Good evening, dear readers, and thank you for your patience with my inconsistent writing schedule. I am oft away from the keys on some adventure or another but when I have time, as I do know, then I shall continue to scribble out my small thoughts as I may in hopes that you enjoy them.
I have noted recently that much of my writing is advice on what to wear or how to comport one’s self or perhaps how to set a room in your house. In this I am offering advice, to be taken or left as you wish, in how to appear to be a gentleman. This is also, I have learned, called being a “surface gentleman.” I wish to correct this disservice tonight and look at what it is to be a gentleman beyond merely the surface.
There are many in today’s modern North American society both walking the streets and within the various subcultural groups [though my focus is generally on the Steampunk folk] who are surface gentlemen. What man would ever admit to being rude or uncaring, without empathy or sympathy, that he swears or spits, or that he may ever treat another person improperly or without respect? None would ever say that they are like this and yet the world is full of examples of just such behaviour. Men misrepresent themselves as gentlemen often to colleagues and friends in an attempt to gain standing and respect and even more often to women in order to allure and intrigue. Many are the ladies I hear who bemoan the lack of gentlemen and whom seek one of their own. So I shall look at commonly accepted characteristics and behaviours of gentlemen to see if I can shed a little light on what it is that makes a male so.
Much like the etiquette of hat wearing there is quite a bit written both on and off the internet on being a gentleman and there appears to be no hard and fast rule to “what is a gentleman?” But there are frequently agreed upon characteristics. It is not all, nor merely, the holding of doors or chairs. There are several traits which seem agreed on by nearly all and a fair bit of disagreement. Of course what follows here are my own personal thoughts and opinions.
“A guy is a boy by birth, a man by age, but a gentleman by choice.” [Anonymous]
Historically a gentleman was a title offered to those of a certain class or standing, usually financial. They were those men a step down from those in positions of nobility. It was a title generally offered to those men who were wealthy enough not to need to work but were not, themselves, nobles. A gentleman possessed a coat of arms and carried a sword. This began to slowly change even in the pre-Victorian eras to encompass a man’s manners and presentation, a change which the industrialization of the world and the evolution of politics increased in speed. The most well known period of ‘gentlemen and ladies’ is indeed the Victorian period. Many people, in looking for what defines a gentleman, look back to the 19th and early 20th centuries as a guide. In this modern period the lack of gentlemen is evidenced by the general lack of good taste and etiquette even considering the changing societal standards and behaviours. It is within groups like the Steampunk subculture where one will find the attributes of the gentleman being learned once more and being expressed into the world.
So what IS a gentleman, then? It is somewhat of a shopping list of characteristics but through this large handful of traits one may garner more than a few clues.
I shall begin with: a gentleman is not a gentle man, but one who is genteel. If you delve beneath the velvet surface of a gentleman you will find a core of solid steel. Do not mistake a gentle man for a gentleman in all cases for though a gentleman knows when to be gentle he also knows when to be strong. Never mistake his gentleness for timidity nor hesitation but know that he thinks before he acts and should you misjudge him you will see the fire and mettle within him.
“Courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.” [Theodore Roosevelt]
The first and most visible part of being a gentleman is, of course, etiquette. A gentleman is polite and proper in action. Always. He does not curse nor swear for that is an indication that he does not have the vocabulary of a gentleman. In our modern age I may disagree with this as invective has become necessary for emphasis at times but one can be creative and need not scatter a speech with frequent and constant unnecessary swearing. I am still pondering this though I may fall on the side of agreeing. A gentleman does not lose his temper nor speak loudly. A gentleman Does not interrupt no matter how brilliant his response, always allowing others to complete their own statements. A gentleman understands etiquette whether it be with respect to the wearing of his hat, or when to properly sit and stand, or when to hold open a door or offer a seat, or when to help someone with their coat. He is civilized and well mannered at all times. He does not insult others nor their ideas. He is elegant, mannered, cultured and does try to have good taste; he is refined. That is a lot of “thou shalt nots” with a few “thou shalts” but there will be more of a balance as I progress.
“A real gentleman is as polite to a little girl as to a woman.” [Louisa May Alcott]
A gentleman is respectful not just to his elders but to all people. He is attentive to all, particularly those he is immediately dealing with and is aware of their needs. He does not inflict pain nor hurt. He is sensitive to himself, to others, and to the world around him. He is a patient man who does not judge quickly but does judge finally, even though he knows that a leopard can, in rare circumstance, change his spots. He does not laugh at the mistakes of others as a gentleman knows that mistakes are the best lessons in life, though he will offer assistance and correction as he is able. He does, however laugh. Often. And at himself as much as at life. He finds humour and beauty in many things.
