What it means to be a “gentleman,” and why a mom should care


At the last staff meeting of the school year, one of the retiring teachers was given a moving tribute by his longtime aide.  Among other things, she called him a “gentleman.”

I heard that word and my writer-mind began to spin.  What exactly is a gentleman?

I know what it used to mean.  In Jane Austen’s time,  it meant being a member of the land-owning gentry.  A gentleman didn’t have to hold a job because he could live off of the rents paid on his estate.  Obviously, times and definitions have changed.  I know in my bones what it means when someone calls someone a “gentleman” — but have I ever tried to explain it in words?  Could I explain it in words?  The challenge was irresistible.

So here, in bullet point format, is my best attempt to unpack the word “gentleman.”  See if you agree.

* It’s fair to say that a gentleman has a code of ethics.  Gentlemen don’t make shady real estate deals or bilk senior citizens out of their life savings.  They don’t cheat their way to the top or step out on their wives with exotic dancers named Phantasye.  They’re honest and trustworthy.  (That’s one of the reasons we all like them.)

*A gentleman is usually courteous.    He’s not likely to give you the finger when you are, in his estimation, going too slow on the freeway.

* We can probably all agree that a gentleman treats women well.  I don’t want this to turn into a “should men pay for dinner” or “should men open the doors for ladies” debate (although I will add that my husband exhibited both behaviors on our first date, which made him rocket even higher in my estimation).  But one thing I’ve come to realize is that seeing women as intellectual equals and acting in a chivalrous manner are not mutually exclusive.  I think modern gentlemen are able to do both.   And, even more importantly, real gentlemen care about women having freedom and the chance to be self-actualized.  This isn’t just lip service; they really believe it.

*Most gentlemen are also, at their core, gentle.  “Quiet strength” seems to go with the territory.  You just don’t find gentlemen flying off the handle or exploding into Stanley Kowalski-like brawls, slugging their pregnant wives.

*A gentleman sees the innate human dignity of others, all others.  Remember in Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth goes to Darcy’s home and hears from the housekeeper about how well he treats all the workers on his estate?  Previously, she had accused him of not being a gentleman, but a testimony like that goes a long way towards altering her initial opinion.  You can be fairly certain you’re on a date with a gentleman when he is genuinely and unostentatiously kind to the guy who comes  and refills the water glasses.

Looking back over my list, it seems like a pretty daunting description.  Is all this just too much to ask?  I’d say yes, except that I happen to have known a fair number of guys throughout my life who actually have all of these qualities, and who display them most of the time (nobody’s perfect).  I hope that twenty years from now, the same will be said of my own little boys, too.  Keeping that end goal in mind is useful when handling the day-to-day decision points of parenting.

And as I wrote this blog post, I had a fascinating realization.  My faith — the one I was raised in, and which I’ve chosen again for myself as an adult — encourages all of the above behaviors.  It seems that if you live a life geared towards aligning yourself with God and loving others, you may find yourself being a gentleman without even thinking about it.  That indeed is good news.

So what would you add to my list?  Are there gentlemen that you know and love in real life?  In fiction?

Illustration by C.E. Brock for Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park

6 responses to “What it means to be a “gentleman,” and why a mom should care

  1. Not sure exactly how to articulate it in a “Gentlemen are __________” statement, but “even-tempered” comes to mind. Like…? They “get” that the universe doesn’t revolve around them and are less likely to sweat the small stuff or overreact over things that are beyond their control. They may still go to “fix-it” mode, but will be faster to find some peace in the idea that it’s okay if they can’t fix everything all the time. There is a quiet and real humility beneath the things you listed. It’s not to say they are passionless drips, just that they don’t tend to run hot and cold and don’t tend to react before they think as a default response.

  2. “Quiet and real humility” — that’s a great description. I totally agree.

  3. Chris Lowenstein

    Great post, which I am forwarding to my teenage sons forthwith!

  4. I really like your description of gentlemen as treating women as equals. In fact, I’d go beyond limiting it to “intellectual.” I think what first attracted me to my husband (and still does) is that he has respect for all elements of who I am – truly valuing my role as mother, as an athlete, etc. in addition to whatever intellectual capacities I have. Love the ethical elements of your description, too: someone who does the right thing, who treats people well, even when it isn’t easy. All good qualities to nurture….

  5. I liked reading your post!

    I do have a question. I consider myself to be a full supporter and a full helper when it comes to relationships. Everyday I strive to be a true gentleman, which I believe is a process, not a result, but I found myself in an unusual situation and I don’t know what to do.

    For ease of simplicity lets just say that I was courting someone whom I am very much attracted to and she suddenly became cold. I asked her if I had done something wrong and she mentioned that I made her feel like she was unable to do things on her own because I always offer to help her, ask her if she is doing well, and offer to help her in anyway. She said that she has never had someone be like that and that she was so used to being independent all the time.

    My question is what should I do differently or what should I tell her to make her realize that i offer to help all the time, not because I believe that she is unable to do it herself, but because I truly enjoy making her happy and the pleasure of being around that person?

    Any advice?

  6. Thanks for the comment, Gil. I’m not a relationship expert, but if I were you I’d let her know *why* you offer help (basically tell her what you wrote in the last paragraph). It might lead to some helpful discussion.