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

The Gallant Suitor by Edmund Blair Leighton
The Gallant Suitor by Edmund Blair Leighton

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:

If you are about to enter, or leave, a store or any door, and unexpectedly meet a lady going the other way, stand aside and allow her to pass. If she is going the same way, and the door is closed, pass before her, saying, “allow me,” or, “permit me,”—open the door, and hold it open whilst she passes.

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.

Keep any appointment made with a lady, for she would forgive any other fault in good breeding sooner than a broken engagement.

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.

If you are seated in the most comfortable chair in a public room, and a lady, an invalid, or an old man enters, rise, and offer your seat, even if they are strangers to you. Many men will attend to these civilities when with friends or acquaintances, and neglect them amongst strangers, but the true gentleman will not wait for an introduction before performing an act of courtesy.

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

Elizabeth and Raleigh by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1848
Elizabeth and Raleigh by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1848

How important is tact? In polite society, it is invaluable.

Talent is something, but tact is everything. Talent is serious, sober, grave, and respectable; tact is all that and more too. It is not a sixth sense, but it is the life of all the five. It is the open eye, the quick ear, the judging taste, the keen smell, and the lively touch; it is the interpreter of all riddles—the surmounter of all difficulties—the remover of all obstacles.

Not convinced yet?

It is useful in all places, and at all times; it is useful in solitude, for it shows a man his way into the world; it is useful in society, for it shows him his way through the world. Talent is power—tact is skill; talent is weight—tact is momentum; talent knows what to do—tact knows how to do it; talent makes a man respectable—tact will make him respected; talent is wealth—tact is ready money.

For all intents and purposes, tact beats talent ten to one!

3. A Gentleman Avoids Unnecessary Criticism

Monkeys as Judges of Art by Gabriel Cornelius von Max, 1889
Monkeys as Judges of Art by Gabriel Cornelius von Max, 1889

The Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette explains the importance of being very careful about how we criticize others.

A true gentleman will not only refrain from ridiculing the follies, ignorance, or infirmities of others, but he will not even allow himself to smile at them. He will treat the rudest clown with the same easy courtesy which he would extend to the most polished gentleman, and will never by word, look, or gesture show that he notices the faults, or vulgarity of another.

We all have weaknesses, aversions, different tastes and preferences, so we need to exercise restraint in criticizing others who see things differently to us.

If you were to laugh at a man for his aversion to a cat, or cheese, (which are common antipathies,) or, by inattention and negligence, to let them come in his way, where you could prevent it, he would, in the first case, think himself insulted, and, in the second, slighted, and would remember both.

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.

… the petty tyrants of the fireside and the social circle, who trample like very despots on the opinions of their fellows. You meet people of this class everywhere; they stalk by your side in the streets; they seat themselves in the pleasant circle on the hearth, casting a gloom … and they start up dark and scowling to chill and frown down every participator. They “pooh! pooh!” at every opinion advanced; they make the lives of their mothers, sisters, wives, children, unbearable. A gentleman is ever humble, and the tyrant is never courteous.

4. A Gentleman Avoids Profane Language

From Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain
From Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain

According to the Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette, swearing can have a deleterious effect on our minds and impairs our thinking.

Use no profane language, utter no word that will cause the most virtuous to blush. Profanity is a mark of low breeding; and the tendency of using indecent and profane language is degrading to your minds. Its injurious effects may not be felt at the moment, but they will continue to manifest themselves to you through life. They may never be obliterated; and, if you allow the fault to become habitual, you will often find at your tongue’s end some expressions which you would not use for any money. By being careful on this point you may save yourself much mortification and sorrow.

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.

Good men have been taken sick and become delirious. In these moments they have used the most vile and indecent language. When informed of it, after a restoration to health, they had no idea of the pain they had given to their friends, and stated that they had learned and repeated the expressions in childhood, and though years had passed since they had spoken a bad word, the early impressions had been indelibly stamped upon the mind.

5. A Gentleman Learns to Restrain Anger

The face of a bearded man expressing anger. Etching in the crayon manner by W. Hebert, c. 1770, after C. Le Brun. Credit Wellcome Images
The face of a bearded man expressing anger. Etching in the crayon manner by W. Hebert, c. 1770, after C. Le Brun. Credit Wellcome Images

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.

