A lot of teenagers today don’t even carry a handkerchief. But when I was a young man, having a handkerchief ready for an emergency (like someone crying, for example) was considered important. At least, my mother certainly thought so.
I was going on one of my first dates and was halfway out the door when I heard my mother’s voice calling my name. I went back inside to find her with a white handkerchief in her hand.
“Do you have a clean handkerchief?” she asked. “Mom,” I said in that special voice reserved for mothers by exasperated sons. I took the handkerchief because I was anxious to be on my way. I stuffed it into my pocket, and I was out the door and into the car without thinking more about it.
Today, a white handkerchief is probably the farthest thing from anyone’s mind before a date. Time tends to change many of our styles and customs, but the courtesy and respect that my mother taught me should exist in dating relationships are just as important today as they have ever been.
I don’t remember much about that date, but I do remember asking my mother afterward why a clean handkerchief was such a big deal. This led to a conversation between us that taught me a lot about establishing good relationships with young women.
Now, I don’t mean that I treated girls like they were just one of the guys; but I had a lot to learn. My mother explained, for example, that as a sign of courtesy young men should (1) walk ahead of a date in a darkened theater or room, (2) walk on the outside of the sidewalk, next to the road, (3) stand when a girl the same age or a woman enters the room and stand when she leaves, (4) stand until all women have been seated and help them be seated before seating themselves, and (5) take a young lady back to her seat and thank her after a dance. I did know, without my mom telling me, that opening car doors and helping girls out are also signs of respect.
At first I suspected my mother’s suggestions that all young men should obey the rules of etiquette might be a female conspiracy transmitted from generation to generation in order to control men. Later, as I listened to my wife make suggestions to our sons, I realized there were some time-honored ways for young men to act, and that young women usually like to be treated in those ways.
After I dismissed the conspiracy theory I selfishly thought that if men did all those nice things for women, we would be the only ones doing all the nice things. “What are they doing for us?” I thought. Girls usually don’t have to ask for dates and risk being turned down, and they don’t have to keep standing all the time, or help seat boys at the table.
Because of my suspicions and selfishness I was undecided about whether I wanted to try all of my mother’s ideas. But I soon learned that when people go on dates there are doors, cars, dances, meals, rooms to stand in, introductions, and movie theaters. There are times during each of these situations when someone needs to do something, and if no one does there is a silent awkwardness which makes you feel like a true klutz. I know.
I was at one of my first dances and somehow I’d gathered the courage to remove myself from the wall to ask someone to dance with me. The young lady I asked said, “Yes,” and suddenly I found myself out on the dance floor feeling rather uncomfortable. Fortunately, however, some of my friends had found partners also and joined us. As we danced, my friends and I made comments to one another and before I knew it, our talking had turned into a full-fledged conversation that excluded our partners. Immersed in the discussion, I became oblivious to the young lady I was dancing with and somehow drifted off of the dance floor without even realizing it. Back at the wall again I glanced out at those still dancing and, to my embarrassment, saw my partner out on the floor, alone. An uncomfortable feeling settled itself in my stomach. I wanted to do something, but I didn’t know what or how to even go about it in an awkward situation like this. So I did nothing. That night I decided that some of my mother’s ideas might be worth trying.
As I did so, the first thing that happened was unexpected. Girls I dated began to think I knew what I was doing and relaxed around me. The nervousness I sometimes felt disappeared too, and I started having more fun. The more we relaxed, the easier it was to talk. Talking comfortably might not seem very important, but it is the way friendships and liking begin and continue. By communicating well, I also began to get to know girls better.
I’ll admit that when I first started dating, I wanted to be seen with girls who wouldn’t tarnish the social image I thought I had to protect. However, after spending time with some young women, having long talks with them and my mother about many things, I found out that girls could be friends (without worrying about all the romantic stuff). In fact, some of the dates I enjoyed most were with girls who were fun and were not worried about trying to make boys like them.
I soon found, though, that I felt better around and preferred the company of some young women over others. After talking about it, my mother suggested that I needed to learn how and why I got along better with some than with others because it would help me when it came time to get more serious about finding someone to marry. So I learned to be observant on a date, to think about why I did or did not feel comfortable.
I began to look at those I dated for the characteristics I thought important, like how well they communicated, their sense of humor, what they believed about religion and what they thought about themselves. I didn’t think much about it then, but I know I was storing up ideas. More important, I also found out that most girls start out wanting to have genuine, fun friendships because they are evaluating young men too. What’s more, as we evaluate others, we’re also evaluating ourselves. Most people feel complimented by genuine interest and questions that give them an opportunity to talk about themselves.
My willingness to treat a young woman with genuine interest and to stop trying too hard to impress her helped me discover that I was often guilty of prejudging. I found after talking to some girls that what I had thought about them at first was later proven untrue.
My mother also taught me that courtesy and acceptance are ways of showing respect, not only toward girls, women, and even toward other men, but also for myself. This knowledge and skill has helped me many times because it has increased my confidence around others. I believe I am less afraid to meet new people, enter new situations, speak in public, and carry on private conversations because manners help me know what to do. Manners have helped me, and many men, overcome a natural shyness.
Women deserve the respect of men. Both men and women are warmed by it and helped to feel secure. In an age when there is much concern about equality of the sexes, some women are receiving unequal amounts of rudeness and disrespect. Many men are using the idea of female equality as an excuse to neglect courtesy.
My mother helped me to learn and show respect for her, and consequently taught me that all girls and women are deserving of it. No one benefits by demeaning or rejecting another person. When young women are ennobled by the respect young men show them, both are elevated.
It never occurred to me as a young man that if a boy treats a girl like a queen, he is raising himself to a higher level too. All men and boys can learn an honest courtesy. And all young men can be known as “good dates,” not because of their social standing or good looks, but because of the respect and kindness they show to those they date.