Saturday, 5 October 2013

Opened Doors

In general women are only two-thirds the size of men and have only two-thirds the body strength. (The strength gap can be narrowed, however, by committed strength-training.)

Most women also, by nature, as a normal part of our existence, bleed for two to seven days every non-pregnant month for up to forty years, 50% of us in pain, and this is considered so embarrassing by all of human culture that we almost never mention it. If we do, it is usually in euphemisms, and almost never around men not related to us. And there are wardrobe malfunctions considered so bad, soooo bad, that not even the gutter press would photograph them--unless Britney, at her drunkest, was really that careful.

Women are also at risk of death when we give birth. The risk goes up if there is no good medical care around. Giving birth is often excruciatingly painful.

And that's female life for you. We belong to the cleverest, arguably deadliest species on earth, but we belong to the smaller, weaker half. We live our lives in pain and blood that has to be kept secret. And when I think about it, this makes me very cross. I would like to know why it has to be this way, and I hope God will tell me. And, yes, I read Genesis, but I didn't see anything there about "smaller", "weaker", or "painful bleeding every month for thirty-odd years".

Various male spiders and insects also have reason to complain, as their disadvantage is that the females of their species actually gobble them up. But the major difference between the spiders and us is that they don't have the capacity to complain. Or the brains to reflect on their lot.

As you know, I love to write about being rooted in reality, in part because I find it rather hard. Reality can be painful. Of course, it's often not as painful as we fear. But the numero-uno reality of female life is that we are two-thirds the size of men and most of them could just lean over and strangle most of us if they felt like it and there's not much we could do about it. Fortunately for us, then, there is this amazing thing called CIVILITY.*

Civility is totally awesome. Civility is what teaches the stronger that it is wrong to oppress the weaker. Civility is what teaches men that it is wrong to strangle or pillage women whenever they feel like it. Civility is what teaches women that it is wrong to strangle and bury our infants whenever we feel like it, or to seduce each other's husbands. Civility is what prevents older siblings from pushing their younger siblings down the stairs, as I was sometimes very tempted to do.

Civility, since I am the Queen of the blog, is whenever a person realizes that they have some advantage over someone else and doesn't use it or, better, uses that advantage to assist the weaker person. The first example that comes to mind is that if I am wearing a low-cut dress to a dinner party and the priest shows up, I get my shawl. The second example is of a priest in Krakow who hefted my huge red suitcase onto the rack in my Warsaw-bound train carriage. As a woman of civility (some) I know that cleavage can be distracting and even annoying to men in orders, and as a man of civility the Krakow priest knew that it would be easier for him than for me to get that suitcase on the rack. (Not easy, mind you: easier.)

The more civility we have, the better I like it. I think this new casualness most of us wallow in works against civility, and I was very glad that my grandmother was not addressed by the staff in her nursing home as "Gladys" but as "Mrs [Family Name]." I don't know if this policy was directed by the understanding that my grandmother's generation finds automatic first-naming offensive or by the recognition that elderly people are at risk of being spoken down to, like children. I hope it is the latter, because if I become old, I do not want to be "Now, now Seraphic"-ed by strange whippersnappers in blue.

I think it is fantastic that the Continentals still have polite forms for "you" and still use them. No doubt it gives the Continental young something to look forward to in adulthood: the right not to be called "tu/Du/Ty" by adult strangers. And I also think it is fantastic that many Continentals still make all those polite gestures that another generation of mothers have told their sons well-brought up men are supposed to make. There's a woman in southwestern Germany I've never met, but for whom I have tremendous respect just because her son has perfect manners. (This son forgot to tell her I exist, however, not that I'm still bitter about that after seven years, Last Ex-Boyfriend.)

Well-bred Polish men still kiss women's hands, and it's extremely charming. It makes me want to take Poland away from the modern West and homeschool it. ("But what is going on out there?" "Never mind. Recite to me again that beautiful poem by Mickiewicz." "But, Seraphic, why are you crying?" "I'm not crying, kochanie, recite to me the beautiful poem.")

