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September 24th, 2007 at 8:06 am

Where is the Fine Line Between Chivalry and Sexism?

Chivalry is not dead. It’s just been keeping its head down for a bit. And who can blame it when the line between courtliness and condescension has become so blurred?


You’re not required to spread your cloak for your mistress’s dainty feet, but she won’t feel remotely undermined if you help carry the shopping. Strike the right note and both of you should benefit from your knightly services.


Stress is not sexy. There’s a certain kind of man who uses stress as a measure of self-worth (“look how many people want a piece of me”), and he’s not the man we’re after.

Clutching your forehead every time your BlackBerry bleeps does not mark you out as an alpha male; it makes you look like a salary monkey on a short leash. Nothing is more impressive, in our time-poor era, than the man with time and attention to spare for others.

An air of ease, natural or cultivated, can be a killer advantage.

The easy-mannered man appears to be in control in any situation. This should not be confused with a controlling personality. Our 21st-century knight knows how to get things done his way without huffing, hectoring or “do-you-know-who-I-am?” arrogance. He displays the kind of social confidence that puts other people at their ease, and a physical confidence that has nothing to do with macho posturing. You feel that if push came to shove, he could slay dragons or, at the very least, see off a mugger, but pushing and shoving really isn’t his style.

Above all, the chivalrous man is a grown-up.


Just as men subconsciously prefer women whose waist-to-hip ratio bodes well for childbearing, we recognise that a man who has been “nicely brought up” will be a better father to any future offspring. Rough and ready Heathcliff types were fine as a teenage fantasy; in the adult world, however, they are an embarrassing liability.

The basics should be automatic. “Please” and “thank you” are not optional. Punctuality is important. Perpetually running late does not mark you out as either a very busy (for which read unbelievably important) person or an insouciant maverick. It exposes you as an arrogant incompetent who thinks that his time is more valuable than other people’s.

Ditto the increasingly common and irritating habit of making and taking endless mobile phone calls, text messages and BlackBerry messages while out in company. You may think this makes you look popular. We think it makes you look like a techno-nerd who can’t organise his life. It also suggests to us that you don’t think we are very important.

Respect for elders is nonnegotiable, whether the elders in question are your parents, our parents or strangers. We’re more impressed when you offer an old person your seat on the bus or train than when you offer it to us (same goes for bag-carrying and door holding, etc).

Similarly, we love it when you make an effort with children. You don’t have to come over like a Blue Peter presenter – just show a genuine interest in their concerns.


Yes, we do know how confusing it is for modern men. We’re just not sure why it’s so confusing. We’ve heard the spluttered arguments about how we want equality one minute and chivalry the next but, darlings, it’s really not so difficult. We enjoy being treated like a lady, but we don’t want to be patronised. Remember this important distinction and you won’t go far wrong.

Most women, these days, recognise that the benefits of feminism will not evaporate like faery gold if a man holds the door for us. The door thing, frankly, is not a deal-breaker. Just don’t make a huge production out of it (the loud “Ladies first” exclamation is unnecessary, annoying and reminds us of a halitotic old schoolmaster).

On the street there are practical reasons – more to do with mud from the wheels of messenger bikes than impromptu sword fights – why a man should walk on the kerbside of the pavement. When this is not easily achieved, we’d rather take our chances than find you dancing around us in awkward circles.

We don’t need a guiding hand in the small of the back as we cross the big, dangerous road, but a friendly, shepherding arm may be appreciated in dense and rowdy crowds. There is nothing at all untoward in helping us on with our coats, as long as it’s done with confidence and helps rather than hinders us. Just don’t – unless the friendship has already progressed well beyond outdoor clothes – start smoothing down the lapels and tucking in our scarves.

The real skill lies in knowing where to stop. Standing up for introductions and goodbyes is basic good manners. Bobbing up and down every time we leave or enter a room soon becomes farcical.

Remember, your main aim is to increase your companion’s comfort. If you chance upon a woman who sincerely objects to “sexist” gestures, you should give in gracefully and without comment. Insist, and the advantage is lost.


Good flirts can’t help themselves. They flirt with everyone. It’s not so much a seduction technique as a form of chivalry; a refined politesse designed to make the other person feel good. Bad flirts have quite the opposite effect.

Non-sexual flirting is a powerful social and professional tool, but it should never be a transparent attempt at self-advance-ment. Nor should it come over as a performance. You are not setting out to be charming, you are setting out to be charmed. If you’re evidently taken by a new acquaintance, they’ll mark you down as a person of good judgment and all kinds of advantages will accrue. But this kind of flirting must be evenhanded. If you are obviously more impressed by the younger, prettier or more influential women in the company, you will appear merely creepy. Remember that social/professional flirting is a mind-game. Physical attentions are intrusive and inappropriate; in the work-place they are also illegal. So keep it light and cerebral.

If, on the other hand, you’re genuinely looking to “score” with a member of the opposite sex, you need to narrow your focus. The object of your affections needs to know she’s special, so cut back – at least in the opening stages – on compliments to mothers, sisters or best friends.

