I recently read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and was struck by the primary character, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov. Rostov is such a consummate gentleman, that I was inspired by him to brush up my own act just a bit and re-read How To Be a Gentleman: A Contemporary Guide to Common Courtesy by John Bridges. For many years I read this book annually, usually during the week of New Years, just as a refresher course. I am well mannered most of the time, know which fork to use when, and can generally hold my own with company of all classes. Still, to be a gentleman is another thing altogether. As with Count Rostov, the Knights of the Round Table, and others notable and anonymous, to be called a gentleman isn’t a throw away line.
Think for a moment about the men you’ve known in your life. I will wager you can’t think of more than three that could truly be known as a gentleman.
In the Introduction to the book, Bridges explains,
Being a gentleman requires a little logic, a bit of forethought, and a great deal of consideration for others. It is not about complicated rules and convoluted instructions. Instead, it is about trying to make life easier for other people. It is about honestly and sincerely being a nice guy.
Yes, being a gentleman and the book, How To Be a Gentleman, is about how to dress, how to speak, and when to send a thank you note. The book is pages of short instructions like,
A gentleman never feels that he must say pleasant things about unpleasant people. Even when describing pleasant people, he does not stretch the truth. Goodness, when accurately described, can stand on its own.
A gentleman does not attempt to change the opinions of his dinner companions. A seated dinner is ot a debate tournament.
A gentleman has never been seated beside a boring person at dinner. Neither has he ever been seated beside a person who has been bored.
A gentleman always restocks the copy machine with paper.
But at its heart being a gentleman is simply about “trying to make life easier for other people.”
This is an aspiration I don’t think many people are actively pursuing today. When we look around our American society it’s hard to argue that gentlemen are rising to the top of industry, politics, or any other field.
I’m left with the notion though, that being a gentleman is something a man does for others, because of who he is, regardless of the reception from others. I had a professor in college, a relatively young Brit who had been an intern in the House of Lords, relay a story where he saw his Lord hold a door open for a woman in London. The woman, evidently took offense to the act and questioned the man asking, “Are you holding that door open because I am a woman.” The response, one my professor confessed to hoping to use one day was, “No, ma’am. I am not holding the door open because you are a woman. I am holding it open because I am a gentleman.” Mic drop.
In re-reading this book and writing this review, I’ve also become aware that I’m the father of a 10 year-old boy and I cannot honestly say that I’ve tried to teach him these things. I have tried to teach him certain gentlemanly things and certainly Christian values, but I haven’t been intentional about raising him to be a gentleman…yet.
In closing, I leave you with the final words from John Bridges, How To Be a Gentleman: A Contemporary Guide to Common Courtesy.
A gentleman never makes himself the center of attention. His goal is to make life easier, not just for himself but for his friends, his acquaintances, and the world at large. Because he is a gentleman, he does not see this as a burden. Instead, it is a challenge he faces eagerly every day.
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