Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Should boys be taught different manners from girls?

Perri Klass, M.D., says in the New York Times:

Not long ago, in the clinic, a fellow pediatrician and mother asked whether we were still teaching our sons old-fashioned elevator etiquette: stand back and let the ladies off first.

We all protested that we don’t particularly like it when men pull that elevator stunt — hospital elevators tend to be packed, and the best thing to do if you’re near the door is get out promptly — but we had to admit we thought our adolescent sons should know the drill.... 
As a pediatrician with two sons and a daughter, I acknowledge the need to emphasize manners and respect as boys maneuver into adolescence and adulthood, and to help them understand the implications and obligations of their increasing size and strength. And I acknowledge that for their own protection, boys need to understand that there are people — male and female — who will see them as potential predators, and judge them automatically at fault in any ambiguous situation.

But I am enough of an old-fashioned feminist to want to teach daughters the same fundamental lessons I teach sons: err on the side of respect and good manners; understand that confusion, doubt and ambiguity abound, especially when you are young; never take advantage of someone else’s uncertainty; and, just as important, remember that adolescence should be a time of fun, affection, growth and discovery.

It’s too bad that one side of teaching our children about sex and relationships means reminding them that there are bad people in the world; stay away from them, stay safe, speak up if someone hurts you or pushes you. But everyone needs that information, and that promise of adult support. We have to get that message across without defining some of our children as obvious perpetrators and others as obvious victims, because that insults everyone.
I've never understood that elevator thing. If there are men and women getting onto an elevator, and the men "let" the "ladies" go in "first," then what happens if it's a big group of people all going to the same floor? The men will be right in front, meaning they're the first who should exit. I've actually seen this happen in a packed elevator, with the result being that a man (not me) was standing directly in front of the door when the elevator opened and we were all supposed to get out. He just stood there, immobile -- he couldn't simply get off the elevator like a normal person, because that would violate the "ladies first" rule. There was enough space that the rest of us could go around him, but the entrance was narrow enough that we had to awkwardly squeeze by. His behavior didn't help anyone; it just caused some slight discomfort. That's what happens when you prioritize traditional gender roles over common sense.

The same thing can happen with people trying to get in the elevator -- a commenter on AskMetafilter says:
[T]he only thing time a display of chivalry is annoying me is when there's the big cluster of people trying to get on the elevator, and I'm standing behind a guy, and I want VERY much to get on -- but he can't see me, and he's standing like a stone because he's letting the cute girl he CAN see in FRONT of him on first, and meanwhile I'm standing behind him seething because he's in my way and I just want to get on the freakin' elevator, GOD almighty....
Aside from elevators, the general rule of "ladies first" isn't even consistent with traditional gender roles. Whoever goes first is physically protecting the person who goes second. If you go first, you're the one who's testing out the conditions: whether there's an unexpected drop, a slippery floor, people recklessly charging through, etc. So if you subscribe to the traditional view that it's men's job to courageously protect women at every turn, you should favor a "ladies last" rule. Right?