Ladies First? Not Always!

Stairs, Escalators, and Moving Walkways

There are other exceptions to the general rule of “ladies first”:  When a lady is being accompanied by a gentleman, she precedes him when ascending stairs, but follows him when descending stairs, the rationale being that the gentleman will be in a position to brace her in the unfortunate event of a slip or a fall. The same rule and logic apply to escalators:  Man behind woman when ascending; man in front of woman when descending.  Unfortunately, very few men or women are aware of these exceptions, resulting in many a young man unwittingly stepping aside in the name of “chivalry,” only to commit a faux pas—literally and figuratively. Clearly, the exception makes perfect sense. A young gentleman, therefore, without seeming too authoritative, should gently suggest to his female companion that he be allowed to precede her when descending stairs so as to ensure her safety—a request with which most young ladies are more than happy to comply!

Much of the extant ambivalence is due to the fact that the rule of men behind when ascending, men in front when descending, was not always an “absolute” rule. Until the 1950s, women were expected preceded men down all stairs—except the stairs of public conveyances such as trains, buses, and boats, for example, where a lady would likely be in need of the assistance of a steady hand in the final step-down onto solid ground, that final step-down oftentimes being very steep, and in the case of boats, oftentimes very unsteady. But with the relaxation of manners which occasioned the late 1960s, such subtle distinctions faded into oblivion. And by the 1980s, the few well-intentioned men who even cared about comportment could only recall the general rule of “ladies first” and would unwisely allow their lady-companions to precede down gangplanks and treacherously steep step-downs of trains, for example, without the benefit of a helping hand to assist them in their alight onto solid ground. But etiquette evolves—thank God. And in the 21st century, rather than men and women having to remember which stairs require advance movement by men and which ones do not, a general consensus has been somehow achieved—probably in the interests of safety and simplicity—that men should always precede ladies in the descent of stairs (the one, rare exception being female leaders on official duty).

Many large airports today are equipped with moving walkways. A man accompanying a lady should allow her to step onto the moving walkway first, standing close behind her in the event she loses her footing. Shortly before disembarking the walkway, however, he should position himself so as to alight before she does so that he can offer his arm to brace her if necessary as she steps off the moving surface. And, of course, men and women should use the provided handrails and comply with other instructions when using automatic conveyances and stairways so as to avoid any mishaps and accidents. Even the most genteel of women will compromise a considerable degree of composure when tumbling down a flight of stairs! (And stiletto heels—no matter how shapely the wearer’s legs—tend to look better on the floor than up in the air! Then again, on second thought….)


Trains and Boats and Planes…

A gentleman escorting a lady should allow her to enter a bus first, positioning himself behind her so as to assist her step-up onto the bus, if necessary, by bracing her elbow—the one time (outside an emergency rescue mission or, perhaps, some yet-to-be-assigned-a-number sexual position) when a man is allowed to hold a woman by her elbow. Amy Vanderbilt, in her New Complete Book of Etiquette—The Guide to Gracious Living (Revised Edition, 1967), states in plain English in her discussion on “Manners on the Street”:  “The only time he does touch her elbow is when he is helping her up [emphasis provided] into a conveyance. If he precedes her—for example, down a train step—he offers his hand to steady her descent. He may never take her [emphasis provided] arm.”  And naturally, if the lady precedes the gentleman onto the bus—as she well should—she will lead the way towards available seating and will, upon identifying adjacent seating, occupy the inner seat, thereby allowing her escort to sit in the aisle seat—the more appropriate (and symbolically “protective”) seating for a gentleman accompanying a lady.

Exiting the bus is another occasion for an exception to the general rule of ladies first, and it would behoove all men and women to commit this exception to memory and practice, for it is so often violated:  When exiting a bus, the gentleman, already seated in the aisle seat, should not step aside to allow the lady to proceed down the aisle and off the bus first. Instead, after gathering his personal belongings and making sure that the lady has gathered hers, he proceeds first so that upon disembarking, he can turn towards the lady and offer his hand in assistance as she alights the stairs onto the street.

Likewise, a gentleman, be he prince, president, or preacher, should proceed ahead of his female companion when disembarking airplanes, ships, trains, etc., the logic, again, being that he will be in a position to brace her in the unfortunate event of a slip or a fall, and also that he can be in position to offer his hand in assistance as she alights the conveyance onto terra firma.

The consort, husband, or official male escort of a reigning monarch, head of state, or highly placed elected official, however, must adhere to protocol when accompanying such a lady on official matters. When ascending the stairs of a public conveyance, whether boat, airplane, or train, for example, the gentleman would board first, thereby allowing the lady, in her official capacity, to be the last person to wave goodbye to the media and observers prior to departure. Likewise, on arrival, such a lady should exit the conveyance in front of her escort so as to be the first to be officially received by the greeting delegation and media. The rationale for such protocol is that a monarch or head of state, for example, already carries the burden of her country on her shoulders and is, therefore, more than capable of maneuvering the ascent and descent of stairs on her own.  Furthermore, women in such positions, when acting in their official capacities, are generally provided with body guards and security staff to attend to their needs, thereby negating the need of their husbands or official male escorts to assume the protective roles normally factored into male-female public etiquette.  But—of course—when a high-ranking lady is not on official duty, the normal male-female rules of etiquette apply, requiring her male escort to assume his normal, protective posture.

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