On Chivalry: “Being a Gentleman” is Relative

Chivalry is one of those areas in which “what’s true for you is true for you” applies. I once visited a friend who appreciated that I had her walk on the inside of the sidewalk, and I have also spent time with friends who probably do not care and might get offended if I tried that sort of thing. Manners help us amplify verbal declarations or wordlessly express things that fall flat when verbally stated. “I love you” resonates when accompanied by nonverbal elucidation, and we say “please” and “thank you” because “I want to make a request of you while respecting your dignity as my moral equal” strikes people as a little odd. Treating women right is a moral absolute as far as I am concerned, but there is unfortunately no single set of rules that all men follow.

A few years ago I read Josh Harris’ book Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship. I found the book essentially to be a conveyance of white-haired, long-bearded wisdom; the dating vs. courtship rhetorical deathmatch is bunk. My interest in the romance department is and has always been toward marriage. Chivalry includes not only the stuff before and after marriage but consideration of women in general, but I am largely going to discuss chivalry in relation to marriage. Holding doors open, which side women should walk on when walking with a man, taking hats off, and all that other respectable stuff go in the same bin: there is not a set of “biblical” customs for men to follow when respecting women, but we do have to see that we love each other in a recognizable fashion.

Before a man takes advantage of a first-rate opportunity to get married with impunity (by a Doctor of Divinity who resides in his vicinity), let us say that it is chivalrous for him to clear his aims with her family. When I was growing up, my dad drilled it into my head to do this by asking the woman’s father for permission to marry her. As I understand it, my dad meant that this should be done before proposing to the woman; this has also been the pattern for most marriage stories I have heard. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy (whose gentlemanliness is beyond question) asks Elizabeth’s dad after he proposes to Elizabeth. Considering that friends of mine have asked for a dad’s permission only to be turned down by the girl, Mr. Darcy’s approach makes practical sense. Should you ask before or after? In arranged marriages, the parents ask each other and maybe run the choice by their children. Sometimes the son and daughter choose each other but make the proposal through their parents, as we see in the film The Kite Runner. Whatever way you do it, I think we can all agree that getting the approval of your prospective wife’s family is classy. You, the outsider, are kind of taking her away from them, and you let them know that you are not stealing her.

Marriage is the summit of a negotiation process conducted through what I am here calling chivalry. Holding doors, paying for dinner, and even kissing a lady’s hand are all part of socially agreed upon ways for a man to communicate to a woman that he values her. As far as marriage is concerned, getting the family’s approval is something I have always seen as the easy part; everything else is elusive and obscure sorcery. After I got part of the way through college, I heard of high school boys having to ask a girls’s parents for permission to date her. I panicked because I had never heard of this in my high school days, though it was not until the very end of high school that I might have been able to make a girl’s parents nervous. Much of what  makes the unwritten rules of chivalry is neither biblical nor unbiblical. Though chivalrous efforts should express good morals, we should not react with moral outrage to failure to follow cultural patterns, though we have to communicate when people consistently violate our expectations. Barbarians with bad manners can learn to eat with a fork, but an evil man always find more and more boundaries to violate.

Love is the aim of chivalry. In marriage, it is love for the soul of a fellow human; love of God expressed through love of a very close neighbor; and even love of self, given Ephesians 5:28. The main thing about chivalry is not for the man to make himself feel that he cares about a woman but for the man to help the woman feel that he cares about her. There is nothing like being able to do something chivalrous and have it go over the right way. Perhaps we need to work on cultivating taste for and competence in the performance of chivalry. Even so, we need open communication to help each other meet preferences and expectations. It might be a man’s fault that his wife is angry, but when is it his fault that she is still angry? Men regularly go for the gold in Olympian stupidity, but women are the ones who can best say what they would like their men to do.

At a wedding I went to in Ghana, a preacher teased the groom for his reluctance to kiss the bride. I accompanied an elder in the groom’s church to the wedding, and he remarked that pushing the newlyweds to kiss was “not cultural” and in poor taste. The preacher was from another town, another tribe, and probably a bit Westernized; the wedding was in a rural town in the heart of the territory of the Gonja tribe. A lot of offense is social or cultural, not moral. Rather than define “biblical” courtship methods or “biblical” chivalry, we need to have a firm grip in the underlying functions that we want our practices to fulfill so that we can rightly judge and promote forms of chivalry. I once heard a man from a Cambodian church state that Cambodian children do not often see affection between mom and dad, but as far as Cambodian children go, there sure are a lot of them. Everyone knows to kiss the bride, but some people have their own timing.

While social customs change over time and vary from place to place, I do know that women will not passively be appreciated if men do not try to love them. You can abstract “woman” as a type of person that you will run into, but concretely before you there are people with names. Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Catherine, Jane: women have commonalities, but if Charles, George, William, and even Fitzwilliam are not the ones to love them, abstract “man” will do concretely nothing. We men are barbarians and sometimes it’s just more expedient for the woman to open the door because she is already there. Even so, let’s act upon what we know and learn fast all the stuff we don’t know. We follow our culture as much as anyone, but surely this is an area in which we should also make it as we go along.

Image via Wikipedia.