Remember my suitcase saga from last year? This is the promised follow-up, based on your many responses to my request for input.
Last year I was on an airplane, struggling to lift my heavy suitcase into the overhead bin – and noticed some deep conflict in a few men near me. They seemed torn between wanting to help but feeling like they “should” hold themselves back. One man was actually gripping the armrests of his seat, as if to keep himself from jumping up to offer help. (You can read the full tale here.)
As a mom who is trying to raise a son to be polite and helpful, I was sad that men today may feel like they have to stop a natural instinct to help (or hold the door, or…), out of concern that they might offend. Yet, as I noted, I also totally understand the caution – especially in the post-#MeToo era. After all, I consider myself a pretty strong, capable person, and would never want someone to make me feel otherwise.
So what’s a man to do? I asked blog readers that question and was flooded with thoughtful responses – from both men and women – that provide encouragement and a practical road map for navigating this era.
Men: Realize that you’re not alone
If you have ever wondered whether you should offer to physically defer to or help a woman in some way, you’re not alone. One guy captured the angst well when he said, “Men no longer know what is expected of them most of the time.”
This particular blog resonated deeply with men. Instead of most comments being from women (which is more usual), 80% of the responses this time were from men. Their relief was palpable as they shared how much they want to help – and many do help – but also feel the internal struggle about unintentionally giving offense.
In fact, some men shared that in the face of negative reactions, they have actually given up. One explained that he has been snubbed so many times, he no longer offers help. Feeling defeat, he commented, “I don’t want to offend anyone, but also don’t want to be insulted for trying. Danged if you do, danged if you don’t.”
Others have decided on a different approach: they don’t assist unless a woman proactively asks for help. A tormented thirty-ish-year-old man described noticing a young woman at church struggling to fold her electric bike. He wanted to go help but talked himself out of it so he wouldn’t offend her. He was relieved when she eventually asked for assistance.
The majority of men, however, had landed on a better compromise – one that ranked well with both men and women. More on that in a moment. First, let’s examine a parallel truth for women.
Women: Realize that the offer of help does not imply weakness
Many women don’t mind an offer of help. But those who wrestle with it do so out of concern that the guy thinks we are the little woman who needs his help and can’t do it on our own.
We need to get over it.
Perhaps 100 years ago, that negative assumption may have been there among some men; I don’t know. But today, both in the response to this blog and in many of our research interviews over the years, a man’s offer means something very different.
As one very representative man explained: “If I offer to help someone with their luggage, it is because I am helpful, not because I think they aren’t capable.”
Another man in his 40s said, “It is a matter of general respect. I extend help not because a woman is ‘less than,’ but because it is common courtesy and respect for another person. It is how I was raised. I am certainly never thinking, ‘Hey, this 28-year-old woman is so weak I need to get the door for her.’ I think most of us guys just want to help.”
Women: Also realize that men are angered by inappropriate behavior, too.
We also need to realize that most men are our allies. They are angered by the misogynistic or inappropriate behavior that has made so many women cautious in the first place. Indeed, one of the crucial impacts of the #MeToo movement was opening the eyes of well-intentioned men to just how much that behavior still happened today. (You can read one of my posts about that here.)
Yet many men have always been sensitive to that behavior – and angered and saddened by it. One older man replied to the “suitcase blog” this way:
Possibly because of my age (I’m 68), I believe most women would not be offended by a gesture to help. (I seem harmless in terms of “MeToo.”) When I was younger, I was more cautious, especially with women at work because, being in C-suite roles, I was almost always their superior. I am saddened that some bad men caused that change.
So, all this said… what should men do? What is the path forward?
Men: Offer, don’t assume
There was a broad consensus from both men and women: When seeing something that might be a need – your colleague is carrying one too many boxes, that woman in the grocery store is trying to reach a tall shelf, your fellow airplane passenger is trying to lift a heavy suitcase – simply offer your help, rather than assuming it is needed and stepping in.
“I’d be glad to help, if you’d like,” will usually be received with gratitude.
