Features & Columns

Advice Goddess: What's the Difference Between Chivalry and Politeness?

I'm confused. Does treating women as equals mean not doing those things that would previously have been considered chivalrous, like opening doors and giving a woman your coat? What's now considered polite, and what's considered offensive?—Bewildered

The response by some women these days to men's well-intentioned acts must tempt at least a few men to swing entirely in the other direction: "I could open the car door for my date, or start to drive off and let her throw herself across the hood and hang on."

To these women, chivalry is "benevolent sexism," affectionate but patronizing—a way of treating women that suggests they are in need of men's help and protection. It involves things like opening doors and offering to carry a heavy item for a female colleague.

Research has found that benevolent sexism can be undermining to women, even leading them to feel less competent at their job. However, complicating things a bit, new research by social psychologists Pelin Gul and Tom R. Kupfer finds that women—including those with strong feminist beliefs—are attracted to men with benevolently sexist attitudes and behaviors despite finding these men "patronizing and undermining." The researchers theorize that what women are actually attracted to is the underlying signal that a man is willing to invest in them and any children they might have together.

Frankly, even I engage in benevolent, uh, something or other—like by holding the door open for any person, male or female, coming up to an entrance behind me—simply because it's nice for one human to look out for another. Ultimately, your best bet is behaving as genteelly as you would if you had no idea about benevolent sexism. Most women will probably appreciate it, even if a few of them say "Thank you...that's very nice of you!" in language more along the lines of "Screw off, you medieval turd!"

I'm a 34-year-old man, newly single after a relationship that started in college. Though I love the work I do running a small non-profit, I don't make tons of money. I'm worried that my inability to "provide" in any sort of lavish way will make it hard for me to attract post-college women. Do I need to win the lottery?—Making A Difference

It is best if the dream date you're proposing isn't all in the presentation: "We have reservations tonight at a cozy new hot spot—my studio apartment with the heat that won't shut off. Dress tropical!"

I do often write about how women evolved to prefer male partners with high status—men with the ability to "provide." However, what's important to note—and what has some bearing on your chances with the ladies—is that ancestral humans lacked anything resembling wealth, i.e. portable, conservable assets.

Though no modern woman wants a man who lives paycheck advance to paycheck advance, there's hope for you—from research on one of the few cultures today in which men aren't the primary earners. Political scientist Nechumi Yaffe looked at ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, a community in which the men spend all day hunched over studying the Torah and the women are the breadwinners.

Yaffe finds that, as in other cultures, the men the ultra-Orthodox women prefer as mates are those who are the best in their "field"—which, in this community, comes out of the level of religious devotion and piety the men show. In other words, though men's status is a vital mating asset across cultures, "how status is achieved may be culturally specific."

As for you, I'm guessing you don't work at a non-profit because you hit your head and forgot to become a cold corporate tool. You're surely part of a community that shares your beliefs about the importance of making a difference. Chances are, many of the women in your world don't want some money-worshipping hedge fund buttknuckle.

To ramp up your status, you need to stand out as a top do-gooder, coming up with and implementing innovative ideas to ease people's suffering and make the world a better place. This should make you extremely attractive to a woman with similar values.