Chivalry is not dead. It’s just rare.
Perhaps confused by widespread poor manners or cowed by extreme feminism, the modern gentleman can be a tentative creature. Should he hold the door open for a girl and risk being berated for assuming she’s incapable of doing it herself? It’s risky business, and it shouldn’t be.
I’m crazy about a gentleman, whether he’s eight years old or eighty. Call me old-fashioned, but I adore being treated like a lady. Call me a flirt too, because if a gentleman offers his umbrella, helps me put on my coat, or carries my luggage, I let him know he made my day. Be it a smile, a wink or a polite thanks, I want to convey the message: You’re a gentleman, and I like it.
I know I’m not alone in the belief that Good Manners Never Go Out of Style. Why else would Jane Austen remain so popular? We love pretty manners, especially pretty men with pretty manners. An alpha male doesn’t have to be the reincarnation of Mr. Darcy to be a gentleman in his own way. It’s in the small things, the way he treats his lady, which shows respect and a desire to be helpful.
A contemporary knight in shining armor doesn’t win a joust; you’ll find him on the side of the highway, changing my flat tire, and that’s as good as slaying a dragon. Etiquette books can be unwieldy and outdated, and no two agree on what of old-world chivalry is still relevant to the modern gentleman.
I’m not really thinking of etiquette anyway–white wine with fish, don’t scratch in public, elbows off the table. I mean the simple graces, little gestures to let you know his mama raised him right. Whether you’re a conscientious guy looking for the inside scoop or a writer open to character ideas, here are three simple ways the modern gentleman saves the day:
1. Gentlemanly Gestures
It’s charming. It’s timeless. And all he has to do is lift his elbow. This indicates the lady should place her hand on his arm, and voilà, he’s escorting her. If she’s wearing fancy shoes which put her in danger of tripping, if she’s not feeling well, if the crowd presses close, or of the ground is uneven, holding on to his arm has a practical purpose: to keep her from a face-plant. Offering an arm to escort a lady is a universally polite and not necessarily a romantic gesture, ambiguity the hopeful suitor might wisely employ.
Once upon a time when pedestrians were in danger of being struck by runaway carriages, the gentleman customarily walked on the outside, closest to the street, while the lady walked on the inside. He also assumed the risk of mud splatters and careless cart drivers, not to mention the hazards of sharing the path with riders on horseback. It’s nice to know in the year 2012, a man will take a hit from a woozy cyclist for me. So noble.
Most men already know they should open the door for a lady. It can be executed smoothly if he passes through the doorway first then holds the door open if it swings outward. If the door swings inward, he should open the door then step back to let the lady pass through first.
A rare man indeed it is these days who remembers to give up his seat for a lady, especially one elderly, obviously pregnant, or ill. This prince among men might also help load a baby stroller, groceries, or a wheelchair when the need for assistance is apparent. He is sensitive not to frighten a lady with his approach, but he is the type to lend a hand when the situation is appropriate.
Yes, I am capable of carrying my violin case, diaper bag, purse, range bag, collapsible easel, (I’m making this up now) and two gallons of chocolate milk by myself, but help is always nice. A gentleman who carries my parcels isn’t implying I’m weak; his actions say he wants to make it easier on me and is mindful of my comfort. Who am I to let all those rippling muscles go to waste?
Helping a woman on and off with her coat and retrieving an item she’s dropped serves the same purpose: allowing the lady to avoid actions which draw unintentional sexual attention. A man bending over to pick up a book simply doesn’t elicit the same reaction as when a woman does it, especially if she’s wearing a skirt. Likewise, a lady pulling her elbows back to thread her arms through jacket sleeves is reminiscent of a middle school prank. Stay classy, girls–let the gentleman help.
My personal favorite: The protector. Those who know I have a concealed weapons permit might be surprised to hear I adore men who walk me to my car or front door at night. A semi-auto .45 in a thigh holster is no substitute for strength in numbers. The man who wants to make sure I’m safely inside my car or house wouldn’t dream of honking when he picks me up, either. He comes to the door in person. Preferably carrying roses and chocolate. Lots of chocolate.
2. Gentlemanly Manners
Cary Grant earns double points here for looking past Marilyn’s Monroe’s exposed leg and her magnificent bosom: Eye Contact. (I know. You’ve seen Monkey Business and you know what happens next, but that’s not the point.) A gentleman doesn’t allow himself to be caught looking where he ought not. He remembers the Seinfeld episode where Jerry compares staring at a woman’s cleavage to the glare of the sun. “Look away!” is good advice.
Along the same line, a gentleman ignores a lady’s “wardrobe malfunction” if it’s minor, and on a larger scale he resists the hypnotic nature of such a spectacle and moves fast to block her from view or offer her his jacket for cover. He’d never gawk when a lady is embarrassed and at a disadvantage.
A gentleman doesn’t have to be raised in the south to say “Yes, ma’am” and “No, sir,” especially when addressing his elders. Our generation seems to embrace informality and avoid pretentious manners. Equality is good, but children on a first-name basis with adults cause their Victorian grandmamas to roll over in their graves. Using the polite form of address –Mr., Ms., etc.–is respectful and the safest bet with new acquaintances. A gentleman is careful using terms of endearment, mindful that not every woman likes being called “honey,” “darlin’ ” or “hot stuff.” When a man says “Yes, ma’am” with a nod, it’s downright inspiring.
A gentleman doesn’t kiss-and-tell. He keeps his lady’s secrets. Can you count dozens of ruined female characters in 19th-century fiction who were banished to a cottage in the countryside to languish alone and ashamed? It’s no more fair now than it was then, but even these days a man who gets around has “conquests” and a woman who does the same is still thought a whore. A gentleman is mindful of a woman’s reputation. He doesn’t feel the need to boast. He keeps private matters private–this wise man knows how to keep himself out of trouble.
My personal favorite: The defender. A gentleman never shines so brightly as when he defends the honor of a lady. When he dispels a rumor, takes her side in a disagreement with peers, or warns away someone behaving in an insulting or threatening manner, he brands himself her hero. She will never forget it.
3. Gentlemanly Gentleness
A man cradling a baby? H-O-T. I could end there, don’t you agree, ladies? Something about seeing a rough-and-tough man control his strength and swallow his pride to do something gentle, such as carrying a sleeping child and tucking her into bed, makes us female types all dreamy-eyed and grateful. So go ahead, gentlemen–listen to a kindergartener chatter, join her tea party, get up at night to feed the baby. Carry the diaper bag in public–because you actually change diapers. The ladies adore you for it.
And it’s not just about being nice to kids. I get all warm and fuzzy if I see a man flirting with an elderly lady, making her feel young again. Treat animals kindly. Show respect for your mother and sisters, and even the waitress. How a man behaves when no one is watching, when there’s nothing in it for him, is the measure of his character. Even though girls admit a fascination with “bad boys,” it’s men with integrity they respect and admire. The knight-in-shining-armor type.
My personal favorite: The manly man who lets kids see him behave like a gentleman. They’ll grow up believing that’s the way it’s done.
Readers, what did I miss? What do you think it means to be a gentleman (or a lady)?