Saturday, August 7, 2010

Bringing Out My "Best Behavior"

The problem with writing about chivalry is I don't know what to say about women. About how they should behave. Partly this is due to not being one, I'm sure, though I recall well what my mother and some of the elder women of my youth said about it. Short skirts aren't ladylike, a woman who drinks like a man is looking for trouble, women who swear like a sailors are uncouth. Things like that. More social commentary than advice, prompting me to consider carefully who I brought home.

As a consequence, I think my education was somewhat incomplete when I entered the big, wide world on my own as a seminarian. Overall, my impression was, if I acted like a gentleman, a woman would respond by acting like a lady. In other words, she'd be the genuine article -- appreciative, pleasant, and truthful about herself. Women will be the first to tell you, this isn't always the case, just as it isn't with men. Chivalry may cover a multitude of sins, just not all of them.

What I've learned over time from those I'd stake my honor on their being both women and ladies is, they possess a sense of themselves that is unmistakable. I guess you could say they're conscious of the impression they make and endeavor to make one that engenders respect. To put it another way, they have been women who knew themselves and were confident in their knowledge of what was important to them.

In their presence, whatever our relationship, they brought out my "best behavior." I wanted to be a gentleman because it seemed the only appropriate response to the quality of persons they were. Language that might "slip" in other contexts became the occasion for an apology, whether it was necessary or not. In situations where standing when one entered the room would have been out of place, I still felt self-conscious not doing so.

I guess what I'm driving at this morning is, both ladylike and gentlemanly, while behavioral by observation, go much deeper. The character of Eliza Doolittle, from My Fair Lady, depicts how one can learn the skills to fit into polite society, but as Henry Higgins discovered, there was so much more to her than he imagined. She was a lady long before she looked the part. It was his vision that needed alteration as it sometimes is also ours.

(Creative Commons image of Eliza Doolittle, Covent Garden, by Micheo via Flickr)
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