Why do gentlemen defer to ladies?

A man held the door for me at the gym the other day. This is a common enough courtesy, but for some reason it got me pondering. This man was much bigger and stronger than me. He was also younger than me. So maybe he was a gentleman holding a door for a lady, or maybe he was a young person holding the door for an older person.

Photo © Kablonk Micro • fotolia.com

Photo © Kablonk Micro • fotolia.com

My Prophet’s Chronicle series is all about egalitarianism—the principle that all people are equal and therefore deserve equal opportunities. But if all people are truly equal, is this kind of door-opening deference silly?

And are people genuinely equal? Obviously not. Some people are taller, stronger, smarter, more creative, more ambitious, more capable than others. So perhaps what I’m really after is a meritocracy.

Either one lies in sharp contrast to the peerage system, in which rank is derived from one’s family status rather than one’s own accomplishments. Such a system requires the older, wiser person of no rank to defer to the younger, more foolish person of rank. That’s way sillier than opening doors for people.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.—Galatians 3:28

I’m reminded of Newman Noggs, a character in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens, who has fallen on hard times. In referring to his earlier days, he says, “I was a gentleman then.” Of course Noggs is one of the most gentlemanly characters in the story, from a modern American view. But in the Victorian view, a ‘gentleman’ was a man of property. Having lost his property, he loses the appellation.

So if we live in a society where one’s status as a gentleman or a lady is dependent not on property or circumstances of birth, but on one’s behavior, is the practice of gentlemen deferring to ladies unegalitarian?

I put it to you that what matters is context. In business, we defer based on rank—that is, seniority within the firm—rather than by age or gender. So the newly hired salesperson would open the door for the sales director, even if the new hire is a middle-aged woman and the director is a young man.

In social situations, we defer based on what we can observe. So the young man opens the door for the older woman.

I have heard tell of women who get offended by old-fashioned gestures of this sort. Their complaint, so I hear (I have never actually witnessed such a thing), is that the act of opening the door implies that the woman is incapable of doing so herself.

What nonsense.

There is nothing rude about opening a door for someone else, regardless of your relative ranks, genders, financial status, or anything else. The rudeness lies in berating someone for offering a well-intended favor.

I don’t claim to have the complexities of this egalitarian meritocratic scheme all figured out. But these are the things I think about as I explore the ramifications of what it really means for all people to be created equal.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.—Philippians 2:3-4


About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

4 comments on “Why do gentlemen defer to ladies?

  1. As you may recall, cutting-edge personality type theory is one of my keen interests. But so are the basics of politics (so much so that I derived a model based on the Ark of the Covenant to illustrate the Bible’s revealed principles concerning politics).

    Some cognitive preferences, with their underlying social styles and temperaments, bring with them an expectation of “up-down” social interaction. Some bring an expectation of “side-to-side” social interaction. It’s the latter, such as ENFP which is my preference, which are often called “naturally egalitarian”. It means not just that we want equal opportunities for all by nature, it means that we would rather avoid “standing on ceremony” if we can. We may like being “gentlemen” (or in response, “ladies”), but in hierarchies (which, yes, we can learn to appreciate) “submitting to one another” is a lot easier to understand for us by nature than “submitting to [one having rank order: king, priest, husband, boss, whatever]”.

    My own chief protagonist, likewise ENFP, is very much like this. But there are people he deals with, and that I deal with, who are naturally the reverse. Alain Harper’s chief nemesis, Nicholas Blackthorn – you will pardon me for name-dropping about my own characters – is ENTJ by preference and if anyone expects “up-down” interaction, such a one does. One of Old Nick’s chief complaints in life is that his former Lord the Hooded Man (a very thinly veiled symbol of Jesus Christ) lets ultimate “loose cannons” like Alain run around. That’s something I’d like to exploit if ever I have time to write about that conflict.

    I suspect that on some level, you have a cognitive preference which assumes “side-to-side” interaction by default and which carries over into your fictional world. But true to form, our preferences on that subject often find ourselves in conflict with other preferences in other areas of human behavior and that is what we have to work out as authors.

  2. I hold the door open for anyone. In my mind, it is a matter of being polite. Just like you can’t (or shouldn’t) complain when someone tell you “please” or “thank you”, you shouldn’t complain at someone holding open a door for you. Just my opinion, of course. I have had plenty of men jump in and say “let me get that for you” when I’m holding a door open, but most of the time it is an older gentleman who was raised to open doors for women. I get more upset at the people who don’t thank me for holding it open.

  3. I do believe that the world has an idea of what is and isn’t equal under the law of the land(s). And God who created us has a God given gift of equality for all men. But I believe that is primarily where the fruits of the spirit, the Ten Commandments and the Statutes and Ordinances are concerned. And where Eternal Life is an equal gift to us by our Creator. I believe in equal balance with others. Working together each bringing the gifts we were given and in the end by each of us being a part of the body, yet having different parts, we equally give to that body. I appreciate that a man opens the door for me. However I must feel it it is real and not for some pathetic reason. That I can perceive from a globe away. I think many a war has erupted because of enough people not willing to share their gifts and accept the gifts of others to a greater end. So I do believe we are created with equality. What we do to build on that is our responsibility. I think that women have gone so far in waning what they considered equal rights and not be treated in a feminine way that men have far too often ceased to be gentlemen. I think the world has been nearly devoid of gentleness and women being ladies and men being who God created them to be. When John and I work together for instance and pardon me for using that analogy, we use our gifts and what he brings to the table is not greater than I but equal in its importance. So it msrakes things work in a way that is a good end for what we are working on. It creates wholeness and a sound way of equality for us.

  4. Thanks, John and Yisraela. Great points!

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