Civility is the strong serving the weak, which is a victory over fallen nature, which prefers that the strong oppress the weak, from each according to his/her strength to each according to his/her weakness. Civility recognizes that might does NOT make right. Civility tries to make up for the shocking inequalities saddled upon us by fallen nature.

And that is why, my little cherubs, I like it when men open doors for me and let me go first, and why I feel like a real jerk when I absentmindedly show up to church in a low-cut dress. It is the humble tribute of the strong to the weak. It is the Three Kings kneeling in humility to Baby Jesus. The real glory of the strong is their care for the weak. That goes for all of us.

*I know many of you will argue that before civility there is natural love. However, there are two problems with natural love in this fallen world. The first is that we cannot all assume that our big strong fathers, brothers, husbands and sons will always be around to protect us from uncivil men, or that they actually can. Look at the poor caryatids: architectural reminders that when the other men win, women suffer. The other is that our big strong fathers, brothers, husbands and sons who are uncivil are more likely than any other men to treat us badly. Uncivil men and women seem to think they have the power of life and death over those smaller than they who live in their houses.

16 comments:

Pearlmusic said...

WOW.
Excellent post. You put it exactly the way it is.

But as for these polite forms in Poland, they disappear. One of the things I enjoy about working in the academic field, is that you're called with polite forms and have to call your co-workers this way most of the time. In companies however, people call each other with familiar forms and it is meant to be more comfortable and distance-shortening but results in mutual disrespect.

Julia said...

Ah, the formal name thing. Yeah. I must say, I'd find it weird to ever be called Miss Last Name. Then again, Australia is a super-casual society. I mean, people I barely know will call me "mate" or "Jules" without asking if it's okay. I don't mind that though. Older ladies in shops and such will call me "darl" or "sweetie", and that doesn't bother me either.

My university faculty has hired a few Americans for the teaching staff in recent years, and I've definitely noticed the difference in formality. Australian students will call their tutors and professors by their first names. We students received an email recently from our Head of School. He signed it "Gary", even though he is a well-respected researcher and professor. I go to a prestigious university with a long (for Australia) history, and our faculty is well-respected. But we call most of our tutors by their first names, and even by diminutives.

This is an issue with at least one of the American teachers. I approached him after a class and said, "Excuse me, First Name, would you mind giving me some feedback about..." and I continued with my question. I noticed an ever-so-slight flicker of something pass over his face, but he replied to me and was very polite. Later on, another student mentioned to me that this teacher (Dr T) had had an email sent around to the students in his department (I'm not one of them) and the email basically said, "Students are not to address Dr T by his first name." I nearly died laughing when I heard that! Although I will confess to usually being very cautious with this sort of thing. I usually start off as formally as possible, for example in an email to a tutor. When the tutor replies and signs off as "Suze" rather than "Prof G", Suze she is then.

I'd probably find the hand-kiss routine to be a little...affected or something. Not sure I'd really go for that. The only guy who has ever kissed my hand is the 80-something dad of one of my friends. He even sang me a song on my birthday this year.

Seraphic said...

Well, until Australian culture is the only culture in the world, it's probably a better idea to think of foreign customs as interesting than as laughable or affected.

Professors at the University of Toronto were "Professor" or "Doctor" or "Father" Surname to undergrads, but First Name to graduate students, in some programs, but not necessarily others. Mentally I call some of my theology profs by their first names and others "Father Last Name."

Kate said...

My mother refuses to be called by her first name and sometimes she makes quite an issue over it. She wants to be seen as part of a family, married to her husband, the mother of her girls. I always thought it was a little affected, but now that I have friends with little children, we've all decided to have the little ones call us "Mrs." and "Miss".

I also teach college classes, and I am very adamant about being called "Professor". A big part of it is that I started teaching when I was not much older than a lot of students. However, we get workshopped about ethics and student-teacher relationships until we're blue in the face - so even though I'm a little older now, I still refuse to be on a first name basis with the students. I worked for these degrees, I deserve respect.

Gregaria said...

Excellent post!! I've also heard that civility is another name for the old-fashioned "meek."

