16 December 2009

On Gender and Etiquette

You'd think I'd have certain day-to-day situations figured out by now.

Today I was leaving the administrative wing (which we call "The West Wing") of the campus's main building and entering a hallway that leads to the classroom area. I had just opened the door when I saw the college President and the Dean of Arts and Sciences walking toward it.

I did something that I would have done even when I was at my surliest and most belligerent self, during my youth: I held the door open for her. Although a part of my mind said that I was doing it out of politeness and basic respect, if not obsequiousness, I also was looking at the President of the College as the President and, well, as a woman.

Now I'm wondering whether she sensed that. I held the door, but she waited for me to pass through--and the Dean waited because he was walking behind her. I continued to hold the door and she walked through as we exchanged greetings. The Dean followed her, but grabbed the door just as she was passing over the transom. And he waited for me to pass through.

Sometimes I don't think I'll ever be graceful in social situations. I know that a woman is not expected to hold a door open for another woman, but a man of the Dean's age and status--and from the culture in which he was born and raised--is not only expected to do so; he expects to hold the door.

Yet I reflexively hold doors open for people, regardless of gender, or at least try not to drop them in their faces. I was like that even when I was rebelling--or telling myself that I was rebelling--against what, I didn't know. And, yes, I extended such courtesies even when I was a nasty or depressed drunk. I guess it has to do something with upbringing: My mother always expected me and my brothers to behave well in public, and in the company of elders. The funny thing is that even when I was trying to get as far away from home--or at least being a kid--as I could, I was grateful for that, particularly when I was living in France. They, and Europeans generally, still value good manners and such.

But even if I have good manners, I have no social grace whatsoever. I know how to do what I've been trained from childhood to do, but I can't finesse a situation like the one I encountered today. Some people seem to handle situations like that one with elan and dignity that I've never seemed to have: Even if they do the "wrong" thing, it seems all right. But they usually end up doing the "right", or at least a graceful, thing.

The President was actually very gracious, as she has been to me in other encounters I've had with her. I could say the same for the Dean or that he was, at worst, punctilious. And, by the standards of this culture (and most others I'm familiar with), they have treated me like a lady. I've never discussed my history with either of them, but I'm sure they must know about it, even though they've never known me as anyone but Justine.

Still, even after a few years of living as a woman, I still haven't quite mastered female-to-female etiquette. (Then again, I haven't mastered etiquette, period.) I encounter situations like the one I had today with the President: I act out of what I see as basic courtesy and respect, but the woman to whom I extend it is not expecting it. Or, even stranger is when another woman treats me with something like male chivalry. I'm thinking now of times when women have given me their seats on buses and trains, or held doors open for me. Sometimes those women looked like they could've used the seat, or any kind of courtesy, even more than I could!

All I've been able to do in those situations is to smile and wish them a good day or good holiday. That seems to make people happy for the moment, even if I feel like I've stumbled.

Now I'm wondering if a stereotype might be true: that women are more socially graceful. That makes me wonder whether that grace is borne in the two X chromosomes, or whether cis women get it with their uteri when they're born.

All right...Now I'm getting myself into some real trouble, aren't I? All I can do, I guess, is to treat people as well as I know how to. Hopefully, those situations will work out until I figure out how to work them out.