Take the man out of manners

The University of Kansas Career Center hosts routine etiquette dinners to teach students to dine with strangers in business situations. In these dinners, students can learn to butter their bread properly and to appropriately pass the salt and pepper shakers. They can also learn manners that are archaically prim and sexist.

At the last dinner on Feb. 27, several of the gendered instructions needed a 21st Century revision. For instance, it’s true that most business executives are men. It’s not in the least bit necessary to make quips about gender discrepancy in the business world while teaching students how to behave in front of “he’s” as though it is unlikely that this trend will ever change.

Nor is it appropriate to teach gendered mannerisms that render women dainty creatures to be cared for. Students at the etiquette dinner were told that when a woman gets up from the table, all the men need to stand up as she leaves and again when she returns. In theory, this custom is respectful. However, because the practice is extremely rare in recent American history, it is more likely to make a woman in a business setting uncomfortably aware of her gender than it is to make her feel confident of her capabilities. The considerate woman unused to this trend may even forgo a trip out of her seat just to avoid making her male acquaintances stand twice.

Students at the etiquette dinner were also instructed that, before dining, men must pull out ladies’ chairs before the ladies sit down. As the dinner director stated, this is a matter of common, traditional courtesy: “Ladies must be ladies.” The director also quipped that kindergarteners who she teaches do not always understand this rule. She reported that some young boys ask something like, “Why do we have to do that stuff even after the women’s suffrage movement?”

Indeed, why do we? Tradition is not a sufficient enough explanation. For many college women, it is not only awkward if a man pulls out their chair during a business interview, it is patronizing and offensive. If a woman can’t freely sit in her own chair without a man coming to her aid, how is she supposed to apply for a professional leadership position? “Ladies” should be polite, not submissive.

Kindergarteners comprehend this, and so should we. It’s one thing to encourage men to act gentlemanly on a date; it is quite another thing to teach men that they are required to “escort” women to their seats when dining in business environments. Such old-fashioned mannerisms may seem harmless but nonetheless reinforce ever-prevalent stereotypes of women’s inferiority.

Motivated female students already know they face an uphill battle to rise to the top in professional careers, and it’s unhelpful and inappropriate for our university to reinforce stereotypes detrimental to women’s success in the business world. In a persistently male-run society, women at our university need a little more help learning to politely kick butt.

University Daily Kansan University of Kansas U-WIRE