A street encounter with a man with a pram prompted Glen Poole to ask, why do some men and women react differently to the kindness of strangers?
A strange thing happened to me the other morning. I was marching up the hill on the way to a meeting when I spotted a man with a pram coming down the hill towards me. Between us there was an impending bottleneck created by the unlikely triumvirate of a lamp-post, a crash barrier and a wheely bin.
I’m pretty good at spatial awareness (I’d say it’s man thing but I’m sure my partner would say I’m deluded as I am clearly less aware than her of the dust that accumulates in our shared space). By my calculation, even if I increased my acceleration by 23%, I still wouldn’t make it through the gap first without causing pram dad to have to slam on the brakes and risk catapulting his toddler into oncoming traffic.
As I’m always keen to prevent involved dads from needlessly cocking up, I did the gentlemanly thing and I stood to one side to let man, pram and baby go first. I even stared at the ground to make the whole scene a little less awkward for all concerned, but when I looked up, the dad had come to an abrupt halt on the other side of the bottleneck and—in a very erect, gentlemanly fashion—was holding out his hand to allow me to pass by first.
And then I remembered the golden rule for men at the pramface—never treat a man with a pram like a lady!
I grew up at a time when young women were beginning to resist all manner of seemingly innocuous social etiquette such as refusing to walk through a door that a man held open for them out a sense of chivalry. I’d forgotten about these random acts of defiance until last week when my other half got into a bit of a doorway duel with an old gent at a charity shop. He was leaving the store as she was entering, so they both tried to let each other go first and ended up in a temporary state of etiquette impasse, on the threshold of a building full of second-hand tat.
For clarity, my partner doesn’t have an issue with men opening doors but the timing and context was such that it felt entirely appropriate for her to do the kind and polite thing and let the elderly gent go first. But he was having none of it. In fact he became quite agitated:
“No, no, no, no,” he protested “can’t a man be allowed to let a lady go first anymore, chivalry isn’t dead you know, I insist, you go first”. In the end, she did the only thing she could do if she wanted to rifle through dead women’s blouses in search of a bargain, she agreed to play by the old man’s social rules, based on a view of gender that assumes women are the weaker sex and it is men’s role is to protect them.
And this is how the man with a pram probably felt when I stopped to let him pass. In this fleeting social interaction, I unwittingly positioned myself as the chivalrous gent, the protector of women and children and may as well have added the verbal challenge: “you go first because you’re a big girly wimp, Pramboy!”
It’s no wonder he resisted!
In her classic book on gender and communication “You Just Don’t Understand”, the linguist Deborah Tannen presents her theory on the hidden meanings in such gestures. Women, she claims, are more likely to strive for intimacy and use the symmetry of connection to create a sense of community when they communicate. Men, on the other hand, favour the struggle for independence and are more likely to communicate through the asymmetry of contest and one-upmanship.
The simple act of allowing someone to go first, says Tannen, can imply status. It can send the metamessage “I am one up for you and I grant your permission to go first”.
When a man makes a protective gesture, it can communicate the traditional alignment of men protecting women and children. When women make a protective gesture it suggests a different scenario, because women traditionally, protect and nurture children.
This is why some women resist men’s chivalry as the metamessage they receive is that women are the weaker sex and need protecting by men. This is also why old men in charity shops resist being allowed to go first by a woman, because they don’t want to accept the metamessage that they are treated like children. And this is also what you should be mindful of when you let a man with a pram go first.
If you’re a woman, you’re unwittingly sending the message “I’m treating you like a child” and if you’re a man you’re unwittingly telling him that he is a woman with a child who needs your manly protection.
And no man with a pram needs to be treated like a child or offered your manly protection, because any man who is macho enough to impregnate a woman and then push the resulting offspring around town with him is all the man he ever needs to be (and he’s certainly no lady)!
—Photo credit: Flickr/Nicolas Raymond
Article by Glen Poole author of the book Equality For Men
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