Q. How can I tell the difference between chivalry and chauvinism?

A. Back in the day, chivalry was fairly easy to identify: A gentleman would open a car door for a lady or walk on the outside of the sidewalk when escorting her down the street. Such gestures, both small (fetching a damsel's purse) and grandiose (throwing his jacket over a puddle), were greeted with nearly universal approbation. But nowadays women aren't considered the weaker or gentler sex (thank goodness for that), and these acts are viewed differently. They can seem old-fashioned or even offensive. For example, if a man says, "Here, let me lift that box for you," you may wonder: Is he being courtly or condescending, implying that I'm too frail to pick up the parcel myself? Here's how to decode his intent.

Consider Age—Both His and Yours

My father was raised in an era when boys were routinely told that good manners meant holding doors open for ladies. He would no sooner stand by while a woman wrestled with something heavy than he would commit a felony. Elderly gentlemen consider it courteous to offer assistance, and the only thing you should do in return is thank them. But if you and Mr. Helpful are twentysomething colleagues vying for a big promotion, he may very well be attempting to send you—and your boss—a subtle message that he's more capable. For example, as long as you can actually lift a heavy item, say, "I appreciate the offer, but I've got this covered."

Consider Your Relationship with Him

Assume that family members, friends, and significant others who insist on paying your restaurant bill and walking you to the car are merely being gracious. The same holds for a boss trying to show a staffer simple appreciation. But if the person is someone you don't know well (a first date, a client), demur and pick up the bill at the end of the meal.

Consider His Tone

When the clerk at the post office calls you "dear," he's trying to be cordial. And he probably sounds upbeat and friendly when he says it. That's a lot different from your sister's annoying boyfriend snarkily calling you "sweetheart" just before denigrating your opinion. Or a doctor, a tax accountant, or anyone else you count on for serious advice telling you not to get "hysterical" or "worry your pretty little head" about, well, anything. In such cases of blatant condescension, go ahead and call the fellow out. To the guy who calls you "sweetheart" say, "You know, I prefer the name Michelle." And to the patronizing doc, suggest that he treat you like an adult or you'll take your business elsewhere.

If, after making these considerations, you're still uncertain whether someone is being retro or boorish, give him the benefit of the doubt. It would be gallant of you to do so.

Michelle Slatalla