

She says, her voice thick with edginess, “I insist more.”

He gives in.

Later, when the two get together, I’m pretty sure she was happy that George did the Lucknowi tehzeeb (refinement, if you want a poor translation, since it’s a word that cannot be translated to English without losing its potency) act of saying “Pehle aap” — “You first”. Instead of jostling her in the ribs and getting ahead.

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