Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Elusive Gentleman - PART I

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.


  1. One of those advantages of being from Old (not Northern) Virginia is that your definition of a gentleman is the standard deviation from the mean of Robert E. Lee. Any course of action (aside from the consumption of Bourbon) can be determined by asking "Would Robert E. Lee do this?"

  2. A gentlemen is kind, humble, caring, trustworthy, wise, thoughtful, courteous, attentive.

    A gentleman a charitable but not concerned with wealth.
    A gentleman treasures the value of women and the finer things in life but never boasts of such things.
    A gentleman finds joy in making others happy but seeks no recognition for doing so.

    A gentleman is never perfect at being all these things but makes no excuses for his shortcomings.

    And yes, dammit, a gentleman always holds the door.

  3. To me, the definition of a gentleman is related to what I think of as the difference between "etiquette" and "manners." Etiquette is that list of rules, some obvious, some of nearly random-seeming origins, that we are asked to deploy at galas, balls, etc. so the judgy people won't judge. Manners, on the other hand, seem much simpler to me - nothing more than enough consideration of the people around you to refrain from saying or doing things that make them legitimately uncomfortable. If I ever have a son, that's what I'll teach him about being a gentleman - be the kind of person other people are always comfortable with.


  4. Well written and thought out. Plus the "not the way you are currently doing it" is something I say to my son once a day. Three times on the weekends.

  5. I appreciate your wise words. I also do not know exactly what a gentleman is, but I know a bit more than do police officers and sheriff's deputies, when they are quoted in the media referring to a bank robber/rapist/carjacker/wife beater/child abuser as a "gentleman." Truly cringe-inducing.

    Good luck,

    1. Just like the term "Gentlemen's Club". Once upon a time, a Gentlemen's Club was a place you were served aged Brandy. Now a "Gentlemen's Club" is where you get served by an aged high school drop-out named Brandi.

  6. Excellent. You articulate many of my thoughts on the matter.

    I do believe a code of conduct for men should be based on masculine, Traditional virtues ("manliness"--courage, strength, tribal loyalty, endurance, hospitality, generosity, etc.) rather than weak, watered-down pseudo-Christian ones.

    One of my favourite quotes on the matter is from Simon Raven's book, The English Gentleman:

    "I myself am not a gentleman. If I were, I would almost certainly not be writing this book, for one of the marks of a gentleman is that he seldom mentions the question of gentility, whether in application to others or to himself. There are a number of reasons why I am not a gentleman, some of which will become abundantly plain in the pages of this book; but chief among them is that I have no sense of obligation. I am happy to enjoy privilege: I am also prone to evade or even totally to ignore its implicit commitments. This defect would not necessarily disqualify me from being "upper class", but it does mean that I can never be a gentleman, which is a very different thing."

  7. Readers might want to watch "My Man Godfrey" for a hint. It's not about riches but rightness.


  8. Now.. now... you admitted that you "acquired" your gentlemen's code through your upbringing.

    I suppose the gentlemanly conduct stems from chivalry, which obviously is the code of knights hence aristocratic behaviour.

  9. *Philip: When I was younger I learned that the only thing that General Lee would not do is open his doors. That's why the Duke Boys had to climb through the open windows every time.

    *Scott: I don't hold the door for people carrying coffee while talking on cellphones. My own rule.

    *Regine: Etiquette is more ritual, and can be used rudely if needed.

    *Turling: I'm in the same boat.

    *LBF: I agree. In college, we used the term SNAG (Sensitive New-Aged Guy).

    *Sr.: Exactly. Powell's character embodies the natural gentleman.

    *Anon 12:03: I should have said "inherited", meaning foreign titles.

  10. I am reminded of a recent Makers Mark ad campaign.

    "It is, what it isn't".

    I would say that holds true for being a gentleman or even the often attempted but poorly defined "class". the way, a gentleman must always quote booze ads.

  11. Well, it seems that you've set up a mine field with this. You are correct that the term is better left being something of an enigma.

    When I was young, in addition to being used as an adomonishment for my actions, my mother would use it on me this way. Dressing me in cardboard constrictive clothes, poking and prodding me, working out cowlicks with Dippity-Dew and adding a severe part to my hair with me training an steely gaze at her with thoughts, of words I couldn't quite articulate as deftly as I can now, swimming through my head, "Now, you look like a little gentleman".

    It's word that carries baggage, but appreciated as something to strive to.

  12. As Oscar Wilde said: "A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone's feeling unintentionally."
    I think that about sums it up.
    A very thought provoking and well written post my friend.
    I was also reminded of a quote from Nick in "Metropolitan"...."The titled aristocracy are the scum of the Earth..."

