It’s the fate of every generation to believe that it has reinvented the universe, and is therefore unbound by the rules that bound their parents, only to end up mourning all the babies that were tossed out with the bath water. Mine was the generation that decided it was not only ok, but stylish, to wear denim even if you didn’t work on a farm, and now we have to interact with younger men who not only don’t know to remove their hats indoors, but wear them backwards, and don’t own a collared shirt. We invented folk-rock and feminism, and now have to listen to Katy Perry anthems at the gym. We demanded that the Vietnam War end and that Nixon be impeached, but now look on in helpless awe as the world tolerates Donald Trump.
We may not have become our parents exactly, but we unconsciously internalized their standards of propriety, and find ourselves regularly startled at how few people of whatever age feel bound by them. Gestures of interpersonal civility that once seemed simple second nature now feel antique or even inappropriate.
It’s more complicated for men of my generation, whose instruction in adult etiquette largely revolved around how women should be treated, but who also consider themselves feminists and therefore resist making gender distinctions. When I was a freshman in college, a highlight of our first week on campus was a lecture from the Dean of Men (there were such in those innocent days) about the respect we were to show to our female counterparts, featuring highly colorful descriptions of the anatomical consequences that he would personally visit upon any of us who failed to get the message. It was only later that we’d learn from some of those same women, who became feminists and our girlfriends and wives (more or less in that order), that what we had thought were gestures of affection and respect were actually subtle subversions inflicted on women by an oppressive patriarchy. But they married us anyway.
Men of my generation learned how to behave around women in the same visceral way we were taught to throw a baseball or swing a golf club; it was reflexive, a muscle memory. To this day, I can’t walk down a sidewalk with a woman and not place myself between her and the street. Some women find this strange; some don’t notice, or think I have a hearing issue. For a long time I thought this gesture, which I learned from my father without his uttering a word, but simply by his repeated, unfailing example, was intended to protect the woman from traffic, or from water that might be splashed up by a passing car. Later I read that it derived from an era when chamber pots were emptied from upstairs windows, and their contents were thought less likely to fall on the person walking closest to the building. It truly is an outdated and rather pointless bit of chivalry, but I feel the need to observe it as strongly as a bad itch. So it’s really more for me than for the woman.
Then there’s opening doors for women. If out of old habit you should open a door for a woman, the reaction you get will depend largely on her age; if she’s young, she’s likely to be so taken aback that she’ll hurry on, ignoring you as though you’d said something vulgar. If she’s older she might be more pleasantly surprised, and might even smile and thank you, perhaps hoping to encourage more of this quaint behavior.
But if you want to feel really ancient, really out of step with the times, try standing for a woman. I don’t mean standing up for women; women are perfectly capable of standing up for themselves. I mean that I was taught, by years of direct observation of my father and his peers in social settings, that when a seated adult male is approached by a woman, he would rise out of his chair and stand and wait for the woman to be seated or to move on. (If this was at a dinner table, he would also pull out a chair for her, but let’s not tax credulity.) It didn’t matter if he was meeting the woman for the first time or if she was his wife, he would stand for her. If she left the table momentarily – say, to go to the women’s room – and returned, he would stand again. I clearly understood that this was absolutely required, that not to do it was to imply that the man’s comfort took priority over the woman’s, or that she was beneath his full attention.
But we live in inattentive times. Men and women and their children sit together at dinner with their faces in their screens. When I stand for my wife when she joins me at a dinner table, more often than not it attracts stares of puzzlement or, if it’s a man of my age who takes notice and remembers his own training, resentment that I’m rocking the feminist boat that has delivered him from such niceties.
As our manners go, so goes the republic. Trump is the ultimate embodiment of our indifference to the standards of civility and public grace that my parents took for granted, my generation trampled and now misses, and our grandchildren may never hear of. But it doesn’t take all that much to retrieve them, and to teach them. My father never said a word; he just stood up. Every time.