I have a guy friend who isn’t exactly up on the latest suggestions for how to treat a woman. When we are walking down the street, he walks three steps in front of me. If he goes through a door first, it usually slams back in my face. Sometimes I think he is intentionally treating me like one of the boys so that I don’t get confused about our friendship. But most of the time I just think he’s an idiot. On the other hand, I have another friend who is also not threatening to fall in love with me who is a complete gentleman. On an excursion recently, we got out of the car and started walking down the street. He was telling me a story and without missing a beat, stepped around behind me so that he was walking on the outside of the sidewalk. I was floored because being a gentleman is such a lost art. I’m quite possibly the most independent woman I know, but this little sign of respect was a very pleasant surprise.
There are many theories about the origin of this point of etiquette. If you Google it, you will find all kinds of people sharing things they heard from someone who heard something. A wonderful thing, the Internet. According to the informed public, a man walks on the outside because in medieval times, the practice of emptying chamber pots out of the upper windows into the gutter made a walk down the street so hazardous that the gentleman took the side most likely to be drenched. Gallant men also took the side closest to the street to protect the lady from mud splashed up by the horse and carriages. In more modern times, men walk on the outside to protect the woman from a car that may jump the curb (because what women worry about when strolling down the street is the cars that come flying up onto the sidewalk.) And my personal favorite: pimps walk with their prostitutes on the outside to show them off to oncoming traffic, so gentlemen do the opposite. I’m going with that one. My dear friend walked on the outside to announce to the world that I’m not a ho, in case anyone was confused. The point is there is no reason for a man to walk on the outside. It’s just a classy gesture that signals to a girl that he is thoughtful and considerate.
I have been giving some thought to how you teach a child to be a gentleman so that when he is grown, treating a lady like a lady is second nature. It is not just a job for a parent because if they are the only ones who expect it of them, it is much harder to make it instinctive. So far all I’ve been teaching my seven-year-old nephew, Rider, is that sneaking up and jumping on me will usually instigate a very unladylike wrestle, and licking my face instead of kissing me goodnight will always get the desired reaction. Wiping snot on my shirt has a similar effect. I do a fabulous job of making the kids say please. They know that every question addressed to me that starts with “Can you” has to end in “please.” When they forget, all I have to do is look at them like I don’t understand what they are saying and they quickly add the please. One of my five-year-old niece’s friends did not know what to do with my perfected stare and Rose rolled her eyes and whispered, “You have to say please. She has this whole thing about saying please.” It has become fun for me and I am proud of my success. But what else can I do to support their parents’ efforts?
One weekend Rider was the only one of my brother’s family who had not come down with a cold and I offered to keep him with me for the day. I knew that my cousin’s kids were getting together so I offered to invite ourselves over there to play. Rider shook his head and looked at me like he couldn’t believe that I didn’t know what he was thinking. “Umm, do you want to see if one of your friends can go out to lunch with us?” He looked disappointed and I looked around for an interpreter. Finally it came out that this was his day with me and he wanted to go out to lunch, just the two of us. I’ve added that moment to my list of the best things anyone has ever said to me. I gave him a list of options; Chucky Cheese, McDonalds, Tacos. He said he wanted sushi. Again my heart swelled with pride. I am having an effect on this kid! My brother has questionable taste and will not eat sushi, so once in a while, my sister-in-law and I will go out on a sushi date and leave the kids with him. Here was my little nephew asking for his very own sushi date, which was astounding because he doesn’t like it. He pretends to like it in front of his cousins so he looks as cool as they do, and his enthusiasm is very convincing. But I’ve watched the look on his face when he tries to chew it and I know better.
We got dressed up and went to a Japanese restaurant. We walked in and I said, “Two for the sushi bar please,” and Rider looked around to see if anyone was as impressed with us as he was. He was the only kid there and very proud to be sitting at the bar. I showed him how to put his napkin on this lap, unwrap his chopsticks and rub them together. He did a pretty good job of holding them. He learned that you don’t put the edamame shells that you just sucked on back into the bowl, and in Japan it is rude to leave rice on your plate. He picked at the sushi pieces, unrolled them and ate the rice. He clearly was not a fan of seaweed but he was trying to hide it. I pretended to be still hungry and ordered teriyaki. We talked about his friends, how annoying his little sister is, and the awesomeness of Star Wars. When we were done he said, “I’m the luckiest kid in the world. I get to have time with you by myself, eating the sushi of my dreams.”
To Rider, our lunch was not a learning opportunity. He did not know that I was showing him how to eat in a restaurant like a grown up and have a real conversation with a woman. I didn’t plan it so it was an accident for me too, but I recognized the teaching moment and took advantage of it. We have actually been to that same restaurant with the whole family, cousins and all, and left the table and surrounding area looking like there had been a food fight. Children in groups are hard to contain in restaurants, especially when fried rice and chop sticks are involved. Being the only single person in my family, I was the only one skulking out of the restaurant in shame. This grown up alone time was a special treat for us both and something I hope to do more often with all of my kids. It may be a while before Rider is out of the licking, burping, ninja sneak attack stage that plagues so many seven-year-old boys, but when his wife tells me that she first noticed him when he opened the door for her and stepped around to the outside of the sidewalk, I hope that I will have done enough by then to take some of the credit.