Growing up in a household with both my mother and my grandmother, I endured plenty of instruction and lectures regarding manners. I ended up becoming relatively well-behaved in the usual ways: no hats at the table, no chewing with my mouth open, no running in the house. The first rule of courtesy that ever sank in, though, was that I should always open the door for a woman.
Sure, opening the door took a little work, but it gave my 4 year old self something productive to do, and it also provided an opportunity for instant positive feedback. Getting a smile from mom when I grabbed the door as she brought in the groceries was great. Holding the door open for a stranger at the convenience store was even better; it was my first glimpse into how manners and courtesy, requiring little effort, could make someone else’s day just a little bit brighter. And frequently, although not always, the recipient of generosity would reward me with a smile or thanks.
In recent years, however, this custom of courtesy has come under fire and inspired countless think-pieces, spanning topics from its potentially paternalistic origins to its “benevolently sexist” effects, including an assumed or implied quid pro quo. I’ve read quite a bit on the subject, and while I believe I have a handle as to why the practice has received scrutiny, I do not agree that it deserves to pass from the Earth or that it stems from a place of bad intentions. Here’s why.
The Case Against Opening Doors for Women
“Opening doors for women, as opposed to opening doors for all strangers, belittles women by implying that they are weaker, helpless, or unable to open doors for themselves.”
Of the criticisms I’ve read, this is the bit that initially got me soul-searching regarding my own motivations when holding the door open. Do I only hold doors for women? Why wouldn’t a man appreciate the same courtesy?
I came to realize two things: (1) I do, in fact, hold the door open for other men; and (2) generosity doesn’t have to be rooted in need.
When it comes to the disparity between door etiquette for approaching males and females, I have no doubt that there is a wide spectrum of behavior, spanning from universal door-hold-openers to those who hold the door only for women. As mentioned, I tend to hold doors open for both, but the steps of the dance are different for each. Whereas holding the door for a woman typically entails stepping out of the way and an often unstated “after you,” men tend to pass through the door on a basis of first arrival, propping it open behind them for the approaching stranger (frequently accompanied by a head nod). Although procedurally different, both acts support what I believe to be the spirit of the custom: it costs me nothing to help you out for this brief moment, and I feel a little bit better about my day as a result of this tiny good deed. It also assuages some of the leftover guilt from my daily road rage, but that’s another post.
Regarding the second point – the idea that opening doors for women implies an inability to do so for themselves – I struggle to see this argument to completion. Taken to its logical conclusion, this line of thought implies that all acts of generosity, no matter the motivation, are only performed to assist a person in need. Although that may be the case when it comes to charitable contributions, I believe that the vast majority of kind deeds are performed more out of a sense of common decency or a desire to please another person. Consider the last time you gave someone a gift or sent them a nice note on social media. Were you fulfilling one of their basic needs that they couldn’t handle on their own (“Here’s a new tee shirt that people seem to love. I know you have terrible taste and can’t afford it, so I did this for you. Ha ha!”)? Unlikely. More probably, your motivations mirror my own, and through an upbringing that encourages social interaction, you’ve grown up with a certain degree of empathy for your friends, acquaintances, and society at large. That empathy drives our generosity; not some implied degree of inability or helplessness on the part of its recipients.
“These supposed gestures of good faith may entice women to accept the status quo in society because sexism literally looks welcoming, appealing and harmless.”
I accept that a person with a different point of view from my own could feel put-upon or singled-out based on gender when having a door held open for them. I cannot accept that holding open doors is a component of an insidious brand of sexism – masquerading as courtesy – bent on tricking women into welcoming a subordinate role in society. It’s an open door. It’s three seconds of two people’s lives. It’s not a gateway drug into chaining women to the stove and branding them as second-class citizens.
Maybe the reason that holding a door open looks “welcoming, appealing and harmless” is that holding a door open is, actually, welcoming, appealing and harmless. Many battles still rage between and among the sexes when it comes to equality, not least of which are income disparity and maternity policies (and rightly so!). To suggest that opening a door for a women is a covert way to reinforce those inequities, however, is lazy, beyond tenuous, and desperately lacking in nuance. It also diverts attention from issues that rightly merit scrutiny.
“When a man opens the door for a woman, he does so as an implied exchange, a sort of quid pro quo for a corresponding act from the woman, sexual or otherwise.”
Here’s where I completely get off the train. I find it preposterous that someone could argue that holding a door open – likely for a stranger – is an effort to curry favor with that person, such that that person will feel obligated to return said favor, potentially in a sexual manner. Personally, I’ve found courtship far more difficult than simply opening a door, but I didn’t go through college in the age of Tinder!
To return to where we began, the most important women in my young life taught me to open doors. I cannot fathom a world in which they would have insisted upon such an activity in an effort to provide me with sexual currency. My grandmother was not schooling me in the art of coerced seduction via courtesy. And neither was the reverse true; she did not feel an implied obligation to a man who opened the door for her. It was a simple act that spoke to the root of courtesy: namely, ease and hospitality.
To put a point on this post – and to expose my own root motivation for being courteous – I’ll say this: if I hold the door open for you, it’s not because you’re a woman, it’s because I think of myself as a gentleman. Whether you thank me or not, I feel a little better knowing that I was able to help out, even in such a small way. I believe most men feel as I do, and I ask your indulgence to give us the benefit of the doubt in this small gesture. After all, encouragement for this small act of civility could be just what it takes to foster a boy’s more civilized impulses. I know it was for me.
What do you think? Am I antiquated? Did you grow up the same way? If not, do you wish that you had? Let us know in the comments, and have a great day!
While is was still teaching, I taught the boys in my class to, as I do, stand when an adult female entered the room. I learned this in addition to holding open doors for women. One woman felt offended by this; others expressed appreciation, including a female principal who commended me. These gestures go perhaps beyond courtesy to chivalry. A man does things for women simply because he ought. Society still needs chivalry – it is the code of the gentleman.
Another wonderfully written Foxtales. Please post more often, Longshanks!
As for the topic at hand, I agree completely (although in my house it was no hat inside the house, not just st the table). There is never a need to apologize for good manners. Those who protest a door being opened for them will one day appreciate the gesture. Some things are timeless – a good bourbon, Saturday afternoon college football games, cuffs on pants and opening a door for a lady.
Grace is strength under control. I was taught, and I taught my son that he should follow the strong and noble instinct at work in us to show deference and be gracious. We are strong when we can pay attention and pick up liter, hold a door, say a kind word, lend a helping hand, stop and injustice, pay ahead, and refrain from vulgarity and rudeness. It is confidence and kindness that grows as we are flexing our moral muscle and showing love. It feels good to both parties when you hold the door for a man or woman. It is just a friendly gesture of courtesy. We need lots more politeness and courtesy in this increasingly course and slovenly society.
Antiquated? Hardly. Kind? 💯
I, too, grew up with multi-generational influences. Manners and etiquette equaled kindness. If you politely held the door for a person- you were offering a kindness. If you said “please” and “thank you,” you were showing kindness. In my childhood household, polite gestures were simply that- acts of kindness. Nothing more, nothing less.
Throw open those doors and let the kindness spread!🤗
Yep, raised in the same way. Really no different than greeting or smiling at a stranger. It’s an innocent and positive gesture so I find the criticism cynical and amusing.
I was raised in the South, and this was a common courtesy. I am female, and I, too, hold the door for both genders as an act of kindness. I also hold the door for my wife. It’s a nice gesture, and I think she appreciates it. As a feminist, I do not take issue with anyone holding the door for me. We could all benefit from being a little nicer to each other.