To Be Absolutely Frank

Standing for Old-Fashioned Etiquette

How can men sit still for women on their feet?

By 4.3.03

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As I was getting on the bus the other evening after work, no sooner had I put a foot inside the door than a guy in his late teens shoved me out of the way, rushing to grab one of the few remaining seats. Hanging over his shoulders like Superman's cape was one of those rainbow peace flags you see everywhere these days in Rome. So naturally this little run-in got me thinking about the anti-war movement and its many hypocrisies, big and small. It also got me thinking about the less momentous and more enduring issue of standing and sitting in a bus.

That a gentleman rises in the presence of a lady on her feet is a lesson I absorbed sometime in late childhood, presumably from my dad's example. But it was of all people the future anti-war campaigner Taki, then a mere bon vivant and manners columnist for Esquire, who burned the idea into my adolescent conscience that no male bus passenger should keep his seat so long as a single female clings to a strap.

What Taki was doing on a bus I can't imagine, but I distinctly recall his account of ceding his place to someone of the fairer sex, and his satisfaction at the shamed looks on the other men's faces.

That was in the late '70s, a full quarter-century ago. I don't know if the chivalrous Greek has since repeated his experiment with public transportation, but if he tried today he'd get a markedly different result. Unless the woman were quite old, she'd either glare or pointedly ignore his gesture, taking it for some kind of come-on. If other men were to notice, their reactions would range from bewilderment to mild contempt.

That's my impression, at least, from my experience both here and in America. You might have thought, as I once did, that a supposedly patriarchal Old World society with a fanatical cult of "La Mamma" would show at least formal deference to women. I've always known from movies and TV that European men are cads, but I used to believe they were cads who kissed hands and pulled out chairs.

A few such men probably exist in Italy, but they might as well be in a museum. Back home, I like to think, few men would stoop to taking a free seat from a middle-aged matron laden with shopping bags. In Rome it happens all the time. Which is especially frustrating to the rare fool who gives up his place hoping that a woman will get it.

The sociological reasons for this are beyond my ken, though I suspect they have to do with the mama's-boyishness that pervades Italian society. Women are used to sacrificing for men, and men are used to letting them. But the most immediate culprit, here and in the States, is modern politics. Women standing while men sit is just one of the less glamorous side-effects of the sexual and feminist revolutions, those two grandiose excuses for letting men behave like swine.

I'd like to take a stand against this trend. There'd be a Quixotic dignity in offering my bus seat with a flourish to a lady I've never met. But fear of being embarrassed keeps me from doing the dignified thing. I almost always do my little good deed furtively, like a pervert preparing to expose himself in public. Once all seats are taken, I watch and wait. Only when I'm sure that there's a woman nearby and watching, and no man around to interfere, do I rise and head for the exit as if to get off. I don't look back, neither wanting nor expecting acknowledgment. This sort of act has got to be its own reward.

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About the Author

Francis X. Rocca ia an American writer in Rome, Italy.