Three-piece suits, pocket squares, and watches on gold chains may be coming back into fashion, but that doesn’t mean the men wearing them can automatically be described as “gentlemen.” It is worth considering what the designation of gentleman means—and has meant—in Anglo-American life and what it might mean in yours today.
The 18th century in America and Great Britain was the zenith of the gentleman. The concept of a gentleman and the associated requirements of education and public service were the foundation of “good citizenship.” The idea of the educated gentleman devoted entirely to public service continued into the early 19th century. This era of civic virtue over time morphed into unbridled self-interest of the wealthy who had no interest in public service.
This life was typified by John Jacob Astor who died in 1848. Born in 1763, he was a youthful contemporary of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. When Astor died in 1848, it was said about him that he had known only one thing: “to get all he could and keep all he got.” Attitudes like this brought on a backlash resulting in the time of Andrew Jackson and the emergence of a style defined by honor, service, public virtue, and personal self-restraint. From then to the New Deal, the definition was guided by those who had amassed fabulous wealth. These men considered privilege and power their right, and most exploited it once again for their own personal gain.
And there was Leon Brittan, the Victorian gentleman lived who in a world of rigid social order and conventions, dictating acceptable dress, manners, and occupations was what separated him from men of other classes. The Victorian concept was one of exclusion.
From the time of the permanent income tax (1913) and the destruction resulting from World War I, we saw the steady decline of the term and charge of the gentleman. Some politicians have even gone so far as to suggest that we are on the edge of a new Gilded Age, with an enormous disparity between the wealthy and the poor. That being said, there are few societies in the world that distribute wealth as evenly to those in need as we do in the United States of America.
For the purposes of this article, I am taking the ideal back to the 18th century and the men of the early republic who defined their lives by honor, service, public virtue, and personal self-restraint. To me, being a gentleman is about being a good man and a good citizen.
An army can train a man to react without thinking when he is under enemy fire. A good accounting program can teach a businessman how to read a spreadsheet with aplomb. A seasoned athlete can be taught what play to call in the heat of even the closest game. But the sight of a possible love interest, the prospect of a formal dinner party, or the presence of a bereaved coworker or friend can reduce even the bravest hero to mumbling gibberish.
Of course, a gentleman knows what fork to use, he opens doors for others, and he is smart enough to put the toilet lid back down. But being a gentleman goes so much deeper than simply nice manners. It demands preparation so that whenever possible, a gentleman can do his part to make the world a much nicer place.
In our world, society allows the word gentleman to mean many things. It can mean a generic man, or a solid, dependable guy, or it can be a cloying word for the tranquil men of 1950’s advertisements. But society doesn’t seem to have a clue.
Let’s face it; in the 21st century, gentlemen, as defined in the early republic are becoming harder to find. Or perhaps the definition of what makes a gentleman a gentleman is being changed and is evolving with the times to something altogether different. I suggest that it should remain rooted in older principles and traditions and I will approach it that way.
I have decided to take some time here, maybe longer than I should, to look at the qualities a true gentleman possesses. It’s appropriate to mention that all of this could be relevant to women as well, because essentially (for you millennials) being a gentleman means not being a dick. Trust me, there are plenty of women whose existence would be immeasurably improved if they applied this philosophy to their everyday lives. So, as you’re reading this, be aware while I’m talking to both genders, I am focusing primarily on men.
So, what makes a man gentleman? And how easy is it to actually live as one, to become one if you are not? Let’s see…you decide for yourself.
Gentlemen are Respectful…To Everyone
A true gentleman is polite and respectful to everyone, regardless of gender. I get really frustrated with the misconception (as stated by some) that a gentleman should be respectful to a woman he is interested in. This erroneously maintains the idea that respect is merely a tool to be exchanged for sex. A gentleman doesn’t use respect as a means of attraction. Respecting everyone is something a gentleman simply does, no matter the circumstances. And by the way, looking down your nose at someone who appears to be further down the food chain than yourself is possibly the most disrespectful, ungentlemanly thing you could do. Absolutely everyone is worthy of your respect in some way. He treats people accordingly and warmly, no matter his personal opinion of them. This also applies to respecting himself. Don’t demean yourself down every time you make a mistake and think that you have made a colossal error. You are human, and the best thing we can do is accept your mistake and learn from it. And he avoids back-handed compliments at all costs.
