GallantrySo I got into one of those conversations with an old, slightly older than I am, friend last week. Who has a hard time with the idea that unsolicited compliments from strangers on the street is a bad thing. “It’s nice. It’s… ” he searched for the word. “It’s gallantry.”

I think that in his head this phrase called up visions of Camelot, and courtly love and deep bows over the hands of delicately scented ladies wearing satin and lace (I’m pretty certain those are the images… I’ve known him for a while). And those are all charming images. And about as far away from my experience of a guy following me down the street cooing “chickie-chickie-chickie,” escalating to “why aren’t you talking to me, you stuck-up bitch?” as I can imagine.

On my mother’s fortieth birthday several men at a construction site saw her passing and (according to her) burst into a chorus of “God Bless America.” It made her feel a lot better about moving in to the woman-of-a-certain-age demographic. And I’ve always felt kind of good about the sort of exchange where the underlying message is “you’re a human female and I’m a human male, and that’s kind of nifty, isn’t it?” which often shapes into nothing more complex than “Y’all have a nice day, now.” I suspect that’s what my friend is thinking of when he imagines the “gallantry” of addressing a woman unknown to you on the street.

The reality, as most women know, is a little different. Gallantry should not make its object fearful. Gallantry should not make its object feel dirty. Or like a piece of appealing wallpaper. Gallantry should be aimed at a target that welcomes it. Most street calls (barring “God bless America,” of course) are not.

Where’s the line between a pleasant exchange and a threatening one? Well, maybe at that point where what Robert Heinlein used to call “the gallant response” comes into it.* If someone says to me, “that color looks great on you” that might be nice. If the underlying message is that I am somehow responsible for the speaker’s state of arousal, that is not.

Look, I am rapidly aging out of the cat-call demographic. But I have daughters, and they are beautiful. And thank God, when someone attempts a “gallantry” they don’t like, they don’t put up with it. But afterward they are still, often, left with that shaky feeling of violation.

And there’s nothing gallant about that.

*for those who’d never heard the term: an erection.




About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Gallantry — 5 Comments

  1. In my experience, the welcome comments usually involve eye contact, a smile, and a greeting. A compliment given as part of genuine friendliness is nice. I often compliment strangers on clothes or style, and I like it when people do the same to me.

    The annoying (not to mention creepy or downright frightening) ones are all variations on the belief by such people that a woman has a duty to be attractive to men at all times. Exhortations to smile are the same as cat calls about “hot stuff” (and worse) and ones calling someone an ugly pig (and worse). Which is to say, I don’t think it stops completely with age, though younger women get the brunt of it.

    However, I do have fond memories of the day some years past when I was wearing a short dress and loading something in my car. A guy from a nearby house yelled at me, “Oh, baby, if I could have just one of those legs!” There might have been sexual overtones in the statement, but it was funny as hell. And I think it was mostly a compliment.

  2. Georgiana, the political Duchess of Devonshire, was once accosted by an Irish dustman, who cried “Love and bless you, my lady, let me light my pipe in your eyes!”

    After which, she would often say, “After the dustman’s compliment, all others are insipid.”

    It must be noted, however, that G was going out campaigning for votes, for which she famously traded kisses, so the exchange was not unsolicited.

  3. And coming at this from the opposite end – I think it is great when women compliment and praise each other (on the street, in public settings). Spirit lifting, non-threatening, reinforcing. I am always touched & warmed by the enthusiastic approval, & vow to dish it out more!
    Here’s to female gallantry!