"Modern Man Manners" with Steven Petrow (09 23 14)

Sep 23, 2014

Columnist Steven Petrow your took questions about LGBT and straight etiquette and various other topics. His answers may appear in an upcoming column.

For the last few months, NPR’s All Things Considered has been exploring what it means to be a man in America today and I was pleased to be a part of the conversation on air and online, when I led a Reddit chat, which started like this:

"Shifting gender roles have also brought up new questions about social etiquette. If men and women aspire to operate as equals, does a man still pay the bill on a date? Should he still hold open a door? Do different rules apply in the workplace? Are there any special situations for gay men?"

In an hour I fielded tons of questions about “modern man manners” -- so let's continue the discussion here and now.

I was taught, and continue to say, "May I please have the [steak]?" My lovely husband, who is thoughtful and kind, but perhaps was not as thoroughly taught, says, "I'll have the [steak]" and sometimes even "I'll do the [steak]." It mortifies me! How do I gently steer him into a rephrasing? I also do not want my children to pick up his phrasing.

Ah ha. So, you're trying to change your husband. Good luck! Actually, of all the types of questions I receive about irritating characteristics of spouses this one seems "do-able." But first, let me say that what you describe is hardly egregious -- and if in fact he's otherwise respectful and considerate -- not so much of a manners problem. Sure, he could add a "please" or a "thank you" but his tone doesn't seem haughty. Or am I missing something? As for your kids, modeling is always the best way to go. Talk with them about how they show respect -- both with their words and body language. And while you're at it, invite your husband to join in on the lesson. Good luck.

What's the best way to respond when you hold the door for a lady, and she rudely walks right by without thanking you, or even acknowledging you're there at all?

I fear what you might be wanting to say to this "lady," but I'd urge you to think it quietly. The best advice is to do nothing and to go through the door yourself and carry on. But are you wondering whether she thought you were sexist or worse by holding the door for her? Even if that were her thinking, she'd be better acknowledging you -- or explaining her thinking. "You know, I appreciate you making this gesture but really I'm quite able to open my open doors."  This question comes up a lot from guys these days ... I see others in the queue. So will move on to them shortly.

I tend now hold the door for everyone. Has there been any change in etiquette that was traditionally male - female that is now anyone-anyone?

Good for you! As I just noted in a previous answer this question arises frequently nowadays. And I think the best response is one tha is gender neutral. By that I mean if it's the woman who gets to the door first, then please go ahead and hold it for the person behind you (male or female). And if it's a man who's there first, ditto. You can hardly go wrong doing this -- unless of course someone more traditional-minded thinks the door should be opened for her. I think the challenge is how to have manners that are not dependent on gender but still are about showing respect.

I thought the absurd arbitrariness of that old custom was pretty well killed off on the Brit-com "Keeping Up Appearances" where Hyacinth Bucket (boo-KAY!) would expectantly stand empty-handed at a building or car-door while her husband Richard, weighed down with numerous items, struggled to open the door and hold it for her while she swanned through. Nowadays common sense dictates that whoever is more able to do so holds the door open for the other.

Love that show - and perhaps more of us in the USA need to see it. You're right, indeed, about common sense; the problem is -- as I see it -- that in general we're kind of short on it, which is why people write in asking for advice so frequently. Still, gender roles remain confusing to many women and men. If you think about a business scenario for a moment; what happens if you get it wrong in that context (whatever wrong happens to be)? That faux pas can result in a heck of a lot of trouble.

this goes both ways. I'm a woman who regularly holds doors for anyone coming behind me, and I rarely get thank yous. Forget excuse mes too.

Jeez, folks. What's so hard about saying "thank you" to someone? It's not nearly as difficult as saying "I'm sorry."  Anyway, you're doing the right thing by holding the door for someone following you. "Thank you!"

How should a male respond when encountering street misogyny/sexual harassment (i.e. cat-calling) to a stranger by another stranger? Is responding appropriate, or does that only propagate the idea of "White Knight" behavior?