A man in a passion ceases to be a gentleman, and if you do not control your passions, rely upon it, they will one day control you. The intoxication of anger, like that of the grape, shows us to others, but hides us from ourselves, and we injure our own cause in the opinion of the world when we too passionately and eagerly defend it. Neither will all men be disposed to view our quarrels in the same light that we do; and a man’s blindness to his own defects will ever increase in proportion as he is angry with others, or pleased with himself.

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.

As a preventative of anger, banish all tale-bearers and slanderers from your conversation, for it is these blow the devil’s bellows to rouse up the flames of rage and fury, by first abusing your ears, and then your credulity, and after that steal away your patience, and all this, perhaps, for a lie. To prevent anger, be not too inquisitive into the affairs of others, or what people say of yourself, or into the mistakes of your friends, for this is going out to gather sticks to kindle a fire to burn your own house.

6. A Gentleman Uses Kind Words

The Surrender of Breda by Diego Velázquez, 1635
The Surrender of Breda by Diego Velázquez, 1635

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.

Use kind words. They do not cost much. It does not take long to utter them. They never blister the tongue or lips in their passage into the world, or occasion any other kind of bodily suffering. And we have never heard of any mental trouble arising from this quarter.

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?

Kind words make other people good-natured. Cold words freeze people, and hot words scorch them, and sarcastic words irritate them, and bitter words make them bitter, and wrathful words make them wrathful. And kind words also produce their own image on men’s souls. And a beautiful image it is. They soothe, and quiet, and comfort the hearer. They shame him out of his sour, morose, unkind feelings, and he has to become kind himself.

American President Theodore Roosevelt knew the importance of military strength, but he also knew the power of kind words:

Speak softly, and carry a big stick.

7. A Gentleman Cultivates Humility

The King and the Beggar-maid by Edmund Blair Leighton
The King and the Beggar-maid by Edmund Blair Leighton

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.

Avoid a conceited manner. It is exceedingly ill-bred to assume a manner as if you were superior to those around you, and it is, too, a proof, not of superiority but of vulgarity. And to avoid this manner, avoid the foundation of it, and cultivate humility. The praises of others should be of use to you, in teaching, not what you are, perhaps, but in pointing out what you ought to be.

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.

Beauty itself loses its attraction, when disfigured by affectation.

8. A Gentleman Avoids Pride

"Such very superior dancing is not often seen", original illustration by Hugh Thomson (1860-1920) for Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, 1894
“Such very superior dancing is not often seen”, original illustration by Hugh Thomson (1860-1920) for Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, 1894

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.

What most ennobles human nature, Was ne’er the portion of the proud.

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.

Avoid pride; it often miscalculates, and more often misconceives. The proud man places himself at a distance from other men; seen through that distance, others, perhaps, appear little to him; but he forgets that this very distance causes him also to appear little to others.

9.  A Gentleman Cultivates Good Manners

Pepys and Lady Batten by James Digman Wingfield, 1861
Pepys and Lady Batten by James Digman Wingfield, 1861

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.

If we meet, in society, with any one, be it a gentleman or a lady, whose timidity or bashfulness, shows them unaccustomed to meeting others, endeavor, by our own gentleness and courtesy, to place them more at ease, and introduce to them those who will aid you in this endeavor.

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.

Be ready to apologize when we have committed a fault which gives offence. Better, far better, to retain a friend by a frank, courteous apology for offence given, than to make an enemy by obstinately denying or persisting in the fault.

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

Travel teaches toleration
Travel teaches toleration

Queen Victoria’s favorite Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said that travel teaches toleration.

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.

In a foreign country nothing stamps the difference between the gentleman and the clown more strongly than the regard they pay to foreign customs. While the latter will exclaim against every strange dress or dish, and even show signs of disgust if the latter does not please him, the former will endeavor, as far as is in his power, to “do in Rome as Romans do.”

When we travel, we must avoid speaking continually in praise of our own country, and avoid criticizing others.

Study well the geography of any country which you may visit, and, as far as possible, its history also. You cannot feel much interest in localities or monuments connected with history, if you are unacquainted with the events which make them worthy of note.

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