Get answers to your questions on morals, manners, and macroeconomic policy.
Beginning this week, Prudence, drawing on her rich experience of life, will answer questions submitted by readers. She will respond to questions about manners, personal relations, politics, economics, and other subjects. Questions should be sent to Prudence@slate.com. They should not exceed 200 words in length. Please indicate how you wish your letter to be signed, preferably including your location.
In the past, when escorting a young woman to my automobile after, say, coming out of a restaurant, I would unlock the passenger-side door for her first before walking around to the driver's side. On modern cars with power locks, however, unlocking the driver's-side door automatically unlocks all other doors. This innovation makes first unlocking her door a superfluous and illogical gesture.
Where do you come down on this question of chivalry vs. logic? Is it insulting to unlock her door first when we both know it's unnecessary?
There is no conflict here between chivalry and logic. Chivalry requires not only that you unlock the door but also that you open the door for her, hold her arm to help her enter, see that the edge of her skirt has been removed from the door frame, and then close the door. Helping her enter can also be the occasion for sweetly kissing her on the cheek. Modern gadgets will not do all that, and real men don't want them to. Something has to be left for the men to do.
Anyway, the idea of a conflict between chivalry and logic is mistaken. Chivalrous gestures, even though not utilitarian at one level, have a utilitarian logic at another level. Chivalrous gestures are a means of communication, and that is useful. When you hold the door for the girl, even though she is quite capable of doing it for herself, you are communicating the fact that you care about her and want to be her helper. Unless you are a great poet, it may be the best way you have of communicating those sentiments to her. Which gestures communicate what changes over time, as does other language. In my time, at least, holding the door communicated respect or affection or some other favorable emotion--depending on the personalities involved. What holding the door for your girlfriend communicates is different from what holding it for your mother-in-law does.
Herbert Stein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He died in September 1999.