I think we should all speak up on behalf of each other -- what a novel idea, right? Not to mention that the woman who is the target of the cat-call may one day be our spouse, daughter, niece or friend. One of the most powerful ways to challenge norms is to call people out on their use of language (or other infractions). I don't mean rudely or in a way that puts you at risk - but privately yet firmly. In this particular scenario, you might have gone over to the fellow who issued the cat-call and said: "You know, there's really no need for that. You wouldn't like someone to do that to your wife/girlfriend...." And what happens when we say nothing? The offenders think they're in the right ... and will continue on in the future. By the way, there are worse things than being considered a "white knight" and one of them is a misogynist.

As a gay man I am always conflicted about whether I should call out strangers on their homophobic/transphobic behavior. I sometimes hear 'fag' or 'tranny' on the street and my stomach sinks. The activist in me wants to call out all of these instances but another part of me doesn't want to get in an argument with strangers every other day. When does not calling out homophobic behavior become enabling?

This is a tough question. Let me start with the easier answer. If you were to hear a friend or a colleague using slurs like those you mention, I would urge you to take them aside and explain why those words are offensive. You don't even need to explain that you're a gay man ... As I just answered in the previous question, we all need to speak up for each other. Men for women. Women for men. Gays for straights and straights for gays. But to the scenario you present I'm conflicted by my advice above and the prerequisite for safety. There's way too much anti-gay violence as it is -- with some LGBT people attacked for simply holding hands or kissing in public. I'd be concerned about your safety in this situation. And as much as I'd sometimes like every moment to be teachable, that's not the case. Let me know what you think - if you're still here.

I'm gay, so my dating questions have more to do with "who's the gentleman" when you're both men. I was in the middle of a first date the other day and the guy suggested a second date before we'd even gotten our meal. It just seemed a little forced and a bit too soon. Is there etiquette for when to suggest a second date. Shouldn't one wait until the first date is almost over?

Isn't dating fun? And the rules of the dating game are changing rapidly as well. But not in this case. Yes, it's too soon to ask for a second date while in the midst of the first. Who knows what might happen over dessert -- or later that evening. A person could change his mind. In that manners are meant to establish guidelines that are helpful -- but not a straight jacket - my advice is to wait until the date is done. Recently, I've seen a study that reported that while once we might have waited two or three days to get back in touch after a date the current expectation is that you'll text within 24 hours. It's a 24/7 world now ....

It's hard for me to believe that anyone who waits tables finds "I'll have the steak" "mortifying."

I agree.

"I'd like the [steak]" or "May I have the [steak]"?

Certainly better. But I don't think this fellow is really a remedial case. Or maybe I've just seen so many worse violations in restaurants, starting with disrespecting the wait staff.

I think that women who jump on men holding the door (I can do it myself!) are a big part of the problem. Men feel scared to do what should be common sense (holding it for a person near you) because they don't want to be lambasted (I am a woman by the way!). If we could all just see it as gender-neutral courtesy and not a *statement*, and just keep our commentary at the time to "Thank You" - it wouldn't be so hard.

What she said!

How do you suggest an able-bodied person handle whether to hold open the door for an elderly or handicapped person? My inclination is to ask, "May I get that for you?" which gives the person the choice of saying "Yes, please" or "No, thank you." It's just that I don't want to sound condescending to the elderly or handicapped person.

In general, I totally agree with your approach and I am sure most folks who are asked such a question will appreciate it. Interestingly, I recently read a question to another advice columnist from a man, maybe he was in his 60s  but thought he looked much younger. Apparently, a young(er) woman offered her seat to this man and he got upset with the courtesy because she was seeing him as "old." As the adage goes, you can't win for trying. But, please let's all keep trying!

I will generally give them a hearty and heartfelt, "you are welcome" with a genuine smile. I assume they've said it and I just didn't hear.

This is in response to the question when no acknowledgement or thank you was given to the person holding open the door. Yes, assume the best. It may even rub off on others.

Help! My husband was raised on a Midwestern farm in a family where manners mattered little. He eats with his elbows on the table, fork in a fist, ball cap on. I've begged him to removed the elbows and cap and to hold his fork correctly. He doesn't see the point. (He also doesn't hold doors or chairs and doesn't mind his Ps or Qs.) He claims his career has not been adversely affected by his poor manners, and he says that I'm not the boss of him. What to do? We have children who will pick up these habits.

