Recently a young woman named Ibi in Atlanta posted a picture on Twitter showing a couple walking side-by-side along a narrow city sidewalk, the man alongside a wall, the woman along the curb on the outside. “I'm sure half of you guys don't even know what's wrong with this picture,” Ibi wrote. “Smh [shaking my head].”
Her challenge helped propel the photo into viral status all over the internet. While many may have been searching in vain for the answer in some obscure detail (“Is she wearing white after Labor Day?”), the answer is much simpler and instantly recognizable to anyone raised to appreciate courtesy: the man in the picture is violating the rule that a gentleman should walk on the curb side when escorting a woman down the street.
According to etiquette maven Emily Post, writing in 1922 about the evolution of this practice:
It used to be that a man escorting a woman on the street walked on the inside so that if waste were thrown out a window it would hit him and not her. Then when sanitation became recognized as important and people stopped tossing their waste into the street, custom changed and a man escorting a woman walked on the street side to keep her from being splashed by mud thrown up by carriage wheels or horses’ hooves.
There are variations on this, however. Emily Post again:
Technology has paved our streets and replaced carriages as the primary source of travel, eliminating the danger of splashing on all but rainy, slushy days, so men once again might walk on the inside, particularly at night in dangerous neighborhoods.
Though she doesn’t mention it, perhaps because cars were relatively scarce in 1922, a man walking on the street side is also in a position to push the woman out of the way if a vehicle jumps the curb.
In any case, the issue boils down to this: the courtesy and protection offered by a gentleman to a lady. I confess I was pleasantly surprised by how many of Ibi’s respondents on Twitter did recognize what she was getting at with the photo and considered the proper behavior to be the right thing to do and the mark of a “real man,” as many put it: “The lady should never be on the street side,” tweeted one respondent. “She’s on the wrong side. He’s supposed to protect her,” wrote another. “My Mom used to smack me for this. ‘You walk on the outside to protect your sisters!’”
There were a few sarcastic comments (“The man is supposed to walk closest to the road because men are car-proof and will protect you”), while other respondents lamented that this kind of gentlemanly gesture is from “a different time.” “It’s an old school thing,” remarked one. “It's called chivalry and it's been dead for some time,” noted another.
Chivalry’s not dead, contrary to popular belief, but it is out of fashion, which is a kind of death. That’s why Ibi was skeptical that a lot of her followers would recognize what she was getting at with the photo, and that’s why it went viral: because there was once a time when such behavior was, at least in theory, culturally expected and unquestioned, but now we live in a post-feminist era in which millennials too often consider chivalrous behavior old-fashioned at best and at worst, insidiously sexist, classist, and even racist.
The good news is that, while Ibi’s photo is an anecdotal example and hardly a scientific poll, the rough majority of responses happily suggests that there are a surprising number of young people who still recognize and appreciate this “old school” social behavior. That’s an encouraging sign for the future, and a necessary step toward bridging the current alienation between men and women.