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Why small acts of chivalry aren't sexist - they're polite.

If we walk down the street together, my dad still offers his arm to me and always walks on the car-side of the footpath.  He doesn’t make a big deal of it, it’s just what he does naturally.

I love it. It’s a simple act of chivalry.

It was also something I looked for in my partner when I was dating. I like it when men make the effort to open car doors, offer their jacket if it’s raining and send you flowers to let you know they are thinking of you.

I’m 41 years old. Yes, I’m a feminist. No, I don’t think it’s a contradiction. I don’t see these gestures as sexist, I see them as polite.

But that’s exactly why dating is a minefield when you’re over 40.

I really feel sorry for men. That’s right. I would hate to be a man and have to tiptoe around a woman to see if she finds chivalry charming – or offensive.

I’ve spoken to blokes in the thick of the dating jungle and they are bruised and battered.  One told me he went on two separate dates with two different women: “On the first date I opened the restaurant door for her and copped a snide remark about how she was perfectly capable of opening her own door. So on the next date I didn’t open the door and the woman stood waiting for me to open the door with a disappointed look on her face. I can’t win!”  he says.

Well good news fellas, chivalry is not dead. In fact, it’s making a comeback.

Remember when? Image:iStock.

Research from online dating site e-Harmony shows 84 per cent of Australians want a return to more traditional dating gestures and chivalry.

Psychologist and eHarmony's dating and relationship expert, Mel Schilling, says she's not surprised by the results.

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"What I am surprised about is women are admitting to it. The difference I notice with my clients, mainly women in their late 30s to 40s, is they are accomplished, successful, independent women ... but when they get into the dating stage it's like a throw back to the late 60s sexual revolution, with an aggrieved 'I am woman hear me roar, don't you dare hold that door open for me!'" she says.

It seems some women belive that if you are a feminist, you can't accept chivalrous gestures from men.  But according to Schilling it's just a front rather than a strongly held belief.

"I think it's a self-defense and self-preservation mechanism, but when we peel it back, in fact, the woman doesn't find it insulting," she says.  "She sees it as a sign of respect and basic good manners. It's the way a woman wants to be treated."

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Gen Y is the group most likely to agree chivalry is an outdated concept, with Baby Boomers the most in favour of it.

"I think it's to do with the word 'chivalry' and its definition.  If you ask a Gen Y if they would expect the person they're dating to respect them and respect their friends and family? The answer would be a big YES.  Chivalry sounds very old fashioned; it sounds like the man is taking the power. Maybe we need a new word for it," Schilling says.

Providing an insight into new age chivalry, the most gentlemanly acts today, according to the research, are:

  • Opening the door for you (65%)
  • Looking after you when you’re unwell (61%)
  • Being friendly to your family and friends (55%)

These are ahead of more traditional acts of chivalry, including:

  • Sending unexpected gifts e.g. flowers or chocolates (53%)
  • Paying for a date (49%)
  • Walking on the outskirts of the path / closer to the road (37%)

It's concerning that being friendly to your family and friends is considered an act of chivalry.

Image: iStock.
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"I agree.  Isn't that just manners?  I guess that's what we're saying. Have we set the bar so low that being polite to our friends and family is considered chivalrous?" she says.

But as times change, the contradictions around notions of chivalry makes dating even more complicated. So here's Schilling's advice to navigating the dating jungle for women over 40.

"I think it's more unfair for men because the rules have changed,  There used to be set rules - women wanted to be swept off their feet, for men to make all the first moves, pay and open door, and women accepted that,  But now we haven't evolved in the same way.  Men need to really practice their emotional intelligence and read a woman as quickly as he can - throw out one chivalrous action - say opening a car door - then read her body language," she says.

And women can make it easier for men to navigate a date.

"My advice is to smooth the way for men, to reinforce the behaviour we like. It's a bit like training a toddler. When a man does do something you appreciate, really make a big deal and let him know it was received favorably. This can be done without words - for example, if you go to restaurant and are about to take a seat and he pulls out the chair for you - as a woman you can give him your eye contract and smile.  If really comfortable, touch his elbow or lower part of his arm (non-erogenous zone) it's a non-verbal way of saying 'thank you I appreciate that and keep doing it.'"

Personally, I think treating them like a toddler is a tad harsh.  I'd just say thank you.

If you don't want the chair pulled out for you it gets a bit trickier.

"For women who don't like it, it's a bit trickier.  When he pulls out the chair for you - rather than punish him you just withdraw the positive reinforcement.  Don't give him your eyes, keep a neutral expression and move very quickly on to something else. Minimise that action to something else - direct attention elsewhere.  He's getting nothing for that action but he'd not being punished, it's neutral."

Interestingly she doesn't advise you to "use your words" in this situation.

"If it's the first date, it's about making a good impression.  Don't use your words, as it is likely it would come across as aggressive. It would set the tone for the evening.  Non-verbally let him know. If he takes it a step further and tries to order for you, politely say 'That's okay I'm happy to order for myself', but deliver it in a warm and engaging way," she says.

Should a man pay on the first date? Image: iStock.
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One potential first date landmine is who pays on the first date?

I have my own rule on this one. I think you go Dutch on the first date and then alternate on every date after that. I feel like if they pay it implies I'll put out. I once went on a date with a particularly boring man. It was a cheap Japanese place and the total bill for dinner was $40.  I offered to go Dutch and he said "Oh, how thoroughly modern of you. That would be great."  Well, great for me because I didn't feel bad about never seeing him again.

I've also been on dates where I don't mind him paying because I know there will be a second date and I can pay on that one.

I once went on a date with a very wealthy man.  I pretended to go to the bathroom and paid the bill. He was so shocked. He said it was the first time in his life a woman had paid and he wasn't sure how to react.

See? I even break my own rules.

"I would say to women to go into that scenario with an open mind.  We do place a big emphisis on who pays - it seems to represent the whole relationship.  It doesn't. My suggestion is if she's comfortable with him paying, sit back slightly and allow that space to allow him to initiate. If she's not comfortable with him paying, offer to pay and if he insists - let him pay that time but go away and process it rather than causing a scene and digging your heels in. On balance there might be so many other positive aspects of this person it might fade into insignificance," she says.

I guess when it comes down to it - male or female - all you have to remember is...

Do you think chivalry should make a comeback? Let us know in the comments.

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Tags: dating , relationships-tag , social-issues
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