One man’s thoughts on trying to be a better human
By Mike Falkow
I should start by saying that I’ve been mulling over the idea to write this article for some time but with recent events, it became more of a necessity for me, rather than something nice to do.
I’ll also preface this by saying that I am not for one second holding myself up as the perfect image of a man. I am not immune to being male, nor am I perfect. But I’m trying to be better always, and I’d like to pass along some of the things that I have learned to my nine-year-old son, and other men (and women) who might find this information useful.
Many a time have I heard my son described as “Oh, he’s gonna be a heartbreaker when he grows up.” And my default response is “Well as long as I can teach him some manners, I think he’ll be okay.”
But that misses the point a little (or a lot) doesn’t it? It’s not about him being okay. It’s about those around him. It’s about the women he’ll interact with as he grows. In a culture that’s become so tacitly accepting of the fact that “this is just how men are” … I’m here to say, “No. That’s not just how men are. That’s how we’ve been taught to be, unfortunately by example.”
So the antidote then, logically, is to teach men something new. Or rather, something old. There was a time when men didn’t treat others this way as a matter of systemic habit of the old boys club. There was a time when men were gentlemen, when they had manners, and wouldn’t dream of mistreating a woman or intentionally pushing her into a situation against her consent. And if they were aware of it happening they would stand up to the perpetrator. Because that’s what real men do.
The Merriam Webster Dictionary defines a gentleman as follows: A man who combines noble birth or rank with chivalrous qualities: A man whose conduct conforms to a high standard of propriety or correct behavior.
It should almost go without saying what “correct behavior” is. But unfortunately, that’s where this art of being a gentleman and treating others with respect and having manners has become a lost one.
Manners Maketh The Man
I was born and raised in South Africa, and the school system there was rigidly dedicated to an old fashioned idea that “manners maketh the man”. So much so, that it was the actual motto of my primary school and it was repeated to us daily at assembly.
We were taught to stand up when an adult entered the room. We were required to address our teachers as “Sir”, and “Miss” or “Ma’am” and we were expected to know the difference. (I’ll give you a clue: it has to do with whether or not she’s wearing a wedding ring.)
We were also reminded constantly that when out in the world, we were representatives of an institution with high standards, and if we were on a crowded bus, we were required to stand and give up our seat to anyone who was our elder, especially a woman.
So let’s investigate some of the things that are considered chivalrous or correct behavior in terms of manners.
Opening the door for a woman, offering your seat to a woman, standing up when you meet someone for the first time, saying “Please” and “Thank You”, having good table manners when you eat, treating waiters and service industry workers with respect, paying for the meal on a date, etc. all add up to a sum greater than its parts.
And yes. I said paying for the meal on a date. I’ll remind you that you probably didn’t buy a new outfit, or makeup, or have your nails done or your hair blown out, or get your legs waxed for this occasion. She most likely did. So in my mind, it’s only fair that you at least offer to pay for the meal, or the drinks, or the movie, or whatever it is. She may refuse it, and offer to chip in, and that’s fair too. But as a man, it’s your job to make the first move there.
Oh and by the way, if you’re broke and are going to complain about how much the meal cost, then you really have no business inviting a girl out to dinner in the first place. Figure something else out that doesn’t cost money and invite her to that instead.
Manners are simple things and aside from paying for a meal now and again – they cost you nothing. They show that you have paid attention to her in a way that is respectful. Offering her your jacket because you noticed she was cold; or helping her put on her own jacket; sitting in the door-facing seat at a restaurant so you can protect her if anything threatening comes in that door; walking on the street-side of her on the sidewalk (for the same reason); waiting for her to get safely in her house when you drop her off before driving away, etc.
All these things subtly communicate that you have taken her safety and well being into account, and that you have thought about someone other than yourself. And that’s really the biggest part of manners. It’s the consideration of another. Sadly, the youth of today have been programmed to be interested in very few things other than themselves. The selfie-obsessed, self-entitled generation could use a lesson in thinking about others.
Etiquette is a customary code of polite behavior. The problem is that these small gestures of polite behavior have fallen away gradually under the ever-growing trend in our society to individuate and do things that only benefit ourselves personally.
But if we take a small step back and look at the big picture, a culture that encourages good manners and proper treatment of one another actually does benefit everyone. Manners are the lubrication for social discourse.
Let’s Talk About Sex
I’m no expert when it comes to relationships. But I did have what I consider to be a successful fourteen years with my ex wife, which ended amicably and I now have a best friend in her and our beautiful son to show for it.
I’ve learned a lot in the process of trying to do it right (and failing at it) whether through short lived encounters or long term partnerships. For example, when two people come together – and either, or both of them have any background of trouble in the area of intimacy, you’re almost certainly going to run into problems.
Sex should be about mutual pleasure. This becomes a broken idea when only one of the two people involved is drawing pleasure from the interaction.
And I’m not talking about consensual kinky stuff. I’m talking about the coercive, predatory type. The guy who won’t take “No” for an answer. The guy who has fueled his own insecurity with some booze or drugs and now feels like it’s the woman’s fault for leading him on… or whatever the hell his logic is.
Now, I’m not suggesting that for every woman, every time, there needs to be a pre-coital interview that goes something like “Excuse me, m’lady, but are you in market for some hanky panky this fine evening?” Consent is given in many ways, not just verbally.
What I am suggesting is that men need to pay more attention to the signals that are being sent to them. We need to wake up and understand that when a girl smiles at you, or when she dresses in a sexy way, that doesn’t necessarily mean she wants to sleep with you. Some people are just nice. And some girls just want to feel sexy sometimes.
