This weekend, I saw a great example of a dynamic that I believe impacts a lot of men—and by extension, everyone else. Something that requires our attention as those who care about men and culture. Something that may even require our attention in our own marriages, and with our sons.
I flew to a speaking engagement and back this weekend—out Saturday morning, back Sunday night. I boarded the flight out with my usual executive-size roller suitcase. (Every public speaker has learned the hard way that you don’t check a bag with your “nice clothes” if you have to speak within 24 hours!) My suitcase this time was unusually full and heavy and as I tried to lift it into an overhead bin, three different men in nearby rows noticed me struggle. All three of them asked, “Can I help you?” at the same time and started to get to their feet.
The closest one stepped forward, and I said, “That would be great, thank you so much.” He easily levered the bag into place, nodded, and returned to his seat. I thought grateful thoughts on the flight.
Boarding the airplane back was very different. I rolled my heavy suitcase on and struggled to lift it up high enough to get it into the bin. I could see four men in nearby rows watching my efforts—yet none of them said anything. But here’s the thing: I could tell each of them wanted to.
Out of the corner of my eyes, I could see their reactions. Each individual guy was strugglingto not jump up. To not say, “Can I help you?” I could feel their conflict. One in particular—a thirty-something guy dressed in business casual—looked very torn. He literally had his hands on his arm rests, as if he wanted to push himself to his feet. But he didn’t.
I gave up momentarily, put the suitcase down heavily, and rubbed my shoulder. I was saved by a young college guy coming down the aisle after me. He was wearing a Wake Forest University sweatshirt and was probably 18 years old—too young to have the concerns the other men did. (More on that in a moment.)
He rushed up to me and said, “Do you need help?” I gratefully said, “Yes, thank you!” He put my suitcase in the bin, smiled at my thanks, and went on his way.
I’m actually writing these words on the flight back, thinking about the four men sitting in nearby seats around me—especially the one guy who was forcing himself to not help. It makes me so sad. Not because he didn’t help me—not at all!—but because he clearly felt like he couldn’t help me. That it would be wrong, in some way, to offer.
Men are getting more and more cautious
This is a little snapshot of our culture, isn’t it? This dynamic has been running in the background for decades, but as I’ve spoken to men in the last few years, I have heard them getting more and more cautious.
They are particularly cautious about overstepping personal boundaries—which, of course, isn’t always a bad thing. It is great, for example, that the #MeToo movement helped many well-meaning men see how they might make women uncomfortable without intending to—for example, via regular personal compliments. (More on that in this article.) But that concern combined with the often male-bashing direction of our culture may have resulted in men becoming too cautious.
Too many good men are now second-guessing their natural instincts to step up. They wonder if a female stranger might take their offer of help as a slight or an insult. Perhaps they should probably explicitly wait for said female stranger to ask for help before they give it. And this, of course, collides with the reality that because we as women are quite capable, thank you very much, something in us doesn’t want to have to ask for help. (Since I still feel 30 years old inside, there is something slightly mortifying about actually needing more help, physically, than I did twenty years ago.)
Men feel like they are not “allowed” to be what all men feel called to be
And here’s the bottom line: as good men are attacked for wanting to help, as they hold themselves back, they begin to feel like they are not allowed to be what all men feel calledto be. Even the science of how we are created differently as men and women points to this. For me as a person of faith, I also clearly see this in what the Bible describes about a few specific callings for men: to be those who step up, who protect others, who fight for those who can’t fight for themselves, who provide for their families. This doesn’t mean that women cannot also do all of those things, of course! But the guys who are growing up in and navigating this culture today are sometimes made to feel that the callings they feel deep inside are wrong. That lending women their strength (in all the ways that means) somehow tells women we aren’t strong.
I hear this especially from those in the millennial and early Gen Z generations. I think it is no coincidence that the men who offered to help me were all a bit older than me, and the men who stopped themselves were all younger.
So what can we do?
What do we do about all this? Well, we can try to change things one interaction at a time. In a moment, I want to ask guys to chime in, but first, let me speak directly to women.
