As young children, we are taught to abide by a set of rules. These rules may pertain to playing a game (spin the dial and the highest number gets the first turn), behavior in the classroom (raise your hand to ask permission to go to the restroom), or addressing an adult properly (Miss B, may I please call my mother for a change of clothes? I REALLY needed to go to the restroom). This leads to the use of words such as etiquette and chivalry. Most people in today’s society refer two these two words as bygone behaviors (“That boy has no manners”) or extinct entities (“Chivalry is dead”). I am here once again to inform and entertain. That being said, let’s examine these two words: etiquette and chivalry.
Etiquette is an unwritten code of behavior for polite society. Many of these are determined by one’s community. The word has a rather unique origin. The word literally translates from the French as “ticket”. Apparently, Louis XIV had a gardener who became quite miffed at passersby who would walk on the lawn as a thoroughfare and even through the garden. The gardener began putting up signs (or tickets) to ward these rude people away. The gardener was apparently not privy to the use of rock salt in a pellet gun. Then again, some would have regarded such a response to be equally rude. Anyway, this lead to signs being posted in French courts as to where people could stand and when they could speak. This would lead to the first formation of the Polite Police. Legend has it that speaking out of turn could get you three days in the Polite Pokey. I find this all interesting because; in modern society disobeying a posted sign (“No Parking This Side…Monday – Wednesday – Friday 8:27 AM – 9:12 PM), you are issued a ticket. Then, you have to go to court and obey more signs as the risk of getting another ticket or worse.
I had a science teacher once who found it extremely rude to chew gum in her class. Any student guilty of such an infraction had to write the following sentence 500 times: “I will not chew gum in Mrs. Douglas’ Life Science class in Room 80 of Quail Hollow Junior High School in Charlotte, North Carolina”. Needless to say, I never chewed gum in her class. After all, I may have flunked her class but I was not a barbarian.
Chivalry is basically another form of etiquette (without as many posted signs). Chivalry derives from French word chevalier (“one who sings in a 1959 Academy Award winning musical”). Chivalry is simply a code of conduct that teaches (and expects) men of all ages to act as gentlemen. People often associate chivalry with a basic level of respect toward women. In short, a gentleman is to treat a woman like a lady (thank you Eddie Cornelius). I took a girl to a dance once when I was a kid. I believe I acted as a gentleman. I presented my date with a corsage. I complimented her about the mint green dress she wore. I then politely asked her mother to pin her corsage for me so that my nervous shaking would not risk given my date a collapsed lung.
Unfortunately, chivalry and etiquette can often result in a frustrating stalemate. It is not uncommon to see two fine Southern gentleman engaged in a fistfight because each insisted on paying the check. After all, the only alternative would be for one of them to compromise their chivalrous integrity — HORRORS!
It is also worth noting that geography sometimes dictates etiquette and chivalry (even in the same country). Back in the 1990’s, I was working in a hospital and approached a nurse I had not met previously. I said: Excuse me, Ma’am. She indignantly responded: “WHAT did you say?” She then ranted about how she hated to be addressed as Ma’am. I explained that it was merely a form of Southern chivalry. She then explained that in the Northern United States, many women interpret being addressed as “Ma’am” as an indicator that they are old. Embarrassed by my faux pas, I said: Duly noted, Toots. It won’t happen again. After all, I AM a Southern Gentleman.