How to be a Gentleman – Lessons from History
Some say that believing in gentlemen is like believing in fairy tales. In our fast-paced, frenetic world, we can be forgiven for thinking that the elusive gentleman is a thing of the past.
Perhaps we don’t see him because so much of our attention today is drawn to the negative. Each day, we are bombarded with negative headlines. Our politicians’ rudeness and disrespect for each other grabs media attention. Our gentleman goes unnoticed, drowned out by negative noise.
According to a recent survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 74 percent of Americans think manners and behavior have deteriorated over the last several decades.
But did you know that one word could reverse that view completely?
Can a single word change the world?
Is it possible for a single word, if its meaning is fully embraced, to change the world?
: polite behavior that shows respect for other people
: something that you do because it is polite, kind, etc.
: something that you say to be polite especially when you meet someone
Source: Merriam Webster
Let us turn to our 19th-century forebears for some lessons on courtesy from the Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, by Cecil B. Hartley, 1860. The Victorians loved to call on history for their inspiration, and so too can we—there is much to learn from them.
Here are 10 simple rules that 19th-century gentlemen lived by.
1. A Gentleman Knows How to Treat a Lady
To Victorians, there was a proper etiquette on how to treat a lady. Some conventions may have changed, but the underlying sentiment is as relevant today as it ever was.
Here’s what the Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette has to say:
While we may not use the exact words from the Book of Etiquette, the polite action of allowing someone with right of way to pass before us, or opening a door for them, or even keeping the door open for the person following us is such a simple courtesy. And it can brighten someone’s day and give others renewed faith in humanity—especially if they’ve had a rough day at work.
Gentlemen keep their appointments with a lady. The earned respect and rapport simply by being on time far outweighs any inconvenience that might arise from planning ahead.
Whether on a subway, in a waiting room, or any public place with limited seating, it is the mark of a gentleman to offer his seat to a lady, a senior citizen, or anyone with special needs. A very simple act that sets the gentleman apart.
2. A Gentleman Cultivates Tact
How important is tact? In polite society, it is invaluable.
Not convinced yet?
For all intents and purposes, tact beats talent ten to one!
3. A Gentleman Avoids Unnecessary Criticism
The Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette explains the importance of being very careful about how we criticize others.
We all have weaknesses, aversions, different tastes and preferences, so we need to exercise restraint in criticizing others who see things differently to us.
By thoughtlessly criticizing, we run the risk of embarrassing others, damaging their self-esteem, or outright insulting them. Far better to look for things to praise, and many times the mere absence of praise for something draws attention to it, whereby the other person can take note without loss of face.
We all know people who trample on the opinions of others. The Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette labels this a type of tyranny.
4. A Gentleman Avoids Profane Language
According to the Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette, swearing can have a deleterious effect on our minds and impairs our thinking.
Then, as now, most of us pick up these bad habits through childhood and they stay with us. They become ingrained and require vigilance to control.
5. A Gentleman Learns to Restrain Anger
We’ve all felt that situation where the angrier we get, the less we see sense. Throughout history, angry quarrels have resulted in fist fights, gun fights, and even war. Often, we see things differently once we’ve had chance to calm down—and then we can’t believe what all the fuss was about.
The Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette advises to avoid those who like to stir up trouble, and not to get overly curious about the affairs of others.
6. A Gentleman Uses Kind Words
In 1635, during the Eighty Years’ War, the Spanish General Ambrogio Spinola conquered the city of Breda in the Spanish Netherlands. Instead of chastising the vanquished Dutch, Spinola forbade his troops from jeering, and offered kindly words in which he praised the brave defense of the city. He was a gentleman. This moment of humanity in the midst of war is celebrated in the famous painting “The Surrender of Breda” by Diego Velázquez.
Philosophers tell us that angry words fuel the flames of hostility. So why shouldn’t kind words have the opposite effect and help make us kinder and less inclined to lose our temper?
American President Theodore Roosevelt knew the importance of military strength, but he also knew the power of kind words:
7. A Gentleman Cultivates Humility
Having a humble opinion of ourselves is the secret to pleasing the world. Good people invariably display gentleness, courtesy, and humility. When we become overly concerned with our own dignity without consideration for others, we lose friends, make enemies, and foster a spirit of unhappiness.
Affectation is adopting or displaying an unnatural mode of behavior that is meant to impress others. The Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette thinks it is the result of bad taste, and of mistaken notions of our own qualities. It pervades our whole demeanor and detracts from our virtues and therefore should be avoided.
8. A Gentleman Avoids Pride
As Mr Darcy discovered in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice, in which she writes about the manners of the landed gentry during the British Regency, pride is one of the greatest obstacles to being a gentleman. No man, regardless of rank or privilege, has the right to behave with a haughty or discourteous air towards his fellow men.
A kind word and gracious smile will endear us to anyone, but a haughty attitude will push people away. The gentleman understands human nature and can make allowances for it. The polite know how to make others polite.
9. A Gentleman Cultivates Good Manners
As gentlemen, we must shower the ladies of the family—our mother, wife, and sisters—with little attentions and genuine courtesy. A rude husband, son, or brother is not a gentleman.
Table manners are most important to master for gentlemen. We must eat slowly, but not toy with our food while paying too much attention to conversation. We need to keep pace with others at the table so that we don’t keep them waiting for us to hastily finish.
Being punctual, or even a little early, for all appointments is a mark of a gentleman. This helps put us at ease so that we can remain calm and composed, with perfect gentlemanly deportment.
Gentlemen should always seek to behave in such a way that we are missed with sorrow when we are gone. Many men are living in such a selfish manner that they are not likely to be remembered. They leave behind them no worthwhile legacy, and are forgotten almost as though they had never existed.
10. A Gentleman Cultivates Toleration
Queen Victoria’s favorite Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said,
In a multi-cultural world, travel is one of the most important things we can do to broaden our experiences and become more tolerant of differing views, customs, and tastes.
When we travel, we must avoid speaking continually in praise of our own country, and avoid criticizing others.
Ready to change the world?
See our sister article 8 Lessons on People-skills from Victorian Ladies.
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The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness
The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research
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