I was raised in a family where being a gentleman was just a given. We guys were taught from childhood to do certain things in certain situations, and that’s just the way it was. After I left home, I quickly realized that gentlemanly behavior is unfortunately not at all the norm for my generation. Now that etiquette is making its way back into the younger generations of our culture, young men are finding themselves at a loss for instruction. So where do they turn? The Internet, of course. The problem is that nearly all of the male etiquette found online falls into one of two categories: (1) Formal rules of European courts and (2) opinions and traditions of older guys. I myself have attempted to break out of the ‘opinions and traditions’ category by learning formal etiquette, only to find that ‘formal’ is a matter of the court in question. Edwardian English etiquette was different from colonial American etiquette, which was different still from Romantic Era French. Plus, most of these formal rules are a bit extreme and, in today’s culture, will earn a guy an express ticket to women’s ‘nice guy’ friendzone. So I’ve resorted to simply compiling a list of traditions that have been passed on to me from my family, as well as a few things I’ve learned on my own. Perhaps this list will give some of my readers a few ideas from what I hold to be the traits of a gentleman.
In addition to simple common courtesies, such as politeness, here are a few general things that may not be as common (or obvious).
Introductions – This is something that slips by most guys’ radar. It’s fairly common to introduce one’s self when meeting new people, but it’s rare to see a guy introduce a guest into a group. Gentlemen, when introducing a guest – especially a woman – into a group, don’t just expect her to introduce herself. Make it a point to introduce her to the group, and vice versa. (There are actually rules for who gets introduced first, but doing it at all is a huge improvement over the norm.)
Standing to greet someone – It’s just a sign of respect. When a person approaches for a greeting, stand to greet them rather than staying seated. It’s a simple gesture that will leave a strong impression.
Take off the hat – I’m not much of a hat wearer, but I was taught to always remove a hat when indoors as a sign of respect to the household. I know, that hat is a part of the cool image you want to have, but wearing a hat when unneeded gives the impression that you’re shielding yourself from your host. Removing the hat is a way to create a more personal connection with the household.
Additional notes on hats: Never wear a hat in a church sanctuary. This is a tradition that comes from Scripture (I Co 11.4) which states that a man shouldn’t pray or approach God with his head covered. And on that note, never wear a hat at the table. Similarly, this tradition originated because meals were always led by giving thanks in prayer. Whether a prayer of thanks is given or not, it’s still a respectful gesture. Lastly, never greet a woman without removing a hat. Again, it’s that ‘removing the shield’ thing that respects and acknowledges her gender.
While you’re at it, take off the sunglasses – Since sunglasses weren’t commonly used until relatively recently, this isn’t a family tradition I inherited. It’s something I’ve come up with on my own because I often wear sunglasses. I pretty much treat sunglasses in all the same ways I described above for hats. Like hats, sunglasses present a ‘shield’ between two people, only sunglasses are worse in my opinion because they prohibit eye contact, which is critical in making a nonverbal connection with another person. That being the case, in addition to the things I listed for hats, I also remove sunglasses during any extended conversation, even if it is outdoors, if the other person is not wearing sunglasses. I just feel that it’s more respectful and courteous.
Eat last – Even here in the Southern US, this is something that people don’t get about me. I was taught from childhood that men wait until the women, children, and elderly have their food before they take a portion. I don’t know where this came from, but since I’m from a labor class family, it’s likely that it was because there wasn’t always enough food for everyone. And even though most of us are no longer in such conditions, I still feel that giving a woman the choice portions is just the mark of a good protector and provider. I’m consistently appalled at church pot luck dinners and events when I see at the beginning of the line all of the 15-25 year old guys crowding around the table like a bunch of buzzards, heaping food on their plates as if they’re storing it for a nuclear winter. At virtually every dinner like this that I attend, people ask me why I’m not up there with those guys, why I’m standing back not even in line. Well, if any of those people read this, now you know.
