I am on the Airport Express Train heading for Oslo airport. It’s 5pm and the train is packed. People standing in the aisles. Luggage racks bursting with bags and suitcases. I am one of the lucky ones who boarded the train at one of the first stations, so I have a seat. The scene is one of calm and silent chaos, quite typical of rush hour in Scandinavia. There is a woman standing next to me. She looks like she’s had a tough day. Her lop-sided and constantly shifting posture suggests to me that she’s spent most of the day on her feet and this 20-minute journey to the airport will push her hips and lower back muscles to the limit.
I can sense my British-Italian gentlemanly instincts screaming out for me to offer her my seat. She looks like she needs it more than I do. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned after 20 years living in Scandinavia, the most gender-equal area on earth, it is that unless the woman you would like to offer your seat to is very old, sick or disabled, or has a small child with her, do not – I repeat, do not – offer her your seat. Why? Well, for fear that this simple act of chivalry from a man might be interpreted as the woman not being as capable as the men at standing in the train, or opening a door, or holding an umbrella over her head.
In my first couple of years after I moved to Norway, the few times I tried to be a gentleman by either holding a door open for a woman, or giving up my seat for her, I was usually met with a look that seemed to either despise me, or pity me, or both. Very rarely did the woman accept my gesture graciously. So, after a while, I stopped doing it …
Back on the train, the man sitting next to me has suddenly stood up. He is a foreign businessman. After 30 years travelling the world, I can tell. It’s his impeccably tailored suit, his shiny shoes, his cologne, his briefcase. Persian perhaps? Almost as if this businessman were my kamikaze alter ego who has heard every word that I just said – or rather, thought – he stands up and offers the woman his seat. The Norwegian woman looks surprised and gestures with her hand and a forced smile that there is no need to give up his seat for her.
The businessman takes this as a polite first-offer refusal, a very common social behaviour in Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cultures when people are offered some kind of hospitality or courtesy, and so he proceeds to ask the woman a second time, this time moving very deliberately out of his seat as if he expects nothing less than a gracious acceptance from the woman. To the man’s amazement, the Norwegian woman takes a step back from him and says, “no, thank you, I can stand. It’s not far to the airport.”
Without missing a heartbeat, the Iranian offers his seat for a third time, gesturing humbly and courteously towards the now very empty seat, his bowing head practically begging her to accept his gentlemanly offer. Once more, the Norwegian woman declines the offer, becoming at the same time visibly irritated that she is having to say no for a third time. After all, in the low-context communication style of Scandinavia (https://www.communicaid.com/cross-cultural-training/blog/high-and-low-context/) “no” means “no”, and “yes” means “yes”.
The situation has now turned into a stand-off. Who will take the seat? The businessman’s honour is now at stake. If he sits down again, he will lose face. If she sits down, would it be sending a message that she really is the weaker sex who needs the seat more than the man. I am sure I am not the only passenger on the train who is very excited to see how this ends. You can cut the tension in the air with a knife.
As if to ease this tension – Scandinavians are not comfortable with tension or conflict – a fellow Norwegian passenger – a man – leans over and says with an ironic smile, “Well if neither of you is going to have the seat, do you mind if I take it?” Everybody smiles and eventually the woman accepts the man’s offer with a somewhat embarrassed “thank you” and sits down next to me. The foreign businessman has “won” his battle to be a gentleman, but I know he is left with a bitter-sweet taste in his mouth after this episode.
Call me old-fashioned, call me an anachronistic chauvinist pig if you like, but I was raised to offer my seat up for other women, to open doors for them, to be the one who walks closest to the roadside when I walk alongside a woman along a city sidewalk. And who taught me this? My mother!
Sometimes I just wish Scandinavian women – you powerful, goddess-like, independent, equality-driven, proud Scandinavian women – would just let us men be chivalrous and gentlemanly around you. It doesn’t mean that we men think you are in any way the “weaker” sex or the “lesser” sex. We know you can open a door yourself, we know you can stand up in a train as long as us, and we know you can earn your own money and divorce us at the drop of a hat. But when you accept our small acts of chivalry towards you, graciously, and with a smile of gratitude, it makes us men feel good about ourselves. It makes us feel useful, if only for a short while, in a world where I, for one, am beginning to wonder whether you women actually need us men for anything anymore.