The word gentleman has a long history, and the meaning of the word has changed throughout the ages. Our society has changed greatly in the last 50 years, yet when some people think of a gentleman, the image that pops up is usually someone from the 19th, or the first half of the 20th century.
The liberation of women, the equality movement and not least the #metoo movement have brought a lot of good. It has pointed out and in some cases helped us get rid of some toxic male behaviours. It has given women more power and opportunities.
While the purpose of these movements have been to ensure that toxic masculine behaviour is no longer tolerated, it has failed to strengthen the positive aspects of masculinity.
Or, rather, it hasn’t failed. It was never it’s purpose. It’s up to us to define what it is being a man today. And especially what it means to be a modern gentleman.
History of the word gentleman
Originally, a gentleman was the lowest rank of the landed gentry of England, ranking below an esquire and above a yeoman; by definition, the rank of gentleman comprised the younger sons of the younger sons of peers, and the younger sons of a baronet, a knight, and an esquire, in perpetual succession.
As such, the connotation of the term gentleman captures the common denominator of gentility (and often a coat of arms); a right shared by the peerage and the gentry, the constituent classes of the British nobility.
Yeah, the English hierarchy of social statuses is confusing, I know. But it gets easier.
The word gentleman as an indicator of rank had already become of doubtful value before the great political and social changes of the 19th century gave the word a wider, more informal meaning. The change of meaning of the world can be seen through the successive editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica:
In the 5th edition (1815), “a gentleman is one, who without any title, bears a coat of arms, or whose ancestors have been freemen.”
In the 7th edition (1845) it still implies a definite social status: “All above the rank of yeomen.”
In the 8th edition (1856), this is still defined in similar words as in the 5th edition, but the writer adds, “By courtesy this title is generally accorded to all persons above the rank of common tradesmen when their manners are indicative of a certain amount of refinement and intelligence.”
And from the mid 19th century and onwards, gentlemen has more and more come to be related to behaviour than heritage, slowly morphing into how the word is used today.
A modern definition
A gentleman is a man who treats others, both men and women, regardless of their standing, in a respectful manner and not taking advantage, pushing or manipulatong others into doing things that are not in their best interest. In other words, it’s OK to push someone to for example seek medical care or pursuing their dreams, but not pushing or manipulating someone to do you favours.
This also has some implications, for instance that:
- Don’t take your anger or frustrations out on others.
- That you don’t discriminate based on gender, ethnicity, sexual preference or anything else.
- That you listen to others more than you speak.
- That you don’t brag, boast or belittle others.
- That you dress and act in order to feel comfortable rather than to impress.
- That, especially as a leader, you inspire and encourage rather than command and demand.
- That you own up to your mistakes
- That you forgive the mistakes of others
- That you are awesome!