Eat modestly – While we’re on the topic of food, you don’t have to gorge yourself. You’re not starving, and while there are times and company that I feel I can tear into a plate of meat like a ravenous wolf, most situations would be better approached in a more modest manner. I eat slowly, and I don’t feel that I need to eat 3 plates of food to prove my manhood. Most often, my company takes note of my controlled demeanor.
Learn how to eat – And since food is my second favorite topic, let’s talk a bit about how we eat. With some foods, this isn’t a problem. But I like pasta, and as anyone who eats pasta knows, it can be a challenge to eat it without slopping sauce on everything in a two meter circle. If you like a certain food that is challenging to eat, spend some time learning to eat it. I’ve had numerous people comment about how I can eat a bowl of Alfredo pasta while wearing a black dress outfit without getting a spot of it on me. That skill came with a lot of practice that I undertook because I knew that I’d be eating pasta in formal clothing and company.
When With The Lady
Guys, let’s be honest. Most of us are interested in etiquette to impress a lady. So here are some things specific to a lady’s company.
Offering her an arm – This is usually best done when she is in a situation where her balance isn’t the best. If she’s in heels and walking on an uneven surface, if she’s walking on an icy surface, if she’s needing to step up or down, or if she’s just unstable in heels, offer her an arm for stability. She’ll appreciate it.
Ask her out in person – This is a new one that’s only been an issue since the digital era. And I’m guilty of asking girls out over messaging and text when I was younger, but I’ve since learned that it’s much more courteous to ask her out in person. She’ll notice.
Pick her up at the door – and bring a gift – I’m not saying to buy her a $150 bouquet of roses, meeting her at the door with a formal bow. But do have the courtesy to go to her door. I also find that presenting her a small memento of the occasion makes a good impression. Oh, and make sure after the evening that you walk her back to where you picked her up – at the door.
Help her with her chair – This is a traditional one that originated back when chairs were made of solid oak and were heavier than the lady herself. But it’s still a nice gesture. Make sure that it is welcome, however, because this is one of those ‘over the line’ things that some women think goes too far. If the lady is an independent type, it may be best to avoid this one or at least offer to help her before taking the initiative.
Walking with her – This one covers a lot of territory, so I’ll break it down a bit.
On a sidewalk – Walking on the traffic side of her is tradition. It’s simply to shield her from any dangers coming from the street, whether it be a runaway horse (traditionally), a swerving car, or a flying piece of gravel. It also tends to discourage cat callers driving by.
Walk beside her – This is the general rule, though which side is debatable. You should walk with her as an equal, stepping forward only to open a door or something similar.
Walk in front of her – This is something I’ve learned apart from tradition, and it only applies to tight crowds or situations where the man needs to clear a path for his lady. In such a situation, I usually place the lady on my left side, take her in an arm hold on that side, then step forward, sidestepping to the right. That frees my right arm to move the crowd if needed, places my body as a shield in front of her, and secures her so that she doesn’t get pulled away from me. It may not be necessary, but it makes ladies feel safe in an otherwise stressful crowd.
Take her arm – This is debatable, as formal etiquette teaches different things. Most English courts taught that a gentleman only offers an arm in the situations I described above because the lady can walk for herself at other times. I like holding on to my girls, so I tend to walk a lady in an escort fashion. It’s more formal and elegant than holding hands, yet it’s a clear gesture that she’s in my company. If a girl isn’t comfortable with it, I’ll not impose on her. But most appreciate it.
Match her stride – This is especially important if the lady is in an arm hold, but even if not, it’s a nice gesture. Especially if she is petite.
While I’ve learned that there is certainly a point where etiquette can label a man as being a nice guy or a square, I believe all men can gain from learning the basics of being a gentleman. My ideas about male etiquette wouldn’t work well in a formal English court, but it has served me well in developing myself as a man. Perhaps it will do so for some of my readers as well.