In several email exchanges, I have been exploring this idea a bit with readers, friends, and family members. Online, there often exists a call to pseudo-chivalry by readers and writers, most often deployed in the comments sections of blog posting. Blogs often discuss what they think a "gentleman" should wear/act/espouse, etc., and commenters often use it as criticism towards the blog author and unfavorable comments following the posts. I have received no fewer than fifty emails asking whether or not “a gentleman does [x],” usually along the lines of “Wouldn’t you agree that a gentleman ALWAYS wears a pocket square with his jacket?. No, I wouldn't agree.
The answer I have settled upon is that I really have no idea. While it is not impossible to define what a “gentleman” is, I don’t think that I can define it.
Growing up, I was never told what a “gentleman” actually does in any specific form. I was however, constantly notified about what a gentleman does not do… usually something at which I was then engaged.
“Sit up, please and eat like a gentleman” was often said in my direction. Had I asked exactly what a gentleman eats like, I would have been told “Not the way you are currently doing it.” This was true for most of my behavior as a boy and a young man. In my mid-to-late teens, during dinner, I would often casually relay an exchange that I saw as harmless, between a neighbor, a girl, etc. and me. Listening patiently, my mother would conclude the discussion with an immediate course of required actions that usually had me walking, calling, or writing the party to whom I had brought some offense or coarseness. “You will call her up and apologize. You will also inform her that you were mistaken and that you would in fact be delighted to accompany her to the banquet.” Permissions to drive the car, receive an allowance, or participate in varsity sports hinged on these mortifying corrections and back-peddlings.
It could be said that for a young man, the definition of a “gentleman” is never truly articulated. It is instead presented on a case-by-case basis, only allowing one’s understanding of it to be a long series of narrowing down by trial and error.
From an email: "A gentleman in America usually means that he is wealthy and speaks a foreign language fluently". Really? Serial philanderer and off-court disaster Kobe Bryant is fluent in Italian and very rich.
In Europe, I came to learn that in many countries, there exist clearly defined and enumerated definitions of gentleman, which correlate directly to lineage and ancestry. In the US, we appropriately give little-to-no worth to lineage beyond cocktail party whispers, especially when you have been subjected to international classmates who legitimately and immediately are considered aristocrats... many of whom have DUI convictions, date-rape accusations, and other unpleasant symptoms of a consequence-free upbringing.
To Americans, the Gentleman it is more amorphous and almost ethereal. Young men are often guilted into early 20th century social niceties or they are misguided into adopting an unpalatable version of snobbery, ersatz-cultivation, or various airs in order to “be a gentleman”.
Just as legions of young men are now interested in adopting healthy dressing habits and styles, they are also translating the increased formality of dress into an increased formality of conduct (which is fine by me). My father always said that “he who speaks seldom knows. He who knows seldom speaks.” I have always been very weary and suspicious of people who say “I am a gentleman” with a similar squirm when people say “we” for certain groups (every single Lisa Birnbach interview for example). Something about it smacks of indulgence and desperation. “If you want to see the real thing… here I am”. How charming.
My grandmother once said that a host welcomes people into his house, but a gentleman welcomes people anywhere. Interesting, but I don't really know what it means.
As I spend my life circling around the definition of gentleman, and as I encourage my son to do the same just as I had been, I think that maybe it’s best that a definition never exist. This likely serves to deify the word, and like other definitions, it opens it up to vast debate. Like the way a State Trooper uses the word “Sir”, the word “gentleman” is used punitively and comparatively. If your definition of a gentleman is something more polite, more inclusive, more punctual, and more outgoing than you are currently, I say have at it. If your version is something that can be acquired, bought, affected, or used to insult or smugly compare, please spare me.