Tuesday, May 15, 2018

When a Lady Enters the Room

Waiting for the doctor today, I wondered whether I should rise when she entered the room. I never have before.  Certainly if one is in a johnny it would be awkward, but this wasn't that sort of appointment and I was fully clothed.  I did rise, and shook hands. I had heard of the custom, especially as a young man, and seen other men do so. Older men used to do it automatically. I think I shall do more of it. I can't rise every time a female coworker enters my office, but I could on first introduction.  I think I will apply it equally to men, come to think of it. It just seems polite.

From that starting point, I wondered if it would be taken amiss by some women, or regarded as archaic as kissing the hand. How far back does the custom go? My search skills may be poor, and someone else may discover the answer, but I was only able to uncover the following: The custom of rising as a sign of respect is common to many cultures, and goes back to prehistory in western Europe, at least. In medieval times, a knight took of his hat or other headgear in the presence of a lady. My wife assures me that in Regency romances men rose when ladies entered the room.

That's the story for women of a certain status, but I could not find when the practice expanded to include all women. It sounds very American to not make such distinctions, and I would like to give us credit for it, but I have no evidence.

Here is the fascinating part. On discussion boards, nearly all the younger people, especially the women, regarded it as a sign of disrespect, or an assertion of male dominance. The reasoning was that we know that women were regarded as inferior up until last Tuesday. Therefore, any difference in how women were treated must be an expression of that. It seems an amazing thing.  People rise when a judge enters the courtroom, they stand in the presence of the king, or of any authority or superior.  They rise in respect for the elderly.  Nurses used to be required to rise when a doctor entered the room. (I recall a few nurses who still did that automatically.) Men rise upon introduction to shake hands (as they do with women), some rising in respect even for an obvious inferior, such as a small child, if it has been a while since they have seen each other.

It is clearly an expression of respect, which was extended to women somewhere along the way.  To accord women more respect or special respect does seem a bit artificial and Victorian.  I can see why a modern sensibility might begin to sniff out some condescension in that, making an elaborate show out of something that was a falsehood. Yet it wasn't a falsehood in the 19th C.  The cult of mother-worship ran high in sentiment.  Noble unstained womanhood was protected from the grim and raw vulgarity of the workplace and the outside world, and so became a finer, more elevated, more moral being. You may protest all you like that this was also a prison and a limitation, but there is no getting around the observation that women were regarded as superior in at least some sphere by the society of the time.  What we think about that now would have been of no importance to them.

12 comments:

lelia said...

I like when we rise in church for the scripture reading.

Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: I think I will apply it equally to men, come to think of it. It just seems polite.

And that is the key. Standing to greet someone who is entering a room is to greet them on the same level, eye to eye. This wouldn't apply to strangers, though, if it is a crowded waiting room with people coming and going.

Assistant Village Idiot: On discussion boards, nearly all the younger people, especially the women, regarded it as a sign of disrespect, or an assertion of male dominance.

It could represent an implied favor, or could be seen as an attempt at an introduction requiring a response.

Manners are meant to help people interact comfortably, and good manners can be gender neutral. While some people will always be contrary, generally, if you offer your seat to a harried parent with children and packages, or an elderly person having troubles walking, most would consider that considerate. But a professional woman in a professional space might very well consider it a slight.

GraniteDad said...

At work, it seems more likely to confuse than improve relations. But it does make sense to rise to shake hands for first-time introductions. I don't particularly care, but I've worked with folks who definitely noticed and commented later if some did not rise to shake hands for an introduction, and took it as a slight.

Grim said...

I was taught that a man should always stand to shake hands. You stand for ladies more often. It’s not new to be conscious of the practice: the love interest in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance remarks on “The way you pop up!” The comparison is of the educated Jimmy Stewart character, emblematic of progress and civilization, with the rude cowboys of the frontier.

Grim said...

It’s also worth noticing that these customs were selected for and reinforced by women. Today’s women are doing the same thing — making men jump through hoops to demonstrate respect for their, the womens’, wishes. They think they’re the first to think of this, and that their grandmothers were doormats. But it’s exactly the same thing going on now as then.

Aggie - said...

Any woman that feels slighted because you took your feet upon their entry into your presence would feel slighted in any event, for some other reason. Women and men both notice deferential respect and polite behavior as a sign of a worthy character, potentially interesting enough to know more about. And civilization is battered enough without eroding it further by being a tactless slob. Good on ya.

Texan99 said...

I think rising is a nice sign of respect when anyone enters the room. It's true that it can be a little off-putting when men in a business setting stress any kind of behavior that seems to put exclamation points around the notion that "We were all just here doing our thing like regular people and suddenly, Whoa, we've been joined by a strange female creature! We have to interrupt whatever we were doing and make a big deal about it!" It's a little like interrupting a joke and saying, "But you're Jewish. I shouldn't tell this one in front of you. I'll wait until you go away." That's a very negative construction and an exaggeration, but I think it's where the quarrel comes from.

I can't imagine it's being a big deal, therefore, if it's just the two of you.

Texan99 said...

Or maybe it's a little like military men coming to attention in a social setting, so the officer has to say, "At ease." It has its advantages in terms of status, but it emphasizes the invasive quality of the entry of the officer and the discomfort of the men who were comfortably engaging with each other a moment before.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ T99 - You don't know how much I can hear bs king of Graph Paper Diaries uttering the words of your first comment above. I sincerely hope there is some place in the future when Canton MA and Corpus Christi TX intersect and you two get to meet. I have said she is the daughter I never had (she is 36 or 37, between my oldest two, and our families connect with numerous threads). That might be even more true for you.

Texan99 said...

Bleah, meant to say "I can't imagine its being . . . ."

I'd love to meet bs king myself.

I've often debated with Grim, as I'm sure you recall, over the unease with which a woman might reasonably encounter all kinds of special protections and signs of respect that, at first glance, you might assume were simple honors for which she ought to be grateful. The problem with some of these gestures is that they're a way of stopping whatever was going on before and substituting an insistent message of, "Oh, a woman is here. I see she's a woman. A woman. A woman." If in fact the most important thing about her entering the room is that there is now a marriageable female on the scene, or a creature who needs special physical protection, this focus would be a welcome development for her, no doubt. Look, how nice! A lady enters the room and the gentlemen stop their brawling to lay their cloaks over a puddle and offer her flowers, perhaps offering lifelong protection to her vulnerable offspring. But if what she's really trying do is join a physically peaceful business meeting or a political discussion, she might be forgiven for getting a little impatient.

Another analogy: if you're in a wheelchair in an intersection with traffic bearing down you, you probably appreciate someone's running up to wheel you quickly to safety. But if you're trying to apply for a job and everyone's so busy offering to help you get from one spot to another that they can't concentrate on the interview, you might conclude that you could do with a little less formal deference and insistent recognition of your physical disadvantages--assuming you weren't applying for a spot on a football team or an acrobatic troup.

bs king said...

It's always nice when someone says "this sounds like you!" and I actually agree. I'll take a comparison to Texan99 anytime.

And yes, should we ever have occasion to meet, I think it would be great! I lurk occasionally over at Grim's and have always appreciated your contributions there.

Texan99 said...

:-)