I’m a New Yorker. Moving south took some adjustment. For starters, I had to learn how to not to go into diabetic shock every time I had some iced tea (apparently, it’s called “sweet tea” down here for a reason).
But I have to admit, there was plenty I liked about the cultural shift. I’d never had more (literal) doors opened for me in myf life.
On one of my first dates I went on after moving south, my date opened the passenger door of his car. Presumably he meant for me to get in. I glanced at him making moves for the passenger door and thought, “Ok, that’s a little strange but I guess I’ll drive,” and headed for the other side of the car.
People, well, men in particular, it seems, are always racing to open doors, pull out chairs, grab checks, etc.
I have to admit, the southern charm kind of grew on me.
And then I read this article on subconscious sexism and its description of chivalry….well…it changed my perception:
These actions find their roots in the assumption that women are fragile and delicate, that women are no more than property for men to take care of.
In other words, chivalry equates to a form of micro-aggression against women. Ug.
For all the men out there, I join you in that collective defeated sigh. If it feels like you can’t do anything right anymore, I hear you. I’d be scared and frustrated too.
I was having a discussion with some friends this past weekend about the press that sexual harassment has been getting recently. One of my male friends made the comment that he was scared to compliment a female colleague on her new haircut that he found quite striking. There was no malintent, no suggestive nature behind the comment, but he couldn’t take the risk of being misinterpreted.
This is our shared sad reality, and we are all scared.
Men, you aren’t all creeps. But us women have lived in a world of sexual overperception bias for…umm…ever. For a quick summary, check out the recent "Welcome to Hell" spoof from SNL. We've been living here.
Some of the original research on sexual overperception by men is linked here. But for the quick summary:
Sperm is energetically “cheap,” making the evolved strategy for males of nearly every species is to spread their genes far and wide with as many partners as possible. That means, when a woman smiles, or touches a man’s arm they are more likely to misinterpret these cues as an invitation for sexual advances, whereas most women, more often than not, are signaling the “friend-zone.”
The male brain actually primes men to ensure they don’t miss an opportunity to mate. Subconscious or not, this can easily lead to miscommunication, especially given that women are primed to be picky about their mates to ensure high quality offspring.
So how do the sexes safely navigate and resolve our fears in an age where intolerance for sexual harassment is finally being recognized?
Let’s start by having conversations.
Big ones, sure, like what’s happening now at the national level. But more importantly, we need to have micro-conversations: at our offices, with friends, and one-on-one. Instead of lumping everyone together into groups, let’s treat one another like respected individuals with individual levels of appreciation for “chivalry” and interpretation of what constitutes appropriate behaviors so that we can better recognize the boundaries for each relationship we acquire.
If you want to hold the door for me, I say go right ahead. I happen to think holding doors for people in general is a good thing, but don’t let it offend you when I exert my own power to hold the next door for you. And don’t insist on carrying my bags, if you aren’t helping my brother with his.
Personally, I don’t think chivalry is dead—it just needs a little amending and some recognition of the cultural and biological underpinnings that have landed us in this ugly mess. I’m so pleased we are beginning to speak up more about these issues. In doing so, let’s all not forget to listen as well. Everyone has their own, unique story to tell.