Monday, July 8, 2013
Thanks but no thanks?
The focus on individuality in our culture these days means that independence is prized as a virtue and dependency condemned as a vice. For this reason, along with the general life experience that tends to remind us that, mostly, strangers don't care about other strangers (unless they're really beautiful), I sometimes balk when a man offers to carry a bag or open a door for me. Am I supposed to protest that I'm fine, thereby freeing him from this obligation he's imposed on himself? The independence ideal would say 'yes', thereby creating an awkward schismatic moment where I internally waver between accepting or rejecting the offer.
But while I might occasionally feel awkward about random acts of gentlemanliness, I have never been offended by them and I don't feel demeaned by them. In some small way, such offers remind me that there are guys who look out for the interests of women, and the pendulum swings a little further to the side of trustworthy men. I feel cared for and respected, and such encounters usually leave me smiling.
Today, I had an unwieldy handful of groceries in my arm as I joined the checkout queue at the supermarket. There was a handsome older gentleman in front of me whose mammoth haul of groceries took up the whole conveyor belt and spilled over the end, so I leaned my pile on the basket at the end of the checkout and waited.
"Oh, you should go through in front of me," he said.
Without really thinking except to process the fact that there was no room for my groceries anyway and to assume he was merely "being nice", I waved him off. "Oh, I'm fine here. Thank you!"
He smiled but then shook his head and said, "You can't do anything to help anyone these days."
My immediate response was guilt, a feeling of sadness that I had refused an act of kindness. I went to explain or apologise, but he kept on talking. "Things are so different from in my day. Just the other day, I opened a door for a woman and she said to me, 'I could've done that myself, you know!'"
I went to say that I'd never refuse a door opened for me, but he cut me off. "If you wanna blame someone for the way I am, blame my mother. She raised me to be a gentleman!"
I wanted to thank him and let him know he shouldn't stop being a gentleman, but he continued speaking until he was through the checkout. I had not had a chance to explain myself or even thank him, but by the end of the conversation (if it was a conversation), I was not feeling thankful; I was feeling harrassed and oddly unsettled. As I walked out of the store, I looked for the man to at least give him an apologetic smile, but he would not meet my eye again.
By the time I got to my car, I realised I didn't need to apologise at all. If his goal in allowing me to jump the queue was to serve and respect me and make my life easier, he had completely undermined it by taking offence and being angry at me for refusing his offer. If his goal, however, was to feel good about his own kindness, then it is little wonder he was hurt by my refusal.
But this is the thing with selflessness: it's meant to be, well, selfless.
I don't know if there is a moral to this story -- or perhaps, rather, there are two. The moral for me is that when people make an offer of kindness, they are usually happy to follow through with the act of kindness. The moral for gentlemen is that an act of service is only truly so when it serves the other. Being a gentleman is less about parading your masculinity and more about caring for women.
PS. Here, have a Cary Grant.