Is Chivalry Dead? Yes, But So is Basic Human Decency

Posted by Deborah Huso on Oct 14, 2012 in Men, Motherhood, Musings |

I spend a lot of time in airports. And if you really want to get the pulse of human nature, there is no better place to find it than in an airport–or on an airplane–in the rush to board or deplane. This is where people show their true colors. And the colors are not pretty. We’re not talking sunny yellow and soothing insane asylum lavender (which is, by the way, the color I painted my office). We’re talking angry orange and dire black.

I can’t tell you the number of times I have lifted heavy suitcases for pregnant women when plenty of able-bodied men were about. Or the number of times I have seen elderly ladies taken out by the roller suitcases of businessmen. But a recent tripped to Chicago topped it all.

I was suffering from a minor wrist injury and had my right hand in a brace when my five-year-old daughter and I boarded a plane in Detroit on leg two of our trip home. When I struggled a bit trying to get my suitcase in the overhead bin with a bum hand, Heidi called out from behind me, “Can someone help my mommy, please?”

Nothing. I dropped the suitcase. Heidi repeated her question in a plaintive voice four more times with no reaction from any of the passengers seated around us. I looked down the aisle and met the gaze of a flight attendant. “I’m sorry, but I have bad hand,” I said to her. “Could you help with this suitcase?”

Remarkably, she shook her head and turned away. (And in case you’re wondering for the sake of future flight planning, this was Delta.)

Then what I can only admiringly call a “bad ass grandma” appeared behind Heidi. Petite but feisty, she said loudly, “I cannot believe with all the men on this plane, not a one can get up to help you put that suitcase away!”

Still there was virtually no reaction from anywhere, save first class. A young man from business class finally met the call to action and stowed my suitcase for me.

Next item: climb over young businessman to access my window seat. He was sitting there in his aisle seat engrossed in his iPhone. With my good hand clutching the fingers of my energetic preschooler, I said, “Excuse me.”

No reaction.

“Excuse me, sir.”

Still nothing.

I was beginning to think I was the victim of some horrible practical joke. I knelt down to put myself at eye level with the seated businessman glued to his handheld electronic device, and said, “I’m sorry, but I have to sit beside you. Could you please let me in?”

That finally worked. He got up and let me in.

Once I had Heidi and myself buckled into our seats, I sat there wondering over this latest experience of human decency gone awry. I don’t expect too much of people, men in particular. I’m a self-made businesswoman who knows how to wield both a weed whacker and an orbital sander. But just because I can do everything most of the time when required does not mean I do not appreciate acts of basic human kindness.

Like men who open doors for me. Or young people who offer to hoist my luggage into the overhead bin on an airplane.

But basic human kindness has become an increasingly rare commodity. When a man holds a door for me these days, it almost bolls me over so rare is the occurrence. And when a businessman in an airport actually lets me go first to get off a plane rather than running me down in his mad rush to get to wherever, I find myself pleasantly surprised.

But I don’t think this is how things should be. Fellow contributor Susannah tells me she thinks the trouble is that men are scared to be kind to women because there are women who are offended when a man offers to carry their bags or pay for their dinner.

Um, really?

Who are these women?

I’m a feminist. I believe I can do whatever a man can do for the most part, though there are some areas where I fail. I can’t, for example, swing an ax for hours on end. But I suppose if I really wanted to be able to swing an ax for hours, I could build up the strength to do it. But just because I am smart and capable doesn’t mean I don’t ever want a gesture of respect or assistance. I am human, after all. And I have to wonder about women who take offense when a man commits an act of basic human kindness.

I really don’t think this is the problem. What woman in her right mind would get annoyed if a guy opened a car door for her or bought her dinner on a first date? It is no different from when I help an elderly woman find her seat on an airplane because her eyesight is no longer so good. It’s a small matter of honoring one’s fellow creatures as human beings deserving of care and respect.

I don’t believe men are the problem or feminism is the problem. I think our culture is experiencing a disturbing decline in basic human decency, and I wish I could pinpoint the answer as to why.

I cannot.

I just know it has reached epidemic proportions.

The one advantage to all this rudeness, however, is that it provides an excellent filtering system. For example, if a man fails to open a door for me or fails to buy dinner on a first date, that’s it. He’s done. And if an acquaintance fails to show proper empathy for a friend or colleague in need of comfort, I know instantly that person is not worth my time or energy. The playing field of people who understand basic human kindness and basic modes of showing respect has narrowed so much that it’s become quite easy to dismiss potential friends, lovers, and colleagues as complete duds on first acquaintance.

But the question remains–what is going on here? It wasn’t so long ago that a person who did not help an elderly neighbor with her groceries, hold doors open for women and old folks, and at least offer to foot the bill at dinner gatherings would be socially rejected as a numbskull. But now it’s perfectly acceptable, apparently, to be rude and self-centered.

I had the pleasant experience this last week of having a door held for me by my 10-year-old second cousin in Chicago. “After you,” he said. And when he and his brother received gifts of soccer jerseys from Norwegian relatives, without any prodding from their parents, they put them on and then pleasantly posed for pictures from trigger-happy relatives with cameras who thought they were cute. These young men will be rare commodities, I fear.

Decency isn’t that hard a skill to master. You would think otherwise though by how many people lack it, of course. As Susannah, who is training her 10-year-old son in the arts of social grace, says, “It’s really not that hard to hold a door open and say, ‘How are you?’ It should be a social reflex.”

Unfortunately, it’s not.

The social reflex these days is to ignore your surroundings and scroll on an iPhone while buildings burn and women give birth in the aisle four feet from your airplane seat. Oh yes, and you’re an M.D., too, but let’s just forget that for right now, as it would be awfully inconvenient to offer your expertise and aid on your vacation trip to Panama.

The problem here with this “ME” attitude, however, is that it isolates. And, as any history major knows, isolation only leads to a dangerous disconnect from reality and society.

If you don’t offer yourself to others, they sure as hell are not going to offer themselves to you.

So next time you see a single mother struggling with a stroller, three suitcases, and two toddlers, offer a hand. Because the thing about basic human kindness is this: just like the more popular mode of toxicity, it’s contagious as hell. Make a mom smile, and you’ll smile, too. And honestly, wouldn’t you rather see O’Hare or Hartsfield-Jackon as places of opportunity rather than places of massive rush and stress. Care for your fellow man, and I guarantee, in times of trial, he will return the favor.

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