View over Lisbon, Julia Amosova

When good manners and equality clash

Photo: view over Lisbon, Julia Amosova

Today I spent the afternoon clambering up and down Lisbon’s hills, getting a feel for the city. As often happens when I’m alone and physically busy, I ended up thinking. If I were being properly self-deprecating, I’d say I was overthinking – but I like looking at things from all sides and trying to really understand. I may not succeed with understanding, but I think even asking questions is important. As usual, I have ended up with more questions than answers.

I’ve never thought very much about all of the different angles around the concept of men opening doors for women. I mentally shrugged my shoulders, thanked people when they held the door for me, held the door for others and went on with my life.  Sweden is very much into gender-equality, so it hasn’t come up. After a few days of having multiple men hold the door for me as a polite gesture, I’m surprised at just how surprised and startled I am by it. Enough so that it was the subject of my mulling as I climbed yet more stairs in Lisbon and admired tile-work on the buildings.

How do you approach this subject in a good way? Yes, I’m a feminist – I believe that men and women should have equal rights and we’re not there yet.  I believe in helping each other.

This door holding has me feeling conflicted. I feel silly for spending so much mental image on something that is such a small gesture. It makes me feel a little flattered, that someone is attentive and making that gesture for me.  It also makes me feel confused – why should someone make that small gesture, just because the other person happens to be female? On the spot, it also makes me feel awkward – what am I supposed to do? Why is this person letting me go first? Is there something wrong? Am I incapable of opening the door in some way?

How can I feel that I deserve equal pay, but also accept that men open doors for me?

I know that it’s considered good manners for men to open doors for women in many cultures. If it makes the other person feel good and doesn’t hurt me, then why should I make a big deal about it? It’s meant to be a polite gesture, after all. But yet, if I am I still thinking about this, then there’s something there that needs to be considered.

On the way to the airport, I was alone with the taxi driver.  He was overly friendly – it started with asking my name, then making it into nicknames, asking if I was married and then telling me I was beautiful.  I didn’t like it at all and needed to decide what to do – do I just brush it off and pretend it wasn’t happening, or call him on it? Keep in mind that I’m 20 km from the airport in a strange country, in the car with a strange man. I told him that I was in the country for professional reasons and was uncomfortable with the conversation. He stopped and was professional for the rest of the ride. Phew.

In that situation, I could have just deflected the comments. It most likely also would have been okay, but I feel that I would have done myself a disservice. Why should I have to just accept it, as if I didn’t have a choice? But I did have a choice and I did something with it.

It occurs to me that holding the door for someone has parallels with the taxi situation. Once someone is holding that door open for you, you only have a few choices: you can gracefully accept the gesture or you can make a fuss about it. The path of least resistance is being graceful – but you’re in a situation where that is the only acceptable thing to do.

So, now that I’ve realized this, what do I do with it? I don’t need to confront men who wants to hold a door for me – but I think that I don’t need to feel at all awkward about making a point of occasionally holding a door, just to shake things up. It’s fine to accept it most of the time, especially from friends. I know how I feel about it and why it can bother me, which makes the entire thing more comfortable for me.

This was hard to think through, but I’m so glad I did. Thank you to the friends who helped me consider the different angles – it really helped.

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