Chivalry, Sexual Harassment and a matter of latitude

Image“Speeches are like women’s skirts: the shorter, the better”. This is how a few days ago an Italian diplomat welcomed the guests of one of the many Brussels’ institutional gatherings. Someone I know was there and told me he was shocked. “You know – he said – it’s not that he actually said that because the world’s plenty of fools. It’s that EVERYBODY (all the Italians  I mean) laughed, men and women. I looked around for a sign of embarrassment, of uneasiness, of anything but NO. People laughed”. This story and the latest Berlusconi stunt made me wonder when did sexual harassment kill chivalry and who’s going to tell that to the southern part of the world.

Last week I was watching for the second time a truly beautiful film (do watch it if you haven’t done it yet), “El secreto de sus ojos”. It’s an argentinian film which was awarded the Oscar a few years ago. Knowing the story already, I was able to enjoy the details. Courting women, complimenting them and mild flirting  – even at work – was (and probably is, I don’t know) part of the local culture. So it is in Italy, Spain, Portugal and generally the latin world. When you are born in that, you don’t even realize it. Compliments are part of the social interaction between sexes. The pursuit of beauty is on the bill of rights. It is widely common, in these countries, to congratulate someone on his/her looks, clothes, sunglasses and sometimes beautiful spouse/children. As a woman, you sit at a meeting and suddenly the guy sitting in front of you will tell you how nice is your green blouse or how radiant you look. He’s not flirting, not yet. He’s just being polite.

Of course, there’s been the occasional incident. It happened to me and to a long list of girlfriends that you would call a man for business purposes and he would turn down the business part and offer you to have a drink together instead. If he was interested in business, he would go play tennis at the local club with your male colleague. It was humiliating and unnerving. But I never saw it as part of something bigger. I just thought I had stumbled on a moron.

It’s now that it scares me. Because I realize that it wasn’t normal. The line between chivalry and sexual harassment in the south of the world is very thin, and can apparently be crossed at any time. Men will play with that blurred line, ready to back off and say they were only being polite, in case you take it bad. After the first few years of Brussels, where you could walk naked in the street or wear a bucket of mussels on your head and NO ONE would even look at you I went to a meeting in Italy with a guy I had seen only once before. He was nice, not flirty. But he greeted me saying: “You look so pretty today”. Well, I almost bit his head off. For the first time I felt how out of place it was.

What is the way out? Mass reeducation? A new cultural revolution, chinese style? How do you educate women not to mistake chivalry with sexual harassment? And…if sexual harassment is always a risk, do we have to give up what’s left of chivalry? What are the rules? Chivalry is ok in private situations but not in business?

I find a certain charm in the kind of gallantry shown by some southern men: opening doors, offering flowers, treating a woman as someone special. But where should this stop?

How is this perceived in your country? And how do you feel about that? How do we do to keep respect and courtship? I’d love to know more.