It's a Sunday morning on a crowded bus to Bondi. By the time I schlep my soccer-weary bones down the aisle, all the seats are filled. I lean near the back door, eyes peeled for anyone about to rise from their seat. "Ding!" The human iPod in the seat next to me gets up and the bus stops, but as I move to sit in the vacant seat, something catches my eye. I look up at an able-bodied woman in a business suit - she's fit, healthy and at least three years younger than me. And, suddenly, as if some ancient hand has grabbed hold of my tongue, I ask her, "Would you like to sit down?"
For most of us, the word "chivalry" conjures up images of armour glinting in lifting mist or the dying ring of a blade after a blow. But despite the romantic notions of proud knights and their duty, where does chivalry stand without a damsel in distress? The medieval origins of chivalry are linked with the equally medieval view of women as weak and in need of protection. Given that in these enlightened times it's plainly obvious that women are more than capable of earning a living, providing for their family, living alone and even killing their own creepy-crawlies, why is it that men still feel bound to show women gentlemanly consideration?
The first rule I learnt as a toddler was "don't pick your nose and eat it" (at least when other people are watching) and the second rule was "NEVER hit a girl". Boys are expected to play rough and hit things with sticks. And even those of us raised by the most staunchly feminist mothers weren't in any doubt that girls are different. We were taught that, unlike Tonka Trucks, they break easily.
In my teen years, when game playing turned to "I'll show you mine if you show me yours," I was taught that before showing a woman anything else, I should show her respect. And as typical blokes, we usually do this with actions rather than words. Standing when she walks in, opening doors, carrying suitcases, walking on the traffic side of the footpath - they're all simple physical ways of demonstrating our respect.
Me vs robbers
The difficulty for the modern man is that these gestures can sometimes be seen as patronising or, worse, sleazy. Despite this risk, I still insist on walking on the traffic side and carrying shopping bags that my wife has capably carried all day. I give her the first sip of my Guinness so she gets the creamy froth, and let her have the available seat on the train. Sometimes I'm worn out or thirsty, but putting her first makes me feel good (and heroic) about enduring these discomforts. Yep - newsflash - we men have egos, and sometimes our chivalrous conduct has as much to do with boosting our manliness as it does with protecting you.
For most men there's nothing more important than being useful, and this strikes at the heart of chivalrous behaviour - putting our strength, size and endurance to use. The people who live upstairs from us have those "wonderfully modern" polished wooden floors. It seems that they also have a large anvil collection, which they enjoy slowly dragging around of an evening. We've grown accustomed to the normal living sounds of our upstairs neighbours - who we call The Possums - yet there are unusual noises some nights that require manly investigation.
That Sunday night, after my bus trip to Bondi, we wake in fright. Hold still. Listen carefully. "Bump!" Another motionless second. Then the hand of chivalry takes hold and eases the blankets off. I blink into the darkness, fumble for the familiar handle of my cricket bat and switch on the light. If I had a shield, this is when I'd whip it out. I creep down the hallway on tiptoes. "Hello?" Silence. My heart thumps. It's up to me to defend our modest home and triumph over the evil creature that wants to gnaw our bones. And, as I turn a corner, bat at the ready, I size up my enemy - a stack of paper that has keeled over from my desk. I smile, but for those darkened moments, I'm all that stands between my scared, cricket-batless wife and certain death.
We like to be used
In these times of cracking glass ceilings, gym-perfect supermums and breastfeeding CEOs, women's traditional roles have been absorbed into the rough-and-tumble of corporate one-upmanship and the burden of breadwinning. As the pressure on women to achieve everything is high, I reckon women enjoy a chance to feel looked after. Who doesn't like being on the receiving end of kindness, good manners, and having their load lightened by a simple gesture? Not in a patronising way, but in a that-looks-heavy-may-I-carry-it-for-you way. And in those heart-stopping midnight seconds of bumps and silence, women can be glad that boys don't cry.But what modern chivalry really boils down to is where men see themselves in this ever-changing world. If we're useful, we're indispensable. When women can do pretty much everything on their own, it feels good to know you'll never completely stop needing us around. Let's hope that as we stride into a future with little girls growing up to be Prime Ministers and little boys saying "a daddy" when they're asked what they want to be when they grow up, a little of the respect and courtesy that we used to call chivalry will just become a sensible part of embracing our differences. After all, that firewood won't chop itself...
Jack Ellis is a writer and musician from Sydney. It's true, he doesn't cry (except when chopping wood).