Gentleman Scholar

How Should a Gentleman Open a Door for a Lady?

Or is it ungentlemanly to do so at all?  

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Troy Patterson.
Troy Patterson.

Photo by Christina Paige

I was taught that a gentleman opens a door for a lady and try to follow this basic rule of etiquette for those who wish to accept the offer. The problem I encounter happens most frequently when I am leaving an establishment wherein the doors open outward and I encounter a lady on her way in. I do have decent arm length so I am able to lean outwards and hold the door, but this can put the lady in an uncomfortable position of having to squeeze past. The other option is to exit the establishment and hold the door from the outside. This may also cause discomfort if my actions are interpreted as aggressive. If the lady holds the door open for me, I graciously exit, thank her, and hold the door for her as she passes. This is the least uncomfortable resolution of all, but I don’t want to presume that it should be the norm. Please advise.

Thank you for your question.

Let’s begin by frisking its premise: At the threshold of a proper response, the issue of choreography halts and waves a philosophical problem forward with an open palm, saying, “After you.” Is it correct, at this late date, for a man to go out of his way to open a door for an able-bodied, unencumbered woman?

To be clear, I am not talking about slowing to hold swung-open doors for people exiting a Starbucks or fleeing a Kwik-E-Mart on one’s heels—a courtesy that even barbarians habitually extend to persons of all sexes and genders. Rather, we’re concerning ourselves with the practice of taking a couple seconds of time and a few joules of energy to open (and, for that matter, close) a door on behalf of a lady. Or, for that matter, a cleaning lady. Or a whore: Once, in the course of engaging an eighth-grader’s query about the gender politics of chivalric etiquette, Miss Manners noted, not approvingly, that “chivalry originally applied only to upper-class ladies, and while a version of it was extended to the middle class in the nineteenth century, it never inspired anyone to defer to the lower classes.”

Which points us to a tenet that may not be as obvious as you’d like to think: A guy shouldn’t even bother discussing this subject if he is going to be, like the Roman god Janus, two-faced. In the 21st century, mounting an intellectually coherent defense of this habit, he must commit to opening doors for, yes, all women, offering equality of access to cordiality of ingress. (As is usual in matters of etiquette, true elites are principled egalitarians.)

So far, so good, right? Ah, but the opposition is already filing a motion in limine: why should any man hold a door for any woman? … Isn’t it implicitly belittling? … Haven’t you heard the phrase “benevolent sexism”? … How much does the patriarchy pay you to compose this drivel?

Look, I mean, yes, a guy is part of the problem if he places more stress on literally opening doors for women than on doing so metaphorically. And, yeah, I know, ladies, that you have the hands to do this yourself if for no other reason than that your on-trend nail polish made them too impossible to ignore. It is perfectly clear that you aren’t helpless. If you collectively make a fuss about it, right-thinking fellows will be obliged to knock it off because deference is the whole point here.

But I prefer to think that this little gesture honors the concept of honor. Sifting through the rubble of the collapsed hierarchy of the previous millennium, one comes to realize that chivalric etiquette has everything to do with cult worship of the Virgin Mary. Even a nonbeliever—especially a nonbeliever?—will find something charming in the idea. If you have the eyes to appreciate Chartres and the ears to grok Bach, then you may have the heart to believe that this form of chivalry is worthy of landmark preservation. God is dead, as Nietzsche said, but it is nice to think that his baby momma has survived into the 21st century, representative of humanity as she was. There should be some genuine humility in favoring women with this sort of courtesy, which appropriates tradition to implicitly oppose the incomplete nihilism (Nietzsche again) of the age.

The first door-holding maneuver you mention, dear reader, is of course the least attractive. The whole idea of manners is to increase ease, and you certainly want to avoid contorting yourself into an awkward obedience of the letter of social law that thereby violates the law’s spirit. You don’t want to force a woman to slither by you or, worse, to duck under your outstretched arm like child in a play tunnel or a bride beneath a sloppy sabre arch. (On that score, the only thing worse is That Guy who cannot override the programming telling him to let a woman depart an elevator before he does, no matter how tight the squeeze or inelegant the exit.) If the timing is right, you want to follow the steps described in the second example: Employing the kind of mildly inquiring eye contact that motorists and pedestrians routinely exchange, assert yourself out the door first, hold it for her, and move on with your lovely day. And what of the third scenario? What’s behind door No. 3? The future, perhaps—liberty, equality, co-ed fraternity. Knock, knock. Who’s there? American pragmatism.