  13. As a Southerner and a graduate of W&L, i share the best words I know on the subject:

    The forbearing use of power does not only form a touchstone, but the manner in which an individual enjoys certain advantages over others is a test of a true gentleman.
    The power which the strong have over the weak, the employer over the employed, the educated over the unlettered, the experienced over the confiding, even the clever over the silly--the forbearing or inoffensive use of all this power or authority, or a total abstinence from it when the case admits it, will show the gentleman in a plain light

    The gentleman does not needlessly and unnecessarily remind an offender of a wrong he may have committed against him. He cannot only forgive, he can forget; and he strives for that nobleness of self and mildness of character which impart sufficient strength to let the past be but the past. A true man of honor feels humbled himself when he cannot help humbling others.

    General R. E. Lee

  14. Oh good. LBF is back. Now we can read about how gentlemen always have the decency to be white.

  15. Very well written post. An honest appraisal, well done.

  16. Wonderful post, YWP. Your memories of parental orders to issue apologies ring very true, although mine usually came from my father.

    As for the habit of invoking R. E. Lee as an exemplar of gentlemanliness, I would posit that no man who claimed the right to own another man has any claim to be called a gentleman.

    1. You might consider researching Lee's views on slavery, which he considered to be a sin. Lee himself never owned slaves and in fact freed slaves inherited by his wife after his father in law's death. You might consider further the context within which he lived. He held a view common among many Christians at the time, that slavery was wrong but that they were better off than they would be living in Africa, and that slavery would end in God's ordained time. Even Lincoln was not an abolitionist; the Emancipation Proclamation freed only slaves in states in rebellion. The world changes and progresses and trying to view or for that matter judge a person through the lenses of modern society without understanding the context within which they lived is not fair.

    2. YWP - thanks for great post. From what I have read, I believe Anonyous 2:09 is quite correct. Robert E. Lee was a gentleman in the best sense of the word. As someone who is proud of his Virginia heritage (including being part of the Lee family) I think one would be well served by following his example.

      Best regards,


    3. @JRC
      I was going to post something along the same lines; however, you beat me to it and were eloquent in your delivery. It is far too easy to judge others in the past based on our mores. Walk a mile in another man's shoes.

  17. Oops, I meant that for Anon 2:09. Sorry.

  18. This is a blog about things other than Civil War history, so I will simply encourage Anon. 2:09 to do some of this stuff called "research," which will show both that Lee owned slaves of his own and that his father-in-law left instructions in his will for the slaves he left to Lee's wife to be freed as soon as possible. Instead, Lee kept them in bondage for over five years, working them harder than ever, and was generally regarded as a much harsher master than his father-in-law, frequently ordering whippings. Along with taking up arms against the country he had sworn to protect... a gentleman indeed.

  19. Mr. Sidetable:

    Lee, although from one of the first families of Virginia, did not himself own slaves. My point is really that Lee was a man of his times not of ours. Slavery is morally repugnant from an absolutist standpoint and I agree with that, however mores change over time and fortunately we have evolved in our way of thinking. But it was not always thus so. By your logic, Thomas Jefferson's writings regarding liberty should be ignored (he certainly had slaves, some of whom were his own children) or the speeches or actions of Ghandi (who believed in the caste system) regarding peace or non-violence should be disregarded. As to your latter point, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter; all of our founding father's were traitors and treasonists by the standards of the British Crown. We can all be most certain that several hundred years hence, what we accept as morally just and proper today, our descendants will find reprehensible. Otherwise, there is no growth or evolution of society.

    You were the one who interjected this topic into the discussion of gentlemanliness, but Lee, while certainly not perfect, particularly when viewed through modern 21st century glasses, and not the saint that the Lost Causers made of him (something he himself did much to discourage by the way), was a great and beloved leader, and his definition of a gentleman (shared in GTH's post) certainly are wise words on the subject.

    Good Day to you sir.

    Anon @2:09

  20. I welcome all discussion, especially that which provides philosophical variety. I am not especially learned on the subject of Gen. R.E. Lee, so I will defer to the wisdom of the commenters, because I will be able to add very little. As I had hoped, the comments were thoughtful and will be included in the formulation of Part II of this post. Thank you all for your comments. Please continue!

  21. It's a little funny that a post that seems to conclude that "gentleman" is indefinable except in the negative should spawn a raft of comments attempting to lay it out in the positive.

    I would agree with those who say its best sense has nothing -- or very little -- to do with clothes. But the word has different referents (behavior, dress, used as a putatively neutral pronoun, social class, etc.) and it can be hard not to blur the meanings when trying to identify a single definition for the moment. That blurring is what's most interesting to me.

