I came across this message the other day and was immediately captivated. The concept of a “gentleman” has all but disappeared in the cacophony of competing demands and rights these days.
It was a cultural force in western culture in the 1600s and originally referred to as “a man of noble or gentle birth”. As cultural shifts changed the social values, the definition began to expand to mean, “a man who combines gentle birth or rank with chivalrous qualities.” So one could not simply have been born into the nobility but had to demonstrate certain attitudes and behaviours.
In 1714, Sir Richard Steele wrote, “the appellation of Gentleman is never to be affixed to a man’s circumstances, but to his behaviour in them” This marks the final shift in the definition to, “a man whose conduct conforms to a high standard of propriety or correct behaviour”, and it the one depicted in the image above.
The concept increased in social usage well into the Victorian era, but after 1900 and the massive changes that define the 20th century, it slowly has vanished from the social landscape. Now it is almost completely gone and some aspects of it are now disparaged.
I think the vanishing idea of “being a gentleman” is a significant loss. It represents a loss of the high standards of behaviour that are directed at treating each other with civility. Being polite at moments when it may not be personally convenient is becoming a rare quality, yet imagine that being the norm. In some ways, it would be a far more pleasant culture in which to live than what we have now.
Of course, one of the downsides to this was the social expectation it forced on everyone. Sadly, social norms can become oppressive and stifling which is partly why the idea of the gentleman has faded. And I must admit that, while I am attracted to the concept, I would personally rebel at the notion that I must be a gentleman only because others expect it.
So that brings us to personal choice. This is where I would encourage my fellow men to consider choosing to be gentlemen. The reason is simple, it leaves one with the good feeling of having behaved well if not better than others. For example, recently I was looking at a house as part of a real estate project. In this case, the owners were home so we were disrupting their day. The first thing I said upon seeing them was, “thank you for allowing us into your home”. It elicited a smile and I felt was satisfaction that their space had been acknowledged and they knew we were polite, respectful people.
This simple idea of being considerate of others is the core idea of the Gentleman. There are many ways to do this and in virtually every case, you will get that good feeling of having behaved well. The most important aspect of this is the choice. I would never want to see social rules applied to one’s civil behaviour as this would become oppressive, likely generating a negative response. Also, an act of choice is far more satisfying than obeying a social norm.
So to the men reading this, I encourage you to explore the idea of the Gentleman and elevate your personal behaviour towards other people. Over time, you will notice the growth of a calmer, clearer sense of your own propriety along with positive responses from the people you encounter.
And I hold doors for everyone.