Juliet Dunlop: Manners maketh man – and woman

Juliet Dunlop
Juliet Dunlop
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DIGNITY should be left on the platform when travelling on the Tube at rush hour. It makes life so much easier when the doors slide shut and your face is jammed in stranger’s armpit all the way from Parsons Green to Elephant and Castle.

There is no space to stand or move or breathe, without standing or moving or breathing on someone else. Close-range coughs and wheezes must be repelled; rucksack-height head swipes ducked; wafts of perfume and BO inhaled; bruised toes suffered and jolting, human-domino stops and starts, endured. Only the fittest survive and the rest take the bus.

There is always the hope that someone – usually a man, if you are a woman – might offer you their seat, but at certain times of day that is as likely to happen as eye contact or meaningful conversation. Seats on the London Underground, as with most jam-packed trains across the land, are small thrones to be jealously guarded. And yet people do give up their seats, help you lug suitcases up broken escalators and give you directions if you are lost. Still, we are surprised when they do. There is almost always a momentary embarrassment; an awkwardness and unwillingness to say “yes please” to an offer of help from a stranger. Whatever the reason, man or woman, any small act of kindness surely deserves a nod of acceptance and a “thank you.” Good manners cost nothing after all. Or do they?

Well, for the modern man, manners are apparently a minefield; for the modern woman, everyday kindnesses are to be treated with suspicion. It appears chivalry is dead. It passed away some time ago, quietly and without fuss. Its decline was slow but steady. It was reliable until the end. New research charts its demise: 92 per cent of women wouldn’t take a seat that was offered to them by a man. They would rather stand. Eighty-nine per cent would refuse help with heavy bags, and even on the most bitterly cold day, 78 per cent would rather shiver than take a coat from a man. And men, who insist on holding doors open for women? They better watch out – that door is likely to slam shut in their face. Acts once thought of as polite and noble are now frowned upon.

Who or what is to blame for this terrible state of affairs, and what does it say about women if we are no longer equipped to respond to unprompted acts of male kindness?

The research seems to suggest that women don’t trust men who offer to help them because chivalrous acts are quaint and unsettling. Token gestures such as opening car doors or walking on the outside of the pavement seemingly hark back to an age of gender inequality. For helpful and polite, read dark and sinister. They are small reminders that men still believe women are the weaker sex. A woman who refuses help is making a point. And so, like old tractors whose parts are no longer available, knights in shining armour now lie rusting in forgotten fields.

Or a simpler explanation may suffice. Manners in general have simply become worse. According to Mark Hall, the online retailer who commissioned the survey, men’s standards have slipped to a new low. “Does an offer of goodwill have to be taken the wrong way? If men upped their game across the board, good manners would be back on the agenda once again.” So, men who have forgotten about good behaviour, or fear withering looks, should stand up – particularly on crowded trains – and be counted. Until they do, women may continue to view such gestures as odd.

If chivalry is to be revived, perhaps the answer is to think about modern manners as small acts of kindness to be performed whether you are a man or a woman. Rather than reject offers of male assistance, what is to stop a woman giving up her seat for a man, or opening the door for him? If they burst into hot tears of confusion you can always offer them your handkerchief. It won’t cost you anything and you might even make his day.