Urszula said...

Great post! A very important topic that I think doesn't get talked about enough.

It's true men are generally civil if not chivalrous in Poland - when it comes to opening doors, handling heavy suitcases, the like. I honestly miss that part here in more casual America.

I remember the uproar when one of the foremost chain bookstores in Poland tried to introduce a technique whereby (young) salespeople addressed elderly people (upon checkout and looking at their credit cards) by their first names. I was once behind an elderly gentleman in line and I was no less confused than he was when the cashier said "thank you, Stanislaw" instead of "Dziekuje Panu" or anything even slightly formal. It sounded very strange, and I don't think anybody appreciated the enforced 'chumminess' (that's what it comes across as).

However, having less formality in the workplace is not necessarily a bad thing - in my jobs in Poland, everybody would be terried of "Pani Dyrektor" while here in the US non-profit where I work, we are comfortable enough to address even the CEO by her first name. It creates less layers of division/superiority.

Iota said...

Personally, I find the hand-kissing highly uncomfortable. It might be picturesque but not charming. I like my personal space to myself, unless I know someone well (and the way hand-kissing works, it's always a stranger). Handshakes for the win (if people insist o making physical contact).

But I thorough approve of referring to my students as Pan/Pani and being addressed as such. Using first names only when speaking to anyone who is not my peer both chronologically and position-wise just sounds bad outside of nicknames on the Internet.

Pearlmusic said...

Just for clarification: I'm on friendly terms with some of my same-age or slightly-older/younger colleagues at work and of course we address each other with "ty". Otherwise it would sound artificial. However, I would never call my supervisors with their first name and I don't allow my students to call me this way unless the classes are finished and we're not supposed to be in student-teacher relationship ever again.

A nice semi-familiar, semi-polite form we sometimes use in Poland is "Pan/i Marysia", i.e. Mr/Mrs/Miss and then demunitive form of the first name follows. Cute!

Pearlmusic said...

*diminutive, sorry ;-)

SundayBorn said...

Seraphic,
I've just come across your blog this evening and was immediately delighted and blessed - one post led to another, and somehow an evening of thesis revision has evaporated! Though my time has been spent much more pleasantly, without question! :)

As a fellow Canadian sojourning here in the UK (including a solid year surviving my own no-central-heating situation in Aberdeen [incidentally, do you get enraged having people constantly say, "But you're Canadian; you should be used to the cold..." - to which one can only reply - "Actually, we heat our houses, strangely enough..."] but I digress!) - Anyway! As someone sharing several things in common with you and many of your readers, including Christian faith and the desire to be a Seraphic Single in my mid-30s, your blog was truly an edifying and thought-provoking, Providential find!

Keep it up, and I look forward to continued reading - though I'm going to have to ration myself; this thesis is on a strict deadline! ;)

Jackie said...

Wow, Seraphic, you have really been bringing it this week! Another fantastic column-- thank you! :-)

Julia said...

Seraphic, I sort of "died laughing" from embarrassment and mortification! It is totally fair enough that Dr T wants to be known as such. When I heard about the email , I thought to myself, "Oh no, what have I just done...?" And the only way to react was to laugh.

You know what? Thank goodness Australian culture isn't the only one in the world. I often wish things were more formal, if only because being in such an informal society has left me with little idea about the etiquette of more formal societies, leaving me prone to looking like a total moron. I've heard of the Polish idea of a guest being treated as God, and I have absolutely no problem with that, but if I were ever treated that way I almost wouldn't know what to do or how to react. For example, I'm used to asking the hostess if she needs help cleaning up or serving or whatever. It wouldn't normally occur to me to not do that. And sure, the hand-kiss routine is "interesting", and I don't find it at all offensive, but, like, I haven't been trained how to react to that!

I think Catholic priests should always be called "Father", though. A friend of mine was speaking to a Catholic priest and addressed him as "Father". This Aussie priest said, "Just call me Michael" (or whatever). My friend says, "Okay, Father".

"I worked for these degrees, I deserve respect."

