Infinite Etiquette Recursion On Staircase

Wolf warrior David Huggins reminded me of the greatest conundrum in finer etiquette: how a gentleman should behave when approaching the lower end of a narrow staircase while in conversation with a lady.

All men know that it is courteous to hold open doors and allow others to pass before us, not only ladies but anyone really. But the staircase imposes a separate and sadly little-known rule.

You do not walk behind a lady up a staircase, because this will give the impression that you are ogling her legs/posterior.

The problem has no solution unless you are willing to ask the lady every time which of these two etiquette rules she is aware of and which of them she feels has higher priority. You can't excuse yourself and flee every time there's a staircase in your path to dinner. On every narrow staircase, with every lady, you will wonder either “Does she think I'm staring at her ass? Hey, nice ass, come to think of it” or “Does she think I'm rude for barging away onto the stairs and leaving her behind?”

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There is also the rule that demands that the male protect the woman from harm, or the potential for harm. Narrow stairways are prone inflicting harm if someone, perhaps partying too hard, was to stumble, farther up the stairs, or attempt to come down without observing that the couple are coming up.

To prevent this potential calamity the male should go first.

There is also the fact that walking behind the female gives you a better view but it can also serve to block others from getting an eyeful. Coming up behind her you can simply avert your eyes to avoid indiscretion while protecting her modesty.

With a smooth manner and silver tongue a man can argue any of those points. The key to manners is a combination of discretion and patience. But applied sophistry helps if you are questioned.

A case for "fuzzy logic". Every time a Cyberdyne Systems infiltration unit finds itself in this situation it will choose one of the two options at random (or use a pseudorandom algorithm). A more advanced unit will teleport past the human female.
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For humans who want to make a more random* choice, try this advice: "LSD is good for you, say Norway researcher's"…
*or at least thoroughly scrambled

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 25 Sep 2013 #permalink

It was my impression, like art's, that a gentleman was supposed to protect a lady. Thus a gentleman walks on the street side of the sidewalk to protect a lady from splashes from the street or tripping and falling into the street. Unlike art, however, I thought a gentleman should walk behind a lady up the stairs in order to catch her should she trip and fall backwards. There is no danger that a gentleman will stare at a lady's posterior, since a gentleman will always avert his eyes.

Mark - Correct, plus you need to help her to counteract gravity by pushing her up the stairs. The correct grip for doing this is to place your hands at the sides of her waist towards the rear.

By John Massey (not verified) on 25 Sep 2013 #permalink

Haha, John, I'm beginning to suspect that Mrs. Massey may not be lurking on this blog after all. (-;

Heh (:<

Mrs Massey is the one who taught me to push her up the stairs. And to walk in front of her going down, so she can hold onto my shoulders to steady herself, and if she trips, she will have me to fall on.

By John Massey (not verified) on 27 Sep 2013 #permalink

“Does she think I’m rude for barging away onto the stairs and leaving her behind?”

...or is she relived that I've left her behind _behind_?

Mark, in this as in many other things the inverse is the proper practice in most Scottish cities, notably Glasgow.
The high-density 18th/19th century, ultimately mediaeval-derived architecture results in fairly narrow pavements (sidewalks) along a cliff-like stone frontage, interrupted every at each boundary or couple of property boundaries by tunnel-like covered alley perpendicular to the street, giving access to many more less salubrious dwellings.
In these areas it has invariably been the practice to walk the lady on the away side from the gloomy "close-mooths", giving the chap a second or so of reaction time to tackle their bottle, iron bar or cut-throat razor-wielding assailants emerging like hornets from their slummy lair, and shield his delicate companion's visage from the lunging blood-hungry malkies with his body.

In the mediaeval and Early Modern periods, the rule was in conformity with other lands, as the oversailing storeys of the jettied floors close to the wall gave the lady a modicum of protection from a shower in the defenestrated contents of a chamberpot or nightsoil pail, which by regulation was supposed to be forewarned with a yell of "Gardyloo!!" (gardez à l'eau) but this was not always the case, and often the cry would be inaudible in the sleet-laden gales blasting among the (up to) ten-storey high tenements. Also meant the gent's sword was not encumbered in the drawing and ended up on the correct side once drawn (see "close mooths").

In descending any stair, a gentleman should always avail himself of a speedy ride on the banister handrail, thus rendering himself available to take the lady's hand for the last few steps.

By dustbubble (not verified) on 29 Sep 2013 #permalink

Well, it always works on Scooby Doo.

By John Massey (not verified) on 02 Oct 2013 #permalink