Sunday, 5 May 2013

Q: When is a door not a door?

A. When it's a jar of angry worms.

That long-running men opening doors for women thing. Or offering them their seat on the bus. Very few people get worked up about this but rather more people seem to assume that they do. I think both areas are yawning pits of social awkwardness but that's because I'm all kinds of socially awkward.

This micro-musing by Peter Hitchens, tweeted by @RopesToInfinity is why I'm thinking through this now.* The key phrase is, "it's so deep it feels like an instinct". For Hitchens, holding a door open for a woman feels like the right thing to do. I'm sure that's what's going on with most men who habitually extend small courtesies to women; it just feels like the done thing. If you want to understand why some people might have a problem with this, ask yourself how it would feel to have a man treat another man in the same way.

Off the top of my head, I can think of three reasons why a man would feel a gut urge to hold a door open for another man**, other than the fact that he got there first. The same reasons apply to giving up your seat.

1. The other person is incapacitated in some way, maybe carrying something or on crutches.
2. The other person is a guest or someone whose comfort you feel in some way responsible for.
3. The other person is of a higher or lower professional standing and you are somehow trying to bridge that gap. You fuss around a superior because you want them to think well of you; you may show extra politeness towards a subordinate because you want to show them that you value them.

There will be others I haven't thought of. Again, I'm not talking about the universal politeness of not letting the door slam in someone's face after you've gone through it. I'm talking about the "deep" "instinct" that dictates that you should try to get to the door first and make a bit of a show of it, because that would be better than them opening the door themselves. With that in mind (and please imagine the situation as giving up your seat if you still don't get where I'm coming from), what does it convey to a woman if, all other factors being equal, a man goes to some extra effort to open a door for her?

1. That the man sees her as in some way incapacitated.
2. That the man sees her as a guest in this location, or feels somehow especially responsible for her comfort.
3. That the man sees some kind of difference in social or professional standing, which needs to be bridged.

The discomfort caused by the first two implications should be fairly clear. With point three, I'd like to emphasise that it doesn't matter which way that difference in status works. Regardless of whether it is yourself or the other person that you (or your deep-seated instincts) are placing on an ever-so slightly higher rung, the problem is that you're acting according to a supposed difference. Whether you'd class it as chivalry or a special favour, something in your brain has gone ACHTUNG: FEMALE and caused you to slightly change your behaviour.

The worry is that if someone displays that "deep", "instinctive" assumption of difference in one situation, and doesn't realise why they're doing it or how it might come across, what else might it affect?

*The resulting conversation also led me to this post, which is all kinds of excellent.
** Or a woman for another woman, or any other combination... I'm using the example of two men because it best shows the weirdness of what's going on. I'm not assuming that every reader is male, but I would like you to imagine yourself as male for the purpose of the exercise.