The other day I found myself in a very awkward social situation. I reached for the smoked glass door of a restaurant, but by the time my hand arrived the handle was no longer there. Perhaps another person’s brain would have been agile enough to immediately realize that the young woman standing in the diner’s entryway had shoved the door open, but not mine. No, I stood there for a moment with a confused look on my face, which is to say that I stood there for a moment with my usual face.
She stared sternly.
I gave her the universal “well this is awkward” smile and moved slightly to my left.
She stood her ground and glared.
I gave her the universal “oh, that must have been the wrong direction” shoulder shrug and moved slightly to my right.
She summoned the gravity of a distant sun and glowered.
My brain experienced complete meltdown. Left was incorrect, right was incorrect, and straight ahead was most definitely incorrect. Even what I believed to be basic social cues for embarrassment and courtesy were incorrect. While my tiny noggin tried to process this information I stood frozen. Blood vessels burst in her eyes and she summoned from the great beyond a war party of the slighted, mistreated, and maligned. I caught a brief glimpse of my late uncle Stan, whose favorite post-life past time is regaling Einstein and Lincoln with the torrid tale of the time he was charged for butter-flavored topping that he neither asked for nor received on his popcorn.
Eventually I came to my senses and took a wide step to my right, at which time the young woman exited the building while wordlessly cussing me out with every angry cell in her swiftly moving body.
Now, I know nothing about this woman. She may have been in the middle of storming out of the restaurant at that very moment due to an argument with a significant other. Perhaps she was the manager until just seconds before the tinted door flew open with “you can’t fire me I quit” rage. Maybe she was a heart surgeon, paged to save the teetering life of someone important like Pope Francis or Tito Jackson.
Regardless, the incident immediately triggered thoughts of a Facebook friend who regularly posts about the sport she makes of confronting men on city streets. The game is a sort of Gender Politics Chicken, wherein she refuses to yield to oncoming male sidewalk traffic. A tally is kept and posted of how many men run into her rather than yield their privilege, because we all know that sidewalk etiquette–along with “manspreading” on public transportation–is how The Man articulates his privilege.
My job when I see these Facebook posts is to keep my mouth shut and not be offended. She isn’t talking about me, after all, but her own experience in her own town far away from me. If I choose to infer that men everywhere, including myself, storm down city sidewalks gleefully body checking women into oncoming traffic; well, that’s on me. It’s her experience, her life, her Facebook page.
Of all possible motivations for the woman at the door, this is the one that made the most sense to me for no other reason than it was the only one for which I had any context. I wondered while I stood there both irritated and befuddled whether my rash decision not only to enter a restaurant but to do so by opening the door had led me into an unscheduled and unrequested game of Gender Politics Chicken.
The more I thought about it, the more irritated I became. My meal was ruined, the great rheostat controlling my mood inextricably jarred from “hungry” to “Costanza.” I wanted to scour the city until I found the rude woman and unleashed a mighty, “Well the jerk store called, and they’re all out of you!”
Eventually (read: 10-15 years later) I calmed down and gave the matter of Gender Politics Chicken a bit more thought. I’ve seen guys sprawled on public transit, their knees so far apart that one can only assume that advanced elephantiasis of the scrotum is in play. I yield the sidewalk right of way to rude men daily. As for “mansplaining,” the condescending explanation of how things really work? Well, I direct you to the barrage of nonsense spewed daily from our president-elect’s bully pulpit on topics ranging from constitutional law to what makes good sketch comedy. My average day, just like yours, is one long “come at me, bro,” but it never occurs to me that gender is in play.
The reason for this is simple: As my door partner clearly demonstrated, men aren’t the only jackasses roaming the streets. For every manspreader in a subway car there sits a woman with items piled on the seat beside her. For every mansplainer, there’s a woman claiming intellectual high ground on this topic or that, courtesy of her sex. For every ‘roided-up jackass in an extra small children’s Ed Hardy tee who thinks that giving up space on a public sidewalk is synonymous with ceding Poland, there’s a woman playing Gender Politics Chicken.
“Them or us” is not a division based on gender lines, but rather manners. This is not to say that serious gender issues don’t exist in our society–they most certainly do–but holding open a door is not one of them. Men do not hold open doors for women, men hold open doors for other people. So do women. Do you know who doesn’t? Rude men and rude women.
And who elaborates on the topic of conversation? A person who wishes to contribute to the conversation. Who swoops into a conversation with a belittling “let me explain how this works in terms you’ll understand”? A condescending ass, be he man or woman.
Why we’ve invented new terms for bad manners–“road rage,” “manspread,” “mansplain”–is above my pay grade, but they are imprecise and unnecessary. We don’t need more terms, we need more civility. It doesn’t even need to be genuine civility. I was raised in a small Southern town, and I still have relatives in that neck of the woods. An acquaintance explained to me in a patronizing tone that the folks in these towns, including my family, aren’t really polite. “They’re phonies. They’re faking it,” she said.
“So what?” I said. “I’d rather have phony effort than genuine rudeness.” I’m not entirely sure, but I think my response was taken as mansplaining.
Maybe things went sideways when we gave up hats. I don’t mean beanies, ball caps, and hipster fedoras. I’m talking about the pre-Kennedy era, when men and women alike donned headgear before heading out the door. Perhaps dressing up a bit before entering the public sphere had the subconscious benefit of dressing up one’s behavior a bit, too.
That might seem like an absurd idea, but if you’re of a certain age (and that age isn’t horribly old, by the way) you probably remember dressing up to take an airline flight. Airlines held onto antiquated ideas of civility much longer than any other means of conveyance–long after Greyhound gave up their “no spats, no service” policy–and as a result passengers behaved more or less like civilized people. Now that sweatpants and flip-flops are the norm on airlines, so is propping one’s bare feet upon an armrest, tilting seats back until we’re lying in each others’ laps, and gorging on stinky food that pollutes the entire cabin. Correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation, but dressing purty sure seems to correlate with purty manners.
Inevitably, though, I don’t think we are an intentionally rude people but rather a clueless one, regardless of our attire. We have lost our sense of space when we are in public, walking four abreast along the sidewalk or blocking traffic while we check our phones. We step onto elevators without waiting for the current passengers to exit. We park our grocery carts in the middle of the aisles while we shop, and when we’re done with them we ditch them in empty parking spaces. We’re so deep inside our bubbles that we simply don’t recognize that there’s a world of similar bubbles floating all around us.
Maybe hats aren’t the key to civility any more than blaming rudeness on gender is. Perhaps the answer is as simple as the words of Kurt Vonnegut’s great Eliot Rosewater: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
The next day I returned to the same restaurant, and once again the door flew open before I could grab the handle. “Oh, excuse me,” a young man said, and he held the door for me.
“No worries. Thank you,” I said.
“No problem,” he replied, and he exited. The great rheostat controlling my mood rotated from “hungry” to “people are pretty kind,” and I slid into a booth and scanned the menu.
And we weren’t even wearing hats.