I was wearing a baseball cap in the office a couple of weeks ago – I take my Casual Fridays very seriously – when I encountered a female co-worker from another department. As we passed each other, I touched the bill of the cap and inclined my head slightly.
She said something like, “That's the first time anybody has tipped his hat to me in years. Thank you.” She's not someone I'd thought of as the old-fashioned type who expects doors opened for her and the man to always walk on the curb side, so her reaction surprised me.
But I thought about it a little, and it occurred to me that maybe we're all missing those once-expected courtesies of life. I don't think they were a symbol of male dominance asserting itself over the poor little ladies, at least not most of the time. They were just small gestures of etiquette offered and accepted as signs of mutual respect. Our abandonment of them may have had more serious consequences than we realize, perhaps a bigger effect on the coarsening of our culture than we want to admit.
We've been through it all, haven't we? For all of history, until just a few decades ago, male chivalry was the norm, and any man who didn't offer it was a dog. Then we went through the feminist upheaval during which any man who had a chivalrous impulse was a pig. Eventually we had the post-feminist confusion when nobody knew what they were supposed to do or how they were supposed to react.
If we've finally come through to the other side where we can all contemplate this a little more calmly, we are in uncharted territory. “We are at the beginning of a vast and completely unprecedented social science experiment,” author Elizabeth Gilbert said in a recent speech. “We are in the first generation of women in the history of mankind who have had freedom, autonomy, literacy, education, access to their own economic well-being, access to their own power ... And we do not have thousands of years of strong, autonomous female role models to look to for how to solve our lives. We are all doing it for the first time, ourselves.”
Men don't have role models for this grand experiment, either, it should be added. But that's OK. One of the first things we all have to learn, I think, is that we don't have to figure everybody out. Life is still lived one on one, and all we have to do is learn what the people in our lives expect and act accordingly, trying not to get bent out of shape if we get it wrong once in a while.
According to a recent study at Purdue University, even small gestures like smiling at strangers while making eye contact with them can have a tremendous impact on emotional well-being. So let's relax and be courteous and stop sweating the small stuff, OK?