“A gentleman has his eyes on all those present; he is tender toward the bashful, gentle toward the distant, and merciful toward the absent.” [Lawrence G. Lovasik]
The gentleman understands the balance of benefit between himself and others. He is not selfless nor selfish but walks that fine line between to ensure that all find what they need. One characteristic that I am still pondering is that a gentleman both forgives and forgets, though I believe that there are situations that warrant neither of these in rare cases when the insult or difficulty is constant, consistent and occurs repeatedly even when he works to correct it. One can only take the high road so often before looking for a road away to somewhere else. It does not benefit a gentleman to remain in a situation or place where he is discomfited. He does not cause stress and worry and does not accept it without thought towards its settling. While a gentleman should not seek social praise he does know how to accept a compliment when genuine and ensures that all of his are sincere. This is also true of apologies though it is my belief that a gentleman does not oft find himself in a position to apologize but rather addresses the issue, corrects the source of friction, the mistake, the error and moves onwards.
“The final test of a gentleman is his respect for those who can be of no possible service to him.” [William Lyon Phelps]
I believe that the true mark of a gentleman is acting so not only when others can see but also when no one is watching. He is a gentleman in formal social occasions as well as with close friends. He is a man who knows he could do better and actually does. He knows who and what he is and is comfortable with himself even as he strives to be and do better. This, in particular, is a very difficult thing to do as our modern age assaults us through media and society to believe that we are not whole and require assistance, therapy and serious amounts of support. A gentleman accepts support and help when he needs to, recognizing those times, and offers it without expectation, reluctance or resentment. He is modest but not overly so and contrary to what one may expect he does care what others think of him even though he does not define himself through or by the opinions of any one but only by his own.
“I find it sad that by not talking about who I sleep with, that makes me mysterious. There was a time when I would have been called a gentleman.” [Kevin Spacey]
A gentleman is discrete even when he is with his closest male friends. He does not rumour and he does not slander and he does not accept either from another. He does not talk solely of himself and he not only hears what others say, he also listens. He is not resentful nor suspicious nor depressing but rather focuses on ease and comfort both of himself and moreso that of others. A gentleman treats a lady as he would expect all men to treat a lady. He offers his arm and knows which side of the sidewalk to walk along when escorting a lady. He helps a lady with her seat, with doors, and with her coat. He will buy her flowers or a small gift, will offer her a small gesture with no expectation and for no obligatory reason though he will not try to purchase her attention or her affections.
“A gentleman would be ashamed should his deeds not match his words.” [Kong Fu Zi]
A gentleman is honest and lives a life of principle and integrity. As my grandfather used to say “A man comes into this world and leaves this world with only one thing: his word. Lose that and you have nothing.” A gentleman is trusting but not foolishly so. He works to live a life that is ‘good’ for both himself and for others. He is truthful but not in a mean nor hurtful manner. He is educated and does not attempt to pass himself as more than he is, knowing more than he knows, or as anything he is not. He is both honourable and chivalrous.
“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.” [Robert E. Lee]
A gentleman utilizes his authority or any power that he has inoffensively. He often forebears or even abstains using any power he has. He does not use his education, his position, his knowledge, his strength nor even his common sense as a weapon. He never takes unfair advantage of power or weakness.
Well, dear readers, that is rather a long and somewhat complicated grocery list, is it not? But it is not something to be written down and checked off, rather it is meant to inspire you to thought and consideration, to reflect on your own approach, presentation, mindset and life and to consider the value of being a gentleman.
Am I a gentleman? I would like to think so yet during all of this research I have determined that there are indeed areas I need to look at again and behaviours I will need to consider, correct or restructure.
To end this lengthy bit of writing [I do know that I am quite wordy, a fault I do need to work on: simplification of expression] I shall leave you with two more quotes:
“From everything I have seen, felt, and observed, being a gentleman is a deep, unspoken, unrewarded commitment to genuine service and to to “thine own self” in search of “thine own truth” cohabiting in the same self respecting individual’s mind. It is unquenchable thirst for knowledge and growth, and it is commitment to the well being of one’s fellow creatures. It is being one with the music, the dance, the fight, the moment, or silence. But what it is, more than these, is the individual that thirsts for and emerges from these experiences – someone who seeks to understand their particular shard of what it means to be human, in full awareness of how little we will ever know, and in subdued delight for the opportunity to do the simplest of things. It is bravery in accepting the challenge of being something more than what you were, and it is the gradual realization that we are no less than our fathers, and that our sons are already our equals.
“Surely more important than what a gentleman has, is what he is, and more significant than what he is, must be what he truly aspires to become. It is a “voyage of self discovery” in the words of the great cosmologist and free-thinker, Carl Sagan. The courage to embark towards the unknown in any field is what makes a rugged gentleman worthy of knowing, in any century past or in any age to come. That is the very essence of what forms the bond between souls such as these – mutual respect for another who asks the questions that arise from within, and dares to see with eyes unclouded. Society’s definitions of what constitutes “cultured”, “adventure seeking”, “intellectual”, “romantic”, “considerate”, “tactful”, “rugged”, and yes – “a gentleman” have and will continue to evolve at a disturbingly rapid pace. But let the voyage of self discovery as a human being never cease, and defined as it may be in one’s own heart, let it continue to be something that every man has the courage to journey toward within himself, where the truest frontiers will always exist.” [Vincent Charles Nance.]
And my favourite quote, by far:
“My duty as a gentleman has never interfered with my pleasures in the smallest degree.” [Oscar Wilde]