We as women can show the men we live and work with that we appreciate them stepping up to their callings, and don’t see it as denigrating us at all. If you’re married, show your husband this piece and ask if he ever feels this way. Maybe we need to wrestle with whether we have subtly encouraged our man to not step up at home because he feels like he never knows what reception he is going to receive when he offers. We may need to purposefully and simply say “thank you” instead.
Or outside the home, when we calmly and confidently thank our male colleague for his offer to help install the awkward exhibit hanging, we take back a tiny bit of ground from the insidious messaging that makes him feel that offer would be disrespectful.
This is particularly important because our sons are watching. Do we want our sons to step up and help those around them, or do we want them always holding themselves back?
Bottom line, we should be the type of person who is verbally grateful instead of always sending defensive signals that we could have done it ourselves. Sure, we could have. And sometimes, we will still do it ourselves! Just because an offer is made, we don’t have to accept it. But men need to know that it is a good thing—not a bad one!—that they made the offer.
A man should never, ever have to watch someone struggling to lift her suitcase into the overhead bin, with his hands rigid and tight on his armrests, forcing himself to stay silent and not help. That is a man denying something deep and good that I believe God put directly into his heart.
A request for men: What do you most want people to know about how you feel in this area?
So now, let me ask men: Do you have anything you want to share? Do you feel this pressure to hold back from helping? Do you not? What do you do about it? What should women do?
I’d love your anonymous comments and advice in this form. I’ll compile what everyone sends me and write a follow-up blog about all the anonymous comments I get.
Let me end with this. So much of what we are told today is that there is no real difference between men and women, nothing that makes us special and unique from each other. But I hope each of us can resolve to share a different message that celebrates how we are made.
And as one small step in that direction: if you know a young college guy with short blond hair and a “Wake” sweatshirt who was flying Delta from Philadelphia to Atlanta on the night of August 21 . . . tell him he did good.
This article was also published at Patheos.
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Wonderful insight!! Thank you for sharing, Shaunti!!
Martine Benzio says
Loved your thoughts on this subject Shaunti! I had not noticed this before , but that is sad if the younger crowd feels this way and I agree, society .and the Womens Lib movement has confused these issues now.
I would always offer to help. I was raised to be gentlemen and offer assistance. If someone is taken aback by my offer, I would then apologize if I offended them. We need to spread kindness with each interaction, big or small!
My husband helps everyone, regardless of age. I have noticed that younger women tend to react negatively towards him when he offers assistance. I have often seen their reactions first hand and will run up to him so that they can see he is with a woman. My sense tells me they may be fearful of his true intentions.
I don’t care if it is offensive. Love conquers all. I caught a woman out of the corner of my eye fall in the parking lot the other day. She couldn’t get up. She usually called the fire dept she said while telling me I wouldn’t be able to pick her up.
I set her on her feet and went on my way. It was well over 100 degrees out. She was thankful but Im just glad she is ok.
My 3 sons are ages 26, 31, & 34. We lived overseas when they were in MS & HS. I ALWAYS let them help me put my carryon in the overhead bin & told them & others how wonderful it was to have them with me. So, if someone younger helps you, it might just be one of them! ♥️
Women’s Liberation movement has made men scared because we as “women” want to be viewed as “equal;” however God created physical differences between men and women. The first and foremost being physical stature, men have narrower pelvis while women have wider pelvis. The second physical characteristic being genitalia. However, with the current “inclusion” movements, the lines are blurred significantly. Therefore, there is mass confusion. What are the “roles” of men and women, you can not tell people to stick to “old-fashioned” roles because that will offend some.
So we are at a point in society where confusion leads to lack of action, as seen in the 4 older men who refused to help. When you are confused, what do you do? No body knows, so it leads to inaction. We can not blame the men, but as MOTHERS we can define clear roles for our sons and daughters.
Great points. Thanks for this insight.
Paul Byerly says
I’ve noticed I have far less trouble with this as a sixty-something grandfather. I guess I look safe. Or maybe I get a pass for my age.
But when I was younger, trying to be a decent, helpful person to someone who happened to be female did sometimes get me some nasty looks and comments. I generally saw it as their problem. I didn’t do it again with that person, but it didn’t put me off being helpful and kind in general. But then I’m stubborn like that!