But what if the help isn’t needed – or wanted? If so, the men told one another, go about your day without taking it personally! As one man said, “I don’t feel pressure to hold back from helping. Or rather, for ASKING if someone would like help. I have also learned to be okay, and not have my feelings or pride hurt, if my request to help is denied.”
Women: If we turn down a polite offer of help, we should do so politely.
This was the second broad consensus. As noted in the original blog, we don’t have to accept an offer of aid. But since these offers are almost always well-intentioned, we should see his offer as the courtesy it is and decline in a way that returns that courtesy. As one man said, “If you really don’t want help, just say, ‘No, thank you.’ Any guy I know would respect that.”
By contrast, terse or prickly rebuffs nearly always give the impression of incriminating a well-intentioned man who doesn’t deserve it. And they introduce the perverse incentives that make that man less likely to offer his help next time.
Now, I’m going to raise another point here for us independent-minded women to consider. Candidly, we should also think carefully about whether we are letting pride get in the way of wisdom. Last weekend, Jeff and I were boarding a flight after speaking at a Midwest church, and Jeff offered to help a woman – probably 60 years old – who was struggling to lift her clearly heavy, hard-shell suitcase. She said, “No!” very sharply, and Jeff nodded and sat down. A moment later, when he was too far away to do anything about it, he watched in horror as this woman tried to heft the suitcase high, lost her grip, and nearly dropped it on the skull of the passenger directly below her. Every human on the planet needs help at times. We shouldn’t be unwilling to accept it if it is truly needed.
Men: Bottom line … don’t stop offering; most people will take you up on it
This was by far the most prevalent response, from both men and women: Being helpful and caring about others is the right way to be, so don’t let fear hold you hostage. As Galatians 6:9 says, “Let us not grow weary in well-doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.” The vast majority of those you reach out to (or hold the door for), will be grateful for it.
I’ll end with a small sampling of some verbatim responses from several men – men who are choosing to continue a lifestyle of steadfast servanthood. Men for whom most of us are very grateful:
- “If you see someone nearby you who needs help, and you have the ability to help … well, stand up and help them! I never feel any pressure to sit back and not help. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. If another guy is quicker than I am, I think ‘I should have moved faster!’”
- “I do not feel the pressure. And I will not stop helping. If a woman takes offense, I know I only had good intentions, and it won’t stop me from helping at the next opportunity. Very few take offense to this gesture of aid, and I feel those that do are the ones missing out.”
- “I watched my dad open car doors for my mom, every time they went out. Clearly, she can open her own door! (It’s a gesture of kindness and respect.) I do the same thing today. If I were to ever offer help and be shot down, I wouldn’t be offended. I’ve taught my boys to hold doors, offer to lift heavy objects, and so on. I believe God put this in our hearts.”
- “In my early 20s, soon after accepting Christ, I started offering to help with things like changing tires, holding doors, and all kinds of stuff – including one time intervening in a violent domestic dispute. I’ve been told off and sometimes just given the evil stare but most of the time the feedback is positive – at least 80% positive. So it doesn’t bother me if someone wants to do it themselves. My mother taught me that a real man offers to help – and actually does help – when help is needed.”
- “Your article is spot on, and yes I do hesitate – especially if the women is younger than I am. The dynamic in our culture can be intimidating. But I fight the hesitation and always ask if I can help or hold the door anyway. The reality is that a heavy suitcase is hard to put in the overhead bins, regardless of gender. I raised two sons to hold doors, help people, and to stand up for others who may not fight for themselves. We will not back down from those biblical principles that empower men to be strong, kind, and step up.”
And if you are interested in having Shaunti speak on kindness for your workplace, church, school or community group, please contact Nicole Owens at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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More from Shaunti’s Blog:
- What Wives Need Most From Their Husbands (Part 1)
- What Husbands Need Most From Their Wives (Part 2)
- What Husbands Need Most From Their Wives (Part 1)
- In Money and Marriage, Remember the Past to Have Faith in the Future
- What Forgiveness Can Teach Us About Creating a Thriving Life – part 2
- What Forgiveness Can Teach Us About Creating a Thriving Life