Saturday 20 July 2019

Manly manners in the age of #metoo

From wolf-whistling to ogling and from touching to opening doors, Christina Hopkinson offers a man's guide to the minefield of gender etiquette

Whistle while you work: Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not
Whistle while you work: Bogart and Bacall in To Have and Have Not

The neanderthal traditions of cat-calling and wolf-whistling are back under the spotlight this month. A Social Attitudes survey in Britain has found that women are now more likely to think it's acceptable for men to shout unsolicited comments or grunt weird noises at them on the street than men do themselves.

Cue much harrumphing from both women ("never did me any harm, I rather like it") and men ("never did her any harm, she rather likes it") of the sort that followed #MeToo and those tales of nefarious knee-touchers.

Confidence trick: Christina Hendricks’ character Joan in Mad Men drew lots of male attention
Confidence trick: Christina Hendricks’ character Joan in Mad Men drew lots of male attention

Many of the very best-intentioned men, however, are confused. Like my lovely, right-on friend who berated himself when he found himself confronted with the chest of a woman who was wearing a skimpy vest top with no bra. Did she want him to look? Was he Benny Hill for noticing? Was it more rude to stare or to studiously ignore?

While most people concede that there's a reason why wolf-whistling is named after a predator, there are other more confounding questions about gender etiquette at play, here, too. For whom should you hold doors open? What about helping someone with their bags or giving them a seat on public transport? And are you allowed to compliment a woman's appearance at all?

If you're in a muddle, gents, fear not - here's our handy (never handsy) guide to modern manners...

Grunts, groans, honks and hisses

Noises of any description when passing a woman - car-honking, woo-woo noises, hissing or kissing sounds, wolf-whistling (unless you're Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not) - just no. Have you ever been on holiday to a country where aggressive hawking is the norm? Where you can't walk the streets without being offered a carpet at 'very good price for you sir'? This is how it feels.

Unsolicited advice

Advice or any sort, especially 'smile' or 'cheer up, love' is never welcome from strangers. When someone tells me 'it may never happen' I can't help but feel, 'well, it just did'. Some of us just have grumpy resting faces, alright?

Public commentary on public transport

The primary aim of travel is to get from A to B, not from compliment to compliment. The Dundalk commuter or the 46a are no place to practise your best lines.

Women on bikes don't welcome flattery either. We know we're vulnerable when penned by vans, lorries and cars and anything you say just makes us feel more so.

Taking a stand

So when is it acceptable or even mandatory to give up your seat for a woman on the bus or train? Is she pregnant or just had a big lunch? Is that elderly skin or just sun damage and bad genes? Late last year, Irish Rail issued around 400 trial 'baby on board' badges for expectant mothers and have said they have been a great success so far in encouraging commuters to give up their seats for pregnant women. If she's wearing one of those, give up your seat. If not, don't, unless she tells you she's pregnant. Or her waters break.

As to whether to give up your seat for someone elderly, then this is entirely gender neutral. If someone is evidently as old as your parents/grandparents (delete as appropriate to your own age) then stand up for them whether they're male or female. I just avoid the whole awkward issue by never sitting down unless the carriage is near empty. Hard on my feet, maybe, but easy on my conscience.

Open-door policy

What's wrong with holding the door open for a woman? Absolutely nothing, nor is there anything wrong with helping a man. That's polite, not patronising. Someone has to give way when you're coming through a door and it's easier just to get in there first rather than do the tango of you-no-you-no-you-first. It's always cited as an example of feminism gone mad but personally I know of no woman who objects to having a door opened for them - just as I know no woman who wouldn't do the same back.

Heavy lifting

Some bits of the Bible still hold good. Not the bit about killing sorceresses maybe, but the doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you would find it enfeebling or offensive to be offered help with your bags then perhaps you're the sort of person who shouldn't offer it to others. If on the other hand, you find it restores your faith in human nature then pay it forward. Back in my buggy-pushing days, I loved the fact that it was always young men who looked like they should be playing hurling for Cork who helped me carry the pram up the stairs.

First dates: who pays?

Splitting bills is a romance-killer, especially with someone who likes to itemise or is stingy with tips. If there's to be a second date, someone has to pay and it's not necessarily the man, but whoever did the asking in the first place. It's been nearly two decades since I went on a date, but my now husband asked me out, so I had no problem with him paying. I said I'd like to see him again, so I paid next time. Courtesy is king (or queen).

But I can still tell a woman she looks lovely, can't I?

Ah, that depends on who, where and what. A middle-aged man might think he's being charming when he tells one of his friend's daughters that he likes her slogan tee, but she'll be sneering about the 'pervy uncle' with her friends later.

In a social situation, the way someone looks and your appreciation of it is far more natural, even mandatory. At work, however, a woman's appearance should be secondary to how well she's performing her job. Except if she's a pole dancer. It's a bit more intertwined in that case.

It also matters what your complimenting. An item of clothing is sometimes safe, a body part never is. So 'you look nice in that dress' is probably okay; 'your legs look great in that dress', not so much.

Touch and go

Touching, again site-specific. On the bus, sexual assault; with a friend at midnight on New Year's Eve, fine. But don't follow it up with a bum squeeze as if assessing the ripeness of a melon in the fruit aisle at SuperValu.

Faux feminism

If a man says, 'if I were less of a feminist, I'd want to grab you' or 'I respect you too much to notice your rack', then he's just using the fig leaf of feminism as a cover for the same old sleaze. Similarly, starting a sentence with the deathless phrase 'as a father of daughters…' means he's about to patronise all of womankind with knowledge that only he as producer of princesses is privy to. Please don't.

Irish Independent

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