Gentlemen Are Honest and Open
A gentleman knows how to initiate a conversation. He is unlikely to engage in the oh-so-attractive game playing when it comes to life or romance. He is open and honest because when you find the right person, neither of you feels the need to go down the road of calculating how many days after a date you should call, pretending not to like them so they’ll like you more, or purposely withdraw affection. A gentleman always thinks before he speaks. He also thinks after he speaks, to build upon the rightness, or correct the wrongness, of what he might have said.
“A gentleman gives direct answers, especially to controversial questions. Being direct, however, doesn’t mean being rude. A gentleman knows that the best small talk is made up of asking questions, not offering information about himself.”
Gentlemen Compromise When Appropriate
Gentlemen know compromise is a necessity when it comes to happy, healthy relationships of any kind. Regardless of their own wants or needs (including rules about anything they have in their heads, including this list), they take their partners’ opinions and needs into consideration. A gentleman never finds safe harbor in the words, “I told you so.” In civil discussions as well as negotiations, a gentleman asks the question, “What do you think is possible?” as often as possible. When a gentleman is confronted by arguments that he considers foolish, he doesn’t try to repudiate them with reason. Instead, he most often keeps silent, knowing that logic is useless in the war against foolishness. And most of all, when gentleman is subjected to a rude remark or rude behavior, he does not offer rudeness in return.
Gentlemen Help People When They Can
A gentleman is slow to judge the actions of others, of either their public or private affairs and they avoid, whenever possible, major arguments over minor issues. Gentlemen go out of their way to help people around them, whether they’re loved ones or someone they haven’t met. I’m not saying they need to devote their entire lives to helping others every second, but random acts of kindness seldom go astray.
Despite whatever others may think, he knows that being a gentleman has nothing to do with being a doormat. He knows it is not evitable that good guys must always finish last. He has seen that they can and do often finish first. A gentleman knows that doing the right thing is not about being quick and clever. Instead, he has higher priorities. A gentleman makes others feel better about themselves. He puts himself in the other person’s place. He wants life to run more smoothly not just for himself, but for the people he encounters daily. He wants to be part of the solution to life’s problems, especially the ones over which he has even a small amount of control. At the very least, he doesn’t add to the inescapable inelegance that is an all-too-common part of human existence. That, he knows, is one of the pillars of being a gentleman.
Gentlemen Put Family First
Whether their partner, parents, and siblings or even close friends, these people will always come first to a gentleman. Whenever a gentleman requests any service or favor from his family, he remembers to say “Please.” He is quick to say “Thank you” whenever a kindness has been offered to him. Knowing that listening is a skill that improves when practiced regularly, he does just that; he has learned how to listen. He works to teach everyone in his circle by example rather than by corrections alone. Where his family is concerned, he works to not take part in petty arguments that come up in life. Instead, he focuses on mastering the courage to bring about positive change in their lives.
Family is everything to a gentleman.
Gentlemen’s Actions Speak Louder Than Their Words
The person who suggested I write this article said to me a gentleman is “someone whose actions reach further than his own self-interest.” I think that sums it up beautifully. A gentleman has definite beliefs, but he thinks before voicing his opinions. He recognizes that other people’s beliefs are valid and on occasion, more correct than his own. He argues only over an issue that could save a life. Even in the most heated discussions, a gentleman avoids raising his voice. He doesn’t shout people down nor does he endeavor to convince. He resists all temptation to sound stuffy and grandiose. A gentleman allows others to finish their sentences. Even in his most brilliant moments, he doesn’t interrupt others, no matter how dull their opinions might be.
