It’s a picture-perfect fall day in D.C. and packs of men in power ties and women in heels clomp down the city’s broad sidewalks for their afternoon Starbucks fix.
The colleagues are equals, but when they reach a door, a man zooms to the front, holding it open.
Should women expect men to hold open the door for them? And if you do, can you call yourself a feminist?
After all, it’s 2017. World leaders spar on Twitter. The Internet can’t stop arguing over cheeseburger emojis. Five-year-olds are social media influencers.
Yet we hold on to this perhaps antiquated custom of men holding open doors for women. It’s a gesture — that like many of our modern-day etiquette rules — has historical origins, according to Toronto-based etiquette expert Lisa Orr.
“Social conventions are really dictated on what makes people feel respected and that changes over time,” Orr said.
You can trace the tradition of men holding open doors for women back to the medieval concept of chivalry, which called for women to receive special deference because of their gender, Orr said. Beyond opening doors, other customs like “ladies first” have roots in the Victorian era. And that’s just in the Western world.
“It had a time and a place and a purpose,” Orr said. “But just like we don’t tip hats anymore or curtsy, there were all these conventions that don’t reflect how we live our lives today.”
Modern-day etiquette rules call for men and women to alternate the task depending on who reaches the door first.
“I think you can think of holding open doors as a social courtesy for people and not something that men have to do for women,” Orr said. “If all genders are created equal, then you have to be equal all the time.”
Whether it’s desirable to practice chivalry in a romantic relationship is a complex question, especially for modern-day feminists. We all have a friend who gets upset if her date won’t hold open the door for them or pay for drinks. That same friend may own a cat-eared hat and call herself a feminist.
In the nation’s capital, you find a diverse hodgepodge of locals and transplants who have their own ideas on polite behavior. A few weeks ago, as office workers huddle around food trucks, we asked people what they think.
“Where I grew up in the South, it was expected that I hold open doors but it seems to put people in D.C. on edge,” said Jack Varnell, a 23-year-old consultant. “People in the Northeast think it’s a trap or something.”
Hilary Jacobs, a 27-year-old lawyer, said that she always holds the door open for people, but it’s not something she expects men to do.
“I don’t have any gender expectations,” Jacobs said.
For others, it’s all about gender. Ali Konteh, 29, says that he will always hold open a door for a woman. But for men, it’s a different story.
“It depends on their vibe,” Konteh said. “You have to look and see what he’s doing. If you’re doing other things, like looking down at your phone, I’m going to let it close.”
“If a woman holds open a door for me that’s almost flirting,” Konteh said.
Even if as a society we could all agree that we should hold open doors for each other regardless of gender, it’s still possible for the painfully awkward to not be sure what to do in certain situations, especially while dating.
If you do like your date to hold open the door for you because of chivalry or because you have weak arms, there is no “feminist police” to tell you otherwise. No one is perfectly intellectually consistent all of the time.
And when you’re in doubt, you can always use the rules of etiquette as a guide.
“Etiquette has existed historically so people can understand how to treat people with respect,” Orr said. “And that still has a place in the world.”