As an anthropologist, I realize I’m sometimes hyper-aware of social norms—particular those that I find offensive—so I work to ensure that my responses are as balanced as they can be. This is my version of looking before I leap so I don’t stick my foot in my mouth. (How’s that for a metaphor mashup?) Every now and then, though, something really gets under my skin. When it continues to irritate me a day or so after it has happened, and then begins to tie into other incidents, I put it to paper and invite discussion and commentary.
When it happens that I’m compelled to write about something of this nature, I do it to draw attention to my own biases and ways of thinking—an exercise that I think anthropologically-inclined folks should always be engaged in.
One final note, on these sorts of discussions, I review the comments a bit more strenuously. It’s not an attempt to hinder the discussion, but a way of ensuring that the subjects of this discussion are respected. And if comments start to go astray, I will shut them down. I’m not sure at this larger venue if there is room for these sorts of exercises, but I would like to continue the tradition begun on AiP of reflections of this nature.
Over the weekend, S and I attended an informal dinner party to celebrate the birthdays of some cherished people in my life. It was a small, intimate affair with four couples of varying ages—the oldest being in their late fifties, the middle two spanning the mid to late twenties, and the youngest on the cusp of twenty. We had ordered in and when the food arrived, it fell to the four women present to put everything into serving dishes and prep the table. The men were occupied with some online endeavor as S had his laptop on the table and was leading a discussion.
We ate. It was a lovely meal filled with the lively discussions that only family members can have when there is little fear about being offensive. Soon, we reached the point where people were sitting back in their chairs with their hands on their stomachs wondering how they would find the energy to move. After a short interlude, one of the young women present took her plate into the kitchen. The oldest woman, whose home we were dining in, rose and cleared her plate and her husband’s. As she returned from the kitchen, she said, “Clear the table, clear the table. There are three ladies here who can clear the table.” The men, it seemed, were free to continue their discussions.
I felt my face flush with irritation.
It wasn’t that I wanted anyone to clear my plate. And I know that S didn’t expect me to clear his plate. At home, we do these things together—whether we have guests or not. It is not my job because I am the woman or the cook or whatever the reason may be. We eat together, we clean up together. Sometimes we clean up individually if the other has something pressing to deal with. It's no big deal. That's our dynamic.
I did get up from the table to help—it would have been rude otherwise, but my feet definitely dragged, and I could feel my jaw set in that particularly stubborn way that I have. I moved two things and reclaimed my chair, while the other two women made quick business of the remaining work. I told myself that their efficiency made me redundant, but in the back of my head I knew I was being petulant especially since I was one of the older women present and should have "known better," but I persisted.
This isn’t uncommon in this household where the women bustle about the kitchen amidst a frenzy of spices and help each other clean up afterwards. It's a chance to bond, and its a community affair. Nor is this uncommon in other households. I’ve been to many dinners where I’ve offered to help clean up and done so cheerfully beside the host. But the implication that I was expected to do so—particularly as a result of my gender—rubbed me the wrong way. Was there something wrong with the men at the table? Did their legs not work? Were their hands otherwise occupied? Why did it have to fall to the “three ladies”?
But my response to that event made me question my response to something that ordinarily wouldn’t have given me much pause. It was one of those two coffee days where I felt I needed the caffeine to keep myself going or risk crumpling into a useless pile. The Starbucks across the street from my job is horribly designed—there’s no flow to the store’s organization and the result is that there is a ridiculous line that runs out the door and a horrible bubble of congestion at the drink pick-up counter during peak hours (i.e., All. The. Time.). And no, neither of these issues deters me from frequenting this Starbucks location.
Patrons who find themselves in the doorway, hold the door open. I’ve held the door open, and I’ve had others hold it for me. On this particular day, a man was in the doorway doing one of those, “I’m barely holding the door open” moves, meaning he sort of had it propped open partway so he and he alone could fit. To stand behind him, as I was, meant standing outside of the store with the door partly shut.
As I moved to closer to him, I had to open the door in order to get into the store. And he determined that meant he was free of door duties and let the door go. Intentionally. He glanced back, smirked, and let the door go. I can’t explain the wave of irritation that swept through me. Perhaps it was fueled in part by the reaction of the man behind me who stepped forward to grab the door before it hit me on the arm—and missed. Perhaps catching my annoyance—I tend to be rather expressive—he flashed what I will characterize as an embarrassed smile, quickly faced forward. The man who tried to catch the door turned to his friends and said, “[Expletive] never learned you hold the door open for ladies.” (I'm not sure the etiquette police would look kindly on profanity in front of ladies either.)
As I rubbed my arm, I was annoyed to find a part of me thinking “Yeah! [Expletive]!” But then I asked myself, why should he hold the door open for me? I’m perfectly capable of holding it open for myself, right? To get annoyed over this would mean that I had no reason to be annoyed about being asked to clear the table. Both situations come back to the same gender expectations—unless we can discuss this in terms of some larger social expectations. How about rudeness? Should all dinner party guests help clear the table? Is it common courtesy to not let a door slam into someone else?
Etiquette "rules" say that the host should not accept (or demand) help, but let's be real here: In an informal setting, among family and friends, sitting around and not doing anything will likely get you invited to fewer dinner parties. And in terms of the door—we've all been in a rush where we might have let the door slip a time or two. (And by the way, The Gothamist says, you should never hold the door: it can create an awkward situation.)
What it boils down to is that we construct our responses in accordance with the social setting we're in. And we tend to pick and choose the points that best serve our needs and agendas. This is something that I'll let go. But I think this discussion is helpful in showing ways in which we can face and address things that might set us up in arms. We need a certain amount of flexibility to deal with our social code. Very little is actually written in stone when it comes to the day to day management of relationships and appropriate social behaviors.