Romantic flirting is all about frisson management – an intimation (and no more) of physical closeness. Holding a look just a heartbeat longer than is usual in everyday polite conversation, a light touch on the hand or arm (not the knee as it makes you look like a lecherous uncle) or an “accidental” brushing of shoulders or arms are proven means of testing the waters.

If the lady freezes, back off. At this stage, only you and she know of the attempt and you can retire from the field, dignity intact. Persist and you risk a public brush-off, as well as an unhelpful reputation as a sex pest.


No woman ever thought badly of a man for asking her out on a date. Even if she declines the invitation, she will be disinclined, for reasons of personal vanity, to write you off as a desperate loser.

So go for it. You should not be shocked, in these modern times, if the woman does the asking, but it makes sense – particularly if she has made her liking for you obvious – to seize the manly initiative and get in first.

Arranging a first date by text or e-mail may seem casual to the point of cop-out.

Sometimes it is the most practical method, but techno-invites need to work harder on “tone” to maintain the sense of occasion. “R U UP 4 IT?” lacks romance.

Whether making arrangements face to face or by telephone, come straight to the point. “Would you like to go out with me some time?” sounds too much like a sweaty-palmed teenager. “Would you like to have dinner with me on Thursday?” makes you sound like a man with a plan and leaves room for a graceful get-out (Thursday may be the very night she does Pilates, visits her mother or washes her hair). If there’s a genuine diary clash and she does want to go out with you, she will make this clear. You can then make arrangements for another evening.

There is nothing nerdy in turning up early for a first date, particularly since your companion will know about it only if she’s early too. We’ll see it as a good sign if you’re there waiting for us – it is distinctly unchivalrous to keep a lady waiting alone in a public place.

If you are unavoidably late – we’re talking “acts of God” here, not a careless attitude of “things dragging on a bit” at work – call ahead (never text) and let her know. She will want to know if you’re talking about minutes or hours – a bald “I’m running late” provides her with no indication of how long she’ll have to wait.

Half an hour is about the maximum amount of time you can expect us to wait; a quarter of an hour is not a capital offence, but still requires apology.

There is no excuse, bar hospitalisation or family crisis, for cancelling on the day of the date. It is unforgivable to stand a woman up. A phone call, however abject, does not meet the case; we may not even pick up. A bunch of flowers delivered the next morning may just secure a second chance. But make it a big one.


“Going Dutch” on a date is never an option – not even, one imagines, in Holland. Splitting the bill is fair and modern in principle, but in practice you may as well write “I never ever want to see you again” in letters of fire across the night sky.

At the beginning of a relationship, it is widely accepted that the person who issues the invitation picks up the tab. If you have been invited out by a woman, you might still offer to pay, but concede the privilege if she says “no” and means it.


Women like to talk more – or at least talk about more – than men. This can make conversation between the sexes tricky. Men, on the whole, are interested in the general exchange of information. Women – not all women, but enough women – will sift each sentence for subtext.

You say: “That restaurant is always full of screaming kids.” We hear: “On no account get emotionally attached to me as I am a dyed-in-the-wool commitment-phobe who will never, ever want to settle down and have babies with you.” You say: “That dress really shows off your figure.” We hear: “Dear God! What kind of whorish get-up is she wearing?” And so it goes on . . . It’s nobody’s fault; it’s really just the way women are programmed. And it’s also why eye contact is crucial in any kind of verbal seduction. To make us feel comfortable while we chat, your eyes need to beam full approval. If it’s clear from your reactions that you are also listening to what we are actually saying, then it’s an incalculable bonus.

What we say, will, in all probability, be on the abstract side – hopes/dreams/interests/fears. You will, naturally, wish to counter this talk with accounts of contracts won and penalties scored. You will assume that, because we keep on asking questions (in the dogged hope of establishing emotional contact), we are enthralled by everything you say. If we fancy you, we won’t terribly mind. If, on the other hand, that deal has yet to be clinched, there are certain steps you can take to turn conversation to your advantage.

First, you need to set a timer in your head. If you have been talking about yourself for more than ten minutes, then it’s time to switch roles and ask some interested questions about your companion. Secondly, you need to listen to the answers. Listening well means remembering what we say and then using this information at a later juncture.

Watch closely to see which subjects engage and animate us the most and keep these topics well shuffled and ready to play. Find a way of making it clear that you admire our ideas and opinions just as much as our décolletage (talking to our face, not our chest, is the ideal starting point). Should you run into an emotional/ ideological impasse, laughter is your “get out of jail free” card. Just don’t make every joke an evasion technique. In fact, go easy on jokes per se. Aim for more female-friendly observational humour whenever possible.

Don’t be afraid of short natural lulls. There’s nothing like a pause in conversation – no longer than a heartbeat – to crank up the erotic charge, particularly if accompanied by some meaningful eye contact. Too much silent staring, however, will scare us and if you overdo the “companionable silence” at the beginning of the relationship we assume you are bored. Remember, a woman in love will forgive just about anything you say. It’s what you don’t say that spooks us.

Via: Times Online


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