Kate, you sure do. I like that attitude. It's kind of a shame that the attitude here is that if you're an Australian with a doctoral degree, you kind of have to pretend it happened by accident. "Yeah, nah, it's not really that big of deal - I didn't work THAT hard."

Julia said...

*of a deal

Seraphic said...

@Julia. Well, you mustn't worry. Australians are liked by people around the world for being friendly and cheerful. And these days there are interesting books about foreign customs for travellers. I haven't seen one for anywhere in the English-speaking world, admittedly, but every country has its own etiquette books.

Sheila said...

My mother likes her first name. To students and my friends, she was always Miss Alison. Miss Firstname is a Southern US thing, which I LOVE, because it's respectful but also personal. So my friends and I mostly go with that for what the kids are supposed to call grownups. But often we forget and my 3yo is always asking after "his friends" (really MY friends) by their first names. I usually called my friends' parents and parents' friends by their first names, because in the northwestern US you would never even know people HAD last names. Friend's grandma? First name. CEO of your company? First name. Priest? Fr. First name.

Whereas here in the south I don't actually know my priest's first name. When I was a teacher, my students didn't know mine at first -- they did quite a bit of research to find it out! The younger teachers and I always called each other by our first names, but I couldn't stop calling the older ones Mr. and Mrs. They never seemed to mind.

I really don't care about it as a general rule. The only time it ever mattered was in college. When professors would call me Miss Lastname, I glowed .... because I felt like they were willing to *voluntarily* accord me the same respect they demanded. The professors who just went by first name, when they didn't actually know me, somehow felt condescending because of the inequality of the relationship.


Hmm. Chivalry. Your definition of chivalry is exactly the one I always use, and so I'm puzzled when men think it means kissing hands, throwing raincoats over puddles, or composing love poetry. It ought to be about not going to bed with someone who is drunk, not taking your ex-husband to court for his last penny, not aborting babies, holding open doors for people in wheelchairs, and giving up your seat to pregnant ladies. Showing that the point of life isn't to seek your own advantage however you can.

I don't care much for door-holding-open in general, because it is an area in which I am NOT weaker than a man, and I feel like it's a suggestion that I am. However, I can say for sure that all of the little polite things men used to do for women make perfect sense if that woman is holding a baby. Her hands are full! Yes, please, hold open that door! In any event, when someone tries to do something kind for you, one ought always to accept graciously rather than getting offended.

Elizabeth said...

Coming late to the discussion, however, I would just like to share my experience on the actual act of door-holding..

I am a chef, in extremely manners-casual Australia, and work for me has always been in a male- dominated environment ( not exclusively male, but predominately ). There were always guys who would hold open doors- to the store room or cool room ( I might add, especially when I had my hands full) or would lift and carry for the female chefs and I was one of those girls who would think, and say, " I have hands, I can do it myself". And i was always, always annoyed by the gesture. Coming in part, of course from wanting to appear as competent as the guys at everything. Not only at work, I might add, but work was where I was most of the time.

There were 3 things to that helped me overcome my extreme stubborness (and still do!) maybe they will be food for thought..

1. My sister mentioned something I think Jason Evert said. And that was ' if you want guys to act like gentlemen, you have to act like a lady and let the guys do guy things for you, (opening doors as an example). The point being that the Guy will feel great that he can demonstrate his chivalry towards a girl. I never liked hearing this, btw.

2. There was a seminarian at church who always called us girls 'ladies' whenever he spoke to us or about us, and, although it might sound weird, no one had ever called me a lady before, and it definitely helped me to make a point of trying to act like one,

3. And the third part is the conscious effort to let guys do the things you can do. The other week I was struggling to open a tea canister, one of my friends said 'here let me' and in truth, I felt like struggling harder and doing it myself, till I remembered point one and let him do it for me. And I know he felt great and big and strong ;)

Also, starting social dancing has been great for all of the above, where you both dance together, but you have to let him be the man and lead. And lots of the guys I dance with always say 'hey, who's leading here'. Or ' were you just leading again' and then I get all embarrassed because I never even realised what I was doing......more 'training' for me.