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Gentlemen Speak: Is It Possible to Be a Modern Gentleman?

There's an inherent tension between traditional 'gentlemanly' behavior and modern life.
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Art Credit: Kitchener Photography

It’s not an uncommon thing for women to wonder if the modern-day gentleman actually exists. Looking around me, I have to say, there does seem to be something about our culture that encourages guys to be less than gentleman-like. Or, at the very least, the culture isn’t encouraging guys to be true gentlemen. To make matters worse, there are a number of dudes parading around as “gentlemen,” but underneath the tailored suits and perfectly coifed beards remains a boy, even if he is man-sized.

So what gives? Is gentlemanly behavior incongruent with the demands of modern life? The answer lies in what you understand modernity to be, and perhaps more importantly, what you understand a gentleman to be.

We can probably all agree that we face unique challenges living in the twenty-first century. The proliferation of technology is incredible, and the extent that it pervades our lives, and particularly our relationships, is ever-increasing. One might fairly say being “modern” means actively engaging in the latest trends and technologies.

Then there’s the gentleman: A man who carries himself in such a way that he projects dignity, honor, and intention in his life, and treats others, especially women, in a way so as to dignify and honor them. He dresses a certain way and speaks a certain way; has manners, especially in eating and drinking; abides by a set of dos and don'ts, even if he is unaware of anyone watching.

Given a cursory treatment, it doesn’t seem to be so much of a stretch to combine the two definitions and, voilà, you have a modern gentleman. But then again, live a little bit, and you realize that most of the time you seem to have to choose between the two. Either you meet a guy who’s totally hip with the times yet lacks in, shall we say, couth, or you have a man who could be described as genteel, decorous, debonair, urbane—yet he has to google “Snapchat” to figure out what the hell Snapchat is.

Because if you look closer, you’ll find what seems to be an inherent tension: Some of our modern trends and technologies are difficult to reconcile with things like dignity, honor, and intentional living. For instance, texting is great. Talking in real life is even better. But you knew that already.

Some would say that the kind of chivalry essential to any gentleman is simply “not modern,” based upon, apparently, a dictionary definition from Merriam-Webster. And sure, there are some women who might be offended if a man opened a door or pulled out a chair. But a gentleman treats a woman so as to honor and dignify her, whether or not she interprets it as such.

To be perfectly frank, chivalry on its own (in terms of doors and chairs, that is) falls short anyway. The next dude to use chivalry to manipulate a woman will not be the first, nor the last. Anybody can feign chivalry, while the real test is whether he still performs these seemingly selfless actions when there is nothing to gain.

And that, in my opinion, is the real test of a true gentleman. Does he make excuses, all the while complaining about how hard his life is, and patting his own back when other people fail to notice how “gentlemanly” he is? Or does he live his life with a sense of mission, submitting himself to it and willing to do anything—including to set aside his own needs—so as to fulfill it, even if nobody notices?

Come to think of it, maybe there really is no such thing as the “modern gentleman,” but not because gentlemanliness is incongruous with modern masculinity. No, if anything, it’s simply because gentlemanliness transcends the mere whims of the latest generational fads.

When I think of a gentleman, I don’t think of the two or three guys I know who are the smoothest around women. Newsflash: How do you think they hone their craft? They’ve had plenty of practice hitting on girls. I don’t think of my buddy who wears the latest styles with the perfectly coifed hair.

Instead when I think of a gentleman, I think of Ben. Ben’s a buddy of mine who has been accused on at least one occasion by a significant other of not being spontaneous enough. Well, it just so happens that he’s a physician in residency, working as a doctor but still very much honing his craft. In other words, his ability to save peoples’ lives relies on him saying “no” to spontaneous nights out on the town while he stays at home studying tissue abnormalities. Safe to say, you probably won’t find Ben at the hippest lounge on a Friday night at 12:45 a.m. because he has better things to do, even if it’s sleep.

When I think of a gentleman, I think of Sam. One of the classiest (and richest) men I know, he intentionally buys his suits off the rack so as to not put on airs, although spending more would not be prohibitive. Sam’s not going to win a best-dressed contest, and that’s by design.

My point is there are certainly prerequisites to being a gentleman, but they are not ends in and of themselves. A gentleman must always direct himself, nay, subject himself to others—otherwise he is simply cultured, or worse, vain. Rather, a true gentleman is other-centered.

So, ladies, don’t give up on finding a gentleman, because they’re out there. They may not be GQ-ready, but they’re certainly dressed for the occasion. They may not be the life of the party, but that’s actually because they’re confident enough in themselves that they don’t need to be. And they probably won’t throw their money around just so everybody knows they can, especially if they’re saving it for that special someone. Instead of flattering you, they’ll honor you, and that might be accomplished by what they don’t do or say more than what they do.

Modern? Maybe. Gentlemanly? Timeless.