Minding Your Manners: A Political Balancing Act

(First appeared in The Beach Reporter on 9/19/91, but still somehow applicable today…)

Once upon a time, actually not that long ago, rules of etiquette were set in stone. There were things you did in public, and things you didn’t. You didn’t breastfeed a baby in a restaurant, you smoked wherever you wanted, and a man always held the door open for a woman and paid the check.

When a man held the door open it was seen as a matter of courtesy. Now it is an act fraught with potential political overtones. Is he holding the door open because he thinks I’m the weaker sex, and therefore need help? Do I sail through the door graciously, murmuring an appreciative thank you? Or do I give him a power stare, grab the door out of his hands, and say, “I could rip this door off its hinges, and feed it to you for lunch, chauvinist pig.”

Personally, I always take advantage of a freely opened door whenever possible. But I also think nothing of holding a door open for a man. To me, it’s a matter of human courtesy, not a gender-related issue.

I wouldn’t want to be dating now, however. When I was dating, the guy called the girl, and he always paid the tab. Women of my generation were probably the last women to be brought up thinking that a man paid to take us out on a date for the pleasure of our beauty and company. A strange set-up when you think about it in today’s context.

I would never suggest to my own daughter that she let a man take care of her. Or that all she had to do in life was look pretty and make good conversation.

Of course, when you’re married, you don’t worry about such things as who pays and who opens the door. Whoever got paid most recently and has cash in their wallet pays for the movie. Whoever isn’t loaded down with the diaper bag gets the door.

It used to be said that it wasn’t good for a marriage if the woman made more money than the man. It would cause problems for the man’s ego if he felt he wasn’t the breadwinner of the family. My husband would not only love it if I made more money than him, he would be ecstatic if I made buckets of money and he could quit working altogether.

Waitresses used to always give dinner check to the man. Now a smart waiter will discreetly set the check down in the middle of the table.

Other rules of etiquette have changed as well. Some things were never done or discussed in public. Pregnancy was never something you could hide, but my parents never sat in a room full of strangers discussing the female reproductive anatomy. Or discuss lactation with people they’d never met. Pregnancy and breastfeeding are glorified now, rather than hidden discreetly out of sight. Remember Demi Moore in her awe-inspiring Vanity Fair spread? My mother hid under a pregnancy muumuu for fifteen years.

You also never used to discuss your family’s problems outside of your own family. Now it’s trendy and therapeutic to go on TV and spill your guts about everything from Grandpa’s battle with the bottle to your manic depressive aunt who once threatened to set her sister on fire.

People are also more outspoken about courtesies they expect from others. In the past, you would never think of asking someone to please put out their cigarette.

Etiquette books today are dealing with these changing social mores. No more pressing issues like which fork to use, or whether you should let a guy kiss you on a first date. Rather, the issues are about things like whether you can tell your second husband’s ex-wife’s children not to drop by asking for money. Or whether it is socially acceptable for a 50 year-old woman to bring her 25 year-old lover to her daughter’s high school graduation.

I’m still worried though, about who opens the door for whom.

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