Great question. I hope you're still here. I'd explain to your husband that manners are really about respecting others and that even if he doesn't mean to show disrespect he is. But I wonder if this message is best delivered by you, especially since it seems to have fallen on deaf ears (with a cap on top). Maybe he's got a good friend who's also noticed some of these  behaviors and can step up to the plate. As for your kids, you'll have to do 100 percent of the role modeling for them but I would take the time to explain why no elbows or no cap and not just make it about following mindless rules. I have no doubt your young ones will be more successful in the dating and professional worlds if they follow your advice.

I heard this as a great comeback "You can either thank me or tip me". I often notice the worst offenders are the women with strollers, especially when they are in conversation with other women with strollers. Not even a mention I opened the door, I'm just their invisible servant!

I can be as snarky as the next person but I don't recommend it. We've got enough of that already. Kill them with kindness, if you must.

This is a legitimate question but not a "gay" dating question. I think anyone in the hetero world would recognize this situation, and the answer would be, "if it feels forced and too soon to YOU, then it is forced and a bit too soon."

Agreed. But while the question isn't specific to gays or lesbians, part of the reason I write the column and do these chats is to give more visibility to LGBT people and scenarios. Sometimes my advice may be different but more often that not it's about breaking out of the "straight" paradigm. Take a look at most of the manners books -- you're not likely to find much inclusion when it comes to LGBT people (except now with specific sections on same-sex marriage).

Did he behave that way when you two were dating? If so, then why did you marry him if it matters so much to you? (Thinking you can change a spouse after marriage is a fool's errand). If not, then you know he's capable of doing better.

Good point. I've given up trying to change my spouse:) Oh, wait. He's already perfect!

Regardless of the daters' genders, I'd suggest first a sort-of -thanks such as, "How flattering," followed by a noncommittal "We'll see."

"We'll see." That sounds like bad news to me. But this is good advice. Thanks.

Um, this is how most people order at restaurants. I've never heard anyone say, "May I please have the steak?" If you're concentrating on something this petty, and find it "mortifying," how on earth do you have the energy to focus on actual issue of substance?

One more from a reader about the husband and his steak.

I don't get irritated when a man goes out of his way to hold a door or to let women exit an elevator first -- unless he actually makes such a big deal about it that he inconveniences others. Examples: the guy who's so determined to hold the door that the woman has to slide uncomfortably past him (i.e., he's inside, she's outside, the door opens outward, and he extends his arm so she has to squeeze past his body); the guy who refuses to get off the elevator first even though the woman indicates that he should go first (maybe because she has a rolling bag that will be easier to maneuver out the door once the other people get out). In those cases, it's not "chivalry," it's both (1) a condescension and (2) a hindrance. It doesn't seem like it should be a difficult distinction to make.

Very well said.

The nuns in my elementary school were quite clear that it didn't matter who got their first -- male or female holds the door for the folks behind. (Then again, maybe that was just a way to keep us all from scrambling and shoving to be first.) As a woman, I do it every time. Sometimes men are surprised, but most everyone says thank you.

More on the doors -- with nuns as role models.

I'm still here (and married to the barn-bred spouse). Thank you for your advice. Should you ever hold an in-person class, I'll be the first to sign up my husband.

I'll let you know! It sounds as though your husband's going to be a difficult case.

yeah, be careful of the snarky attempt to put someone in his/her place when he/she fails to say thank you or excuse me. I've been subjected to some serious profanity and hostility when I've tried that tactic.

Exactly. Or worse.

I think where gayness enters the equation is deciding if one of the daters has the prerogative over the other in suggesting a second date.

That's an interesting point. First, though, I'd ask in an opposite-sex relationship do we still think it's the guy who does the asking? Second time? Third? Etc.?

For a same-sex couple it's not a bad idea to think that the one who didn't make the first "ask" should step up for the second date. But two men or two women may find they've consciously or unconsciously following certain roles.


Thanks to everyone who participated today. I now fear going through a door, exiting an elevator, or simply ordering a steak. Seriously, I appreciate the heartfelt questions.

I'll be back in two weeks with a live chat on "Political Civility." With me will be Gregory Angelo, the executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, and Rep. Brian Sims, the first out LGBT politician in Pennsylvania.  See you then!


In This Chat
Steven Petrow
Steven Petrow is a respected journalist and the go-to source for modern manners. Petrow writes the "Civilities" column for The Washington Post as well as "Manners Hero" for Parade and "Medical Manners" for Everyday Health.
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