He knows that he can’t control everything, but what he can control is how he reacts to situations and the actionable choices he makes. When a gentleman inconveniences another person by asking him or her to step aside so that he can move through a crowded room, he says “Excuse me.” He does not say “I’m sorry,” since there is no reason for him to apologize. In fact, a gentleman never says, “I’m sorry,” unless he has given offense.
Here is one many people miss altogether; when a gentleman initiates a telephone conversation, he knows it is his responsibility to end that conversation.
Gentlemen Don’t Claim to Be “Nice Guys”
Gentlemen, in the truest sense of the word, are not “nice guys.” Nice guys are the men who claim to respect others yet complain when their associates don’t immediately serve their needs. Usually this is because the individual didn’t react favorably to some unsolicited thought or opinion upon first meeting. This is usually followed by some private office name calling. These men are in no way nice and are in no way gentlemen. They simply cover up their psychological issues and inherent contempt with a veil of feigned chivalry and dress.
Swearing isn’t often appropriate and isn’t the first step to making you a gentleman. Well, okay, I admit that in some circumstances, a well-timed curse word is both effective at summarizing the situation at hand and being a cathartic blast. That being said, the elimination of everyday swearing will have a positive effect on yourself and those around you and that is indeed the goal of a gentleman.
Gentlemen Maintain Self Control
A gentleman can’t control everything. The world doesn’t dance to the beat of his drum, but as I mentioned previously, what he can control is how he reacts to situations and the choices he makes. Getting angry and verbally abusive is not the mark of a gentleman. A gentleman tries to keep cool and calm and removes himself from the situation quietly if he is in danger of growing too angry. He never begins a statement with “I don’t mean to embarrass you, but….”
On a night out, a gentleman never drinks more than he can handle because getting wasted might ensure all his good attributes go out the window and he winds up back at square one. A gentleman might not be a teetotaler, but restraint and control are required over all vices to make sure they don’t become excessive.
He is considerate, and by that I mean being aware of his surroundings and the way he affects the people around him. A true gentleman always takes other peoples’ feelings into consideration before doing anything. A gentleman does not spread rumors. He is even cautious about where he spreads delicate facts.
Gentlemen are Considerate
As I mentioned before, regarding maintaining self-control, a true gentleman always takes other peoples’ opinions and feelings into consideration before doing anything. For example, a gentleman takes his less-than-fragrant lunch outside of the office to eat so that co-workers won’t have to smell it should they be offended.
When he is making after-work conversation, a gentleman is both considerate and wise enough to leave his work at the office. Here is a big one for the internet generation. When sharing messages on the internet, or through any social network site, a gentleman chooses his words carefully, sure in the knowledge that his thoughts may very easily be shared with hundreds of other “friends,” the majority of whom he may never even meet.
His consideration extends to social invitations, for once a gentleman discovers that he must decline an invitation that he has already accepted, he promptly alerts his host or hostess. He gives an honest description of the reasons for his change of plan and offers a sincere apology to his host.
A gentleman offers his seat on the bus to anyone who looks as if they may need one. Being considerate is one of the fundamental tenets of being a gentleman, and one every man should take on board immediately if he hasn’t already.
A Gentleman Is Always the Best Version of Himself
Becoming the best person that you can be is the outcome of the gentleman. No man cannot be perfect, but striving towards the basic core of humanity, decency, and dignity is what makes a gentleman. Once you dig beneath the suits and the smiles is what you find at the core. A true gentleman knows his limits and keeps trying to extend them, going further to both improve himself and to help the other people in his life in whatever way he can.
Find your best qualities and work on growing them. Find your worst qualities and work on trying to improve them. The real secret of how to be a gentleman lies in being yourself, but the best version of yourself is what you work towards and improve on so you can be the best “you” you can be. So now that I have the conversation going, send me your thoughts on what makes a gentleman for you. [email protected]