[…]

It’s a well worn concept that one might have hoped would have been replaced with a more universal standard of politeness by now but, even in 2010, the chivalrous conduct of men (or the bemoaned lack of it) is still an issue. Meanwhile it seems a woman’s responsibility extends no further than graciously accepting assistance, with questions about our own agency in assisting others, if and when we are able to, being overshadowed by those about the actions and conduct of men (who are assumed to be able to help). I found myself revisiting this topic again on Friday, during a discussion on the Jason Mohammad programme with author Lorraine Jenkin and Peter Foot from the National Campaign for Courtesy. (Scroll through to 1.41.05.)

The following statement from Peter, when asking me about the matter of embarrassment, got me thinking afterwards:

I don’t think a man… if his offer is rebuffed -for instance- by a lady, should feel any embarrassment… All the other passengers would probably think far more highly of him than of a lady who rudely rebuffs…

I responded to this at the time by adding “if she rudely rebuffed, yes” before Jason moved on to a caller but, of course, my reasoning was flawed. It was underpinned by an assumption of a straightforward and unembellished offer that would most likely invite the interpretation that the man in question has good intentions and probably genuinely believes he is being helpful. But what if everything about his body language is positively screaming to the woman that he is lording it over her? What if his manner and tone is extremely patronising? One could, of course, argue that even a refusal, if the woman doesn’t need the seat any more than he does, doesn’t have to be rude but that’s not easy if she’s already had to put up with a load of sexism that day. To use another example, what if a disabled person seems uncivil in refusing an offer of help from me? Would it be fair for me to piously soak up onlookers’ approval of me and subsequent disapproval of that person, instead of considering that she or he had perhaps already been patronised and undermined several times that day and this meant she or he wasn’t in the mood to give me the benefit of the doubt?

I also noted Malcolm from Cardiff saying “I’ve never had a seat given up for me, not that I’d want one. I get up for people”. I wonder how many onlookers would frame a man as rude if he refuses a seat?

The most baffling comment I heard also came from Malcolm:

It should be law for men to give up seats for ladies (all ladies- never mind if they’re pregnant or otherwise), elderly gentlemen or anybody that’s struggling

I got the impression he genuinely meant well but I really have no idea how such a law for men could possibly be implemented. I doubt if there would be room for real equality to be achieved within such an enforcement of old-fashioned social relations and, more crucially, that probably wouldn’t be the point. Women and anyone else perceived to be “struggling” by default would be scuppered, forever in the debt of those enjoying the privilege of perceived strength.