    In our hobby (as ASW Will sometimes calls it), the word has an especially talismanic force. I think that force is inspired by the need to explain, sometimes to defend, one's choice of clothing. That need (be it internal or purely external) to parry or justify can make it hard to maintain a clear distinction between referents, supposing that one wants to in the first place. Read enough of these blogs and it can be hard not to think that some of these guys believe they're putting on their virtue with their longwings.

    Because of that force, it's not surprising to me that we would try to attach significant examples to the idea -- Douglas Fairbanks, Robert E. Lee (not particularly noted as a dresser; tough physique), Lee's inverse the Duke of Windsor, Sherlock Holmes, Oscar Wilde. The scatter of personae is a hint to the meaning, but it says more about why we're looking for a definition in the first place than it does about the meaning of the word.

    You invite the conversation, but I think your last word is the best word on the subject: imagine a better self and aspire to it. If you want to call that target "gentleman," fine.

    That said, I'm looking forward to the second part.

    1. JKG, afteryour eloquent and elegant comment, I barely need to write Part II.

  22. This post is yet again another example of why I need to find the time to read good blogs. I regret that I'm late to this meeting as I've very little to say that will even vaguely add value to this great discussion. I will say that I'm pleased to see that even with the inclusion of slavery as a collateral issue to the topic, the string of comments hasn't drifted off the relevant mark too much--that in and of itself has trace elements of gentlemanly deportment and conduct.

    I have a young daughter and because of her, I'm even more mindful of deportment and conduct. Left-wing feminists would take me to task for declaring that having a daughter causes me to take greater note of ones conduct--surely I should do the same if I had a son. Perhaps--but it's different. Treating everyone who deserves it, with dignity and respect should be a requisite standard for whatever the definition of a modern day gentleman might be. And we should behave that way toward everyone, regardless of gender or station in life. But its becoming more difficult to do so. And women and men should both be treated with dignity and respect--but the tactics are different.

    I've declared before that it's just a matter of time before someone takes a swing at me and I'm not looking forward to it. I'm too small physically to fight fair and a gentleman I suppose, would prefer to fight equitably. Even though I live in a neighborhood once populated by late 18th/early 19th century gentlemen...including Robert E. Lee, the streets are littered with foul mouthed punks. And when my daughter and I walk our streets and in her presence, these thugs drop the f-bomb or g_d damn...I verbally call them out on it. Most times, when they turn and see my daughter, the slink away in a huff. And you can tell that they are well they should be.

    My daughter needs to see me stand up for her dignity and part of that task involves having her witness me calling those out, formally, in public, who behave in such base, ungentlemanly ways. But sooner or later someone is gonna take a swing at me. This does not however, deter me from my duty.

    I had an interesting discussion last night with friends about general courtesy in our society--or more specifically, the lack thereof. One woman who by the way, was reveling over kicking her boyfriend's a_s at the firing range earlier in the day--she's a Sig Sauer gal and he shoots a Glock, declared that she loves the standard courtesies extended to her by gentlemen. Opening doors for her...availing a seat on the train or know...just extending "masculine courtesies". NOT because she is the fairer/weaker sex but because she's a woman. Period. And please, this isn't some weak, empty headed bimbo. She's a pistol toting Federal Agent.

    The bar for decent, courteous conduct has been so lowered in our society that to embody even the most basic attributes of a gentleman puts one in a rare category. Respecting oneself, treating deserving folks with dignity and respect and projecting an image that conveys such is to me, the first step towards being a true gentleman.

  23. To paraphrase Justice Stewart - I shall not attempt to define a gentleman, but I know one when I see him.

  24. As some have already discussed and some thrown out, being a "gentleman", today, is about behavior. The damned hippies/Yippies/flower children demanded that all manners/etiquette be thrown out....along with being clean, dope free, and correctly dressed. Ergo, not a one of them, nor their descendants ( not to mention the modern wannabes, who yearn for an era that was NOT "fun" nor pleasant ) were/could ever be considered to be a "gentleman", in any way. And the idiotic "feminists" also added to the degradation of our culture.

    One needn't be wealthy, to be a Lady or a Gentleman!

    But one should always be clean, dressed appropriately ( and have their shoes shined, as my grandfather was wont to claim ), and have good manners, without being phony about it. Oh yes......and shave, damn it! There is NOTHING "sexy" nor gentlemanlike walking around with a three day old growth upon ones face!

    There is never anything "funny" about hurting anyone's feelings, for no reason. There is nothing "cool" about using F-bombs, four letter words, or even ghetto slang.

    Just as there are/used to rules about being a "LADY", so too are there still are/were rules for being a "GENTLEMAN"! For example, Ladies should NEVER sit with their legs spread apart ( even when wearing slacks ) and there are similar rules for gentlemen as well.

  25. Next thing you know, women are going to want the vote!


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