(There is a flip side to this coin — for you ladies, not every man who tries to talk to you, or smile at you is a creep. Some men are just nice.)
In a digital age where attention and admiration are a form of social currency, you will find that the attraction of male attention is important to some girls. They are competing with bikini models on Instagram, pornography, and endlessly photoshopped images of impossible looking women in glossy magazines, and the list goes on. But that still doesn’t mean that once she has your attention, you have the right to sleep with her! Or do anything other than give her your attention. Maybe she just wanted to be looked at a certain way. Maybe she just wanted a smile from a handsome fellow. Maybe she just wanted to talk to a gentleman.
And if you somehow manage to invite her into your apartment, or house, or car, or wherever, and she agrees, that still doesn’t mean that you have the green light. You should be alerted immediately if she’s giving off a vibe like “I’m not sure about this.” If she’s not so sure about it… its a NO. Stop. Back Off. And use it as an opportunity to talk with her and find out what she’s thinking or feeling.
Communication and Intention
One of the problems, I think, is that people have not been taught to communicate properly. And as a result they cannot interact intelligently because they cannot confront one another and cannot read the many subtle and nonverbal communications that are being exchanged constantly. Combine that with a culture that lost its manners and is all about “what I can I get from this transaction” — you end up with the frat boy mentality of sexual abuse and predatory behavior.
As a side note here, I should also mention that I believe our girls have been lied to. They’ve been led to believe that sex is something that they “give” to the man, and therefore have the power to withhold it. I think that this view of the activity is completely skewed. Sex is something that is exchanged. Both ways, mutually.
There is also a lie circulating in our collective minds that men are the only ones who are motivated by the desire to have sex. Okay, yes. We are motivated by this desire. But that’s not the only desire we have. And by the way — women are also motivated by this desire. Spoiler Alert: Women like sex too. They were just lied to and told that they weren’t allowed to want it because it was dirty, or unladylike, or whatever outmoded justification was given.
The power plays and struggles and the use of sex for other ends is just a complication of a very simple subject. Sex is easy. We all like it. We’re all equipped for it. It’s what happens before and after that really matters.
It’s the treatment of another beforehand that makes them comfortable enough to trust you and share an intimate, vulnerable moment with you. And the treatment of them afterwards that makes them feel like they were either a vessel for your insecurities, or that they were truly valued.
A friend suggested to me once that the intention with any sort of exchange – whether it’s having sex or just having a lovely conversation – should be that you never leave the person feeling worse than they did prior to that exchange. That’s an interesting way of looking at it.
The old golden rule applies here. Treat others as you would want to be treated yourself. Another and more pointed way of saying it: Never treat anyone in a way that you wouldn’t personally want to be treated.
Everyone has intrinsic value and should be treated as such. Man, woman, black, white, gay, straight, and all the beautiful variations in between. We are all card-carrying members of this vast spectrum of humanity and each and every one of us deserves to be loved, respected and treated well.
In Defense of Defense
In a Utopian world where everyone gets along and there aren’t any ill intentioned people, and everyone has good manners and treats everyone around them well, we’d all be just peachy. Unfortunately we live on Planet Earth, and a percentage of this population are terrible at being human.
Once, and not by choice, a dear friend of mine was held by her neck up against a wall. Once. My blood boiled when I heard about this. But she took it upon herself to learn Krav Maga, and within a year she became someone who you couldn’t mess with if you tried. She became intimidatingly confident. I think that having the confidence to defend oneself is hugely important. And not only to defend oneself, but as a man, you should be able to defend others if they can’t defend themselves.
That’s another thing about being a gentleman. It’s not okay for people to be treated poorly around you, and if you are witness to someone in a dangerous, or uncomfortable situation, it is your responsibility to step in and diffuse the situation effectively. It’s not acceptable to sit idly by and say “Well, that isn’t my business.” I’m sorry, but it is your business. That’s what men do. That’s what gentlemen do.
I am especially not a fan of bullies. And that’s really what we’re looking at here. Men who think that they can forcibly remove your right to say no. It’s that old story of the guy who said “Your Honor, she said ‘No,’ but I knew she really meant ‘Yes’.”
What if the tables were turned? What if a woman held a man’s private parts hostage with a nice sharp pocket knife, and she asked him if he wanted her to cut it off? My guess is that he would be praying to his Higher Power that she observed the “No means no” rule.
Call me an optimist, but I refuse to lose hope in the inherent goodness of men and women. I believe that we can, and must do better. I believe that we can all encourage this, and the next generation to live with integrity, honor and to treat others well while we do it.
What am I advocating for? Well, for starters, a resurgence of gentlemen who make it a habit to treat others – not just women – with chivalry, decorum, and manners. Likewise, a space for women to feel confident and safe among a community of humans who respect and respond positively to truth, kindness, and generosity… leaving each person they encounter just a little better off in the process.
To reiterate what I said at the beginning, I’m not immune to common male mistakes. I don’t pretend to be the perfect example of a gentleman. I don’t presume to have all the answers. But I am committed to learning from my mistakes. I am committed to being accountable to others for the choices I’ve made, apologizing when necessary and trying to make it right; and as a result, hopefully setting a good example for my son.
I wrote this for him in part, and as a call to other men to take a good look at where we’ve gone wrong. I’m sure that we’ve all at one point in our lives behaved badly and treated a woman with less than the respect she deserved. But I think that now is the time to try and see how we can behave differently, and how we can collectively be better men… better humans.
That’s this one man’s opinion anyway.