Long ago, the title of gentleman belonged to men of the right lineage who were removed from manual labor.
Those rigid requirements loosened in the 1700s. Richard Steele, a British politician of the era, wrote in 1710, “The appellation of Gentleman is never to be affixed to a man’s circumstances, but to his behavior in them.”
The definition continues to evolve in line with cultural trends. But it’s not the definition that’s problematic. It’s that men no longer desire the appellation of Gentleman. Usage of the word began to decline in 1852, and it’s still falling according to Google Ngram.
In modern times, the macho male caricature holds more sway. We see gentlemanship as archaic and weak while we look up to the primal man — those who consume power, take what they want, and use any means necessary to achieve their aims.
That’s why we need more gentlemen and fewer men. The mere man values himself above all else, while the gentleman values his character above all else. He also lives by these ten virtues.
1. Follow the golden rule of gentlemanship.
In my younger years, I had a knack for insulting people and responding with cheap shots when I felt slighted. Back then, emotion dictated my actions. The logical part of my brain refused to assert itself.
It wasn’t until my thirties that I matured and learned a helpful technique that has allowed me to master my emotions. It’s called the golden rule of gentlemanship, and it’s the foundation for all other values and behaviors.
Ignore your initial impulse, take a deep breath, and think about what action will serve you best in the long run — The golden rule of gentlemanship
If you can’t control your impulses, you can’t become a gentleman. It’s a challenge for men, myself included, but it’s easy to overcome. A pause and a deep breath will take you far in life.
2. Establish a personal code of conduct.
John McCain’s concession speech in the 2008 presidential election serves as the benchmark for gracious concessions. It’s also a model for gentlemanly behavior.
After acknowledging Obama’s victory, he said, “I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.”
And then he took responsibility for the defeat.
“And though we fell short, the failure is mine, not yours.”
To McCain, his code of conduct mattered more than winning. But to the non-gentleman, a code of conduct serves as another obstacle. If he can’t win by following the rules, he bends or breaks them. He justifies his actions by convincing himself that he’s not really cheating, merely playing tough — as a man should.
For the gentlemen, the choices he makes on his way to the finish line matters more than the outcome he achieves.
3. Show class in victory and defeat.
As a teen, I played competitive tennis. Thirty years later, I’m grateful no videos exist of those dreadful displays of poor sportsmanship.
Nobody will ever see teenage me chucking my racket, cursing after a missed shot, and storming off the court without shaking my opponent’s hand. And that was when I won. I grew out of that phase, but some men hold onto that pettiness well into adulthood.
We compete in many arenas: athletics, business, love, and life. Win or lose, the gentleman displays exemplary sportsmanship.
In defeat, he congratulates his foe for being the superior competitor and refrains from making excuses, crying foul, or throwing temper tantrums.
In victory, the gentleman displays graciousness while avoiding the manly act of gloating and rubbing acid in his competitor’s wound.
4. Make the uncomfortable ones feel comfortable.
In early 2003, I attended a networking event organized by a future mentor of mine. When I waltzed in, I thought I had entered a time warp, arriving at high school lunch hour where everyone buddies up into their tight cliques, raising their virtual no vacancy signs to keep out invaders.
As a quiet person, that kind of experience always triggers an “oh shit, what do I do now” feeling.
My future mentor hurried over, introduced himself, and learned about my business needs and personal interests. He then flagged a group of people and inserted himself into their conversation, deftly shifting the conversation to a topic I could contribute. I hadn’t noticed he left until I saw him perform the same act for another lost soul.
A true gentleman goes out of his way to make uncomfortable people feel welcomed, wanted and valued.
5. Exceed expectations when there’s no reward for doing so.
A former boss once gave me advice about career advancement. It has stuck with me for two decades because his wisdom doubles as instruction for gentlemanly behavior. Paraphrased, it goes something like this.
The man argues about the letter of the law while the gentleman exceeds the spirit of the law.
A non-gentleman exceeds the spirit of the law, requirement, or request only when he’s rewarded for it with what he deems sufficient compensation: money, praise, or other favor.
The gentleman exceeds expectations even when there’s no apparent reward. I added the word “apparent” because the gentleman understands that consistently exceeding expectations will win him more benefit in the long run.
6. Take and give receive rejection with grace.
During my second year in college, my college girlfriend wanted out but lacked the guts to tell me, opting to string me along until the end of the semester when she blurted a quick break-up on my answering machine.
Don’t do that.
If you must reject someone, do so with as little delay as possible. You’re not doing the other person a favor by sparing their feelings; you’re wasting their time.
Deliver your news with as much dignity as the situation allows. Do it in private. Be clear and definite — never give false hope. It’s tough to deliver bad news. In some ways, it’s harder than being on the receiving end.
When facing rejection, a gentleman acts with grace. He avoids playing the victim or lashing out. Instead, he offers a smile or at least a nod in matters of love. A “thank you for your consideration” in matters of business. On occasion, a nudge shows class. “Hey, it’s okay to say no if you’re not interested.”
7. Don’t flaunt your wealth.
Before the pandemic, eight of us went out for dinner. Our party included one rich finance guy who liked to flaunt his wealth. He took it upon himself to choose from the wine list, selecting options well into the triple digits, freezing everyone else into stunned silence.
Another friend at the table mentioned the price exceeded her comfort level. The rest of us echoed that sentiment. The rich guy responded, “Relax everyone. The wine is on me tonight.” The rich dude thought he had won, but I’d wager everyone lost a bit of respect for him after that incident.
The gentleman never shows off and never contrasts his superior resources to someone else’s s relative scarcity.
8. Dialogue like a gentleman.
Gentlemanship demands the use of appropriate dialogue.
- Avoid sarcasm, condescension, and smugness. These tools demean, insult, and reveal a lack of class. Think of a more respectful and thoughtful way to make your point.
- Minimize gossip. It’s like free porn. Once you start, it’s hard to stop. And when you finally do finish, you’ll wish you hadn’t started. The decent man refuses to take part in disparaging gossip, while the gentleman objects to it. As J.R. Vernon stated in an 1869 issue of Contemporary Review, “The gentleman… will not pass over that of which he disapproves.” He speaks up.
- Banish the use of unfounded attacks on someone’s character. Avoid accusations when you lack direct knowledge or proof.
- Whenever speaking with someone, make them feel like the only person in the room. A gentleman gives his full attention to conversation partners.
9. Muster the courage to go it alone.
It takes a man of strong moral character to put aside his self-interest in favor of living by his principles. The few who prove up to that task often walk that path alone.
Even men who think of themselves as superior in moral fiber often set aside their principles when the cost demands too steep a price. They’re not real gentlemen; they merely play the part when it coincides with their desired goal.
A true gentleman plays by all of the above rules, even when it works against his self-interest, invites rebuke from peers, or results in adverse personal outcomes.
10. Allow yourself to be human.
The journey to earning your doctorate in gentlemanship might seem like an impossible task.
Keep in mind. Nobody achieves perfection, so give yourself a break. Genuine gentlemen do screw up, but they also take responsibility for their errors, make amends when necessary, and rarely commit the same misdeed twice.