There’s been some interesting talk of the so-called “Politics of Politeness” by Rona, inspired by Dev’s comment on a recent post of mine. In the spirit of story telling, I want to share two relevant brief anecdotes that have been burned into my memory for all time.

When I was just getting into the job market after dropping out of school, one of my early jobs was that of a lowly office technician. I was handy with the computers, but I was also handy at running errands. On several occasions, I would fetch lunches or coffee from Starbucks for my office-mates and bosses.

One time, the office had a particularly large order for Starbuck’s Coffee. I was sent out to retrieve it. The order overflowed two trays (that’s 8 drinks plus snacks) and was a challenge to carry, but I managed. I managed, that is, until I got to the doorway of our office building.

The doorway was manned by a security guard. Not a doorman, mind you, a security guard. When I reached the door and tried to open it, I couldn’t. I was juggling too many things in my hands to get the door open without dropping or spilling this thing or that. I glanced over at the security guard on the other side of the glass but despite making eye contact he made no motion toward me, so I tried the door again.

Then, out of nowhere, this tall blonde woman was beside me holding only a small purse, standing in front of the doors. Suddenly the security guard had the door wide open, the woman walked through it without ever acknowledging either of us, and the security guard let go of the door before I even stepped inside. Thankfully, I was small and quick enough to literally slide through the open doorway as it was closing.

Now, all of this happened in the span of about thirty seconds or so, so there is more story here than there is necessarily fact. Nevertheless, I will remember those few seconds for the rest of my life because of the incredible rush of frustration I felt in that moment. What assholes, I was thinking to myself, the security guard for being utterly sexist and the woman for her pretentious attitude of entitlement.

In my generous moments, I think that perhaps the security guard thought I would be insulted if he offered unsolicited help in opening the door and perhaps the woman, for her part, was simply very busy. But I doubt both of these things.

Another similar moment happened not long ago when Eileen, Sinclair, and I were leaving one of Viviane‘s recent tea parties. We were putting on our coats and since I had exited the party last, I was the last one to finish getting bundled up in preparation for the cold outside. Then I noticed that Sinclair was holding my coat up.

For a moment, I froze and wasn’t sure what to do. After the surprise had passed, however, I continued putting on my coat with Sinclair’s help and thanked her for the gesture. Never before had anyone who I wasn’t already very close to held my coat up for me this way, and I remarked on the fact.

What’s funny is that I can remember many times when I have done exactly that for other people and then upon further reflection, I remember, mostly for women (though at times close male friends, too). It is as though, lacking any kind of other information about one’s chosen gender role, I defaulted to this behavior while interacting with feminine-identified people I didn’t know well and not with masculine-identified people I didn’t know well because social mores have taught me to do exactly that. Only once I became friendly with a man, and our relationship changed to a more intimate one (even if not a romantic or sexual one), did I begin to behave in a more gender-agnostic way.

That observation, when applied elsewhere, held true for many other things as well. When saying goodbye to friends, I’m more likely to ask, “Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” if I’m speaking to a woman and more likely to ask, “Are you sure you know your way?” when speaking to a man. I generally wish everyone “safe travels” regardless of their gender, and obviously there are other factors at play here (that men are also susceptible to), but the observation is an interesting one nevertheless.

The conclusion, I think, is that politeness is perceived to be a facet of social interaction that is inexorably linked to gender. In other words, politeness is sexist (or more precisely, genderist) since to do or not do something polite is dependent upon one’s social presentation. That’s an incredibly variable thing.

Assuming that the security guard who didn’t hold the door for me did see me (because, damn, did I ever feel invisible after that!), either he didn’t open the door for me because he was an asshole or he didn’t open the door because he thought that I would feel it impolite if he did, because I was a man. Similarly, he opened the door for the woman because that is what’s “supposed to be” polite in that context.

No one is surprised to hear that gender affects social dynamics, but many people have trouble seeing how other people could possibly have a different understanding than they do. If you open the door for a woman, she may be flattered, or she may be insulted. In such situations where a positive or a negative outcome could result from one’s actions, what is one to do? That’s a tough question!

I think the best generalized solution has been around for a very long time, and Rona got it exactly right when she cited the solution as the golden rule:

Really, though, I think it should come down to the golden rule – treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself… or possibly even better. Don’t adjust your behavior to suit the gender, adjust it to respect the individual.

What this means in the situation with the security guard is that, if I assume his understanding of gender dynamics to be the ones he displayed, he did exactly the right thing. Similarly, if I were in his shoes, I would want someone for whom I did not open the door to first assume I did so out of positive intent. In other words, to make mismatches like this one go over smoothly, we really have to assume everyone’s innocent until proven guilty.

And hey, isn’t that one of those universal human rights? This is, of course, admittedly much more work than just blanketing every social interaction we have with binaries of “polite” or “not polite,” but that’s the price we have to pay for the invaluable benefits of being a social species.