Authors strive to resuscitate ailing chivalry

  • Greg Morago / The Hartford Courant
  • Monday, April 12, 2004 9:00pm
  • Life

Two months ago, Jeffrey Hoffman saw something unusual while shopping at Filene’s, the department store — something so routine and yet wholly uncommon that it has bothered him since.

"For me to recall it, it must have been shocking," said the director of a local financial services company. "But it was the first time I had seen it in a long time."

So what was this unusual phenomenon that took him aback?

A man holding a door open for a woman.

Now how astonishing could that common courtesy be? Hoffman said he was even surprised that he was, well, surprised. "Holding open a door for a woman is something guys should do naturally. But today, they don’t necessarily think that. It’s not that they don’t know how to do it; they just don’t do it," he said. "I think that guys in some cases lack social skills, a little bit of chivalry."

Ah, chivalry! That marvelously antiquated notion of courtly valor. As alien to contemporary man as sunflowers are to Antarctica.

Think about it: When was the last time you saw a man hold a chair for a woman or help a lady with her coat? (Look in the newsreels, fellas, or check out the black-and-white flicks at Blockbuster.) In this day of "Bachelor" humiliation, "Elimidate" hijinks and "The Man Show" piggery, the concept of the well-mannered gentleman, let alone the gallant knight, is all but forgotten.

Or is it?

The very notion of chivalry — a code of male behavior from the time of the medieval knight to the Victorian gentleman — fascinated author Brad Miner.

He can remember the day the idea came to him, at a screening of the movie "Titanic" he attended with his son. In the film, industrialist and philanthropist Benjamin Guggenheim, knowing he was doomed, remarked, "We’ve dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen."

"Sitting behind us was a group of young people laughing, cackling at the comment," Miner recalled. "Why was that funny? Why was it that the idea of a gentleman had become so marginal? I began to do the research and look into the history of the idea."

The result is "The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry," to be published in May. In it, Miner argues that bravery, respect for women and devotion to the truth (all aspects of a chivalrous gentleman) are needed now more than ever.

"If there’s a real difference between now and the past, it’s that once upon a time, being a complete gentleman, or being chivalrous, was the common aspiration of most men," he said. "Now, that’s not true. It’s an idea we don’t think much about."

And who do you think is more aware of that than men? Women, of course.

It was women Peter Post met while giving corporate lectures on etiquette who implored the great-grandson of etiquette empress Emily Post to write his latest book, "Essential Manners for Men: What to Do, When to Do It and Why," published in November. On his book tours, he saw women buying "four, five, six, seven copies of the book," said a surprised Post. For three weeks, Post’s book was on The New York Times bestseller list for advice books — unheard-of for a tome on manners or etiquette.

"It told me people were much more interested in the subject than I ever thought they’d be," he said. "Men need this, no question about it. Men have further to go than women. I didn’t have a whole lot of women coming up to me saying I should write a book for women about manners. So something’s going on out there."

That something is a loss in 21st-century man of qualities — call them manners, call it chivalry — that Miner and Post explore in their books. The authors, however, take different paths. Miner’s guide isn’t a how-to book; Post’s is.

"There are a lot of men who could frankly care less about the gentleman aspect. But men really do have questions, and they really do want answers," Post said. "What they don’t want is for people to judge them, make them look foolish or deprecate them because they asked the question. The last thing they want to admit is that they don’t know something."

Oddly enough, there must be a lot of somethings they don’t know, as Post’s book covers all the bases, from spitting and flatulence to tipping and gym etiquette, to remote-control hogging and table manners. The man might be modern, but in many cases his behavior apparently can be quite apelike.

Hoffman isn’t an expert (although he does possess lovely manners) but he does recognize there is a general lacking in male manners. Still, he said he doesn’t like lumping all men together in one big, uncouth pack.

"It’s like men who burp in public. I can’t stand it, but some of them enjoy it and they laugh about it. There are some common customs and courtesies that we’re lacking, which we shouldn’t," he said. "I think parents generally try to teach children the right things to do. While I think today’s parents teach manners, they don’t necessarily teach when to apply them. When we were growing up, we weren’t just taught these things, we were taught when and where to do them, how to apply them."

Post couldn’t agree more. He also thinks that we’ve reached a point in our society where we all — not just men — need to recognize the need for the ideals of chivalry, propriety and decency.

"What I’ve seen is that people are more interested in the entire subject of civility today than they were five, 10, 15 years ago," Post said. "As a country, people are more interested in this information. We’ve crossed the line where people are willing to say, ‘I want to make a change.’"

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