What Does “Being A Gentleman” Mean These Days?

A few months ago, I accidentally shoved my foot in my mouth on a listserv I participate in. I got a bunch of irritated emails and issued numerous apologies. What did I do? I addressed the women as “ladies.”

Some women hate to be called “ladies,” I came to find out. It’s an outdated word, they said, which brings to mind white gloves, tea sandwiches, and balancing a book atop one’s head for good posture. (Betty Draper on Mad Men, for example.) The directive to “be a lady” or “act like a lady” usually encourages women or girls to become more like a retro gender construct—polite, smiling, quiet, compliant, modest, presentable—and they want nothing to do with it. I just assumed that because the word was so outdated, it meant nothing—and I was wrong.

So now I’m wondering, of course, about a lady’s counterpart. If “being a lady” has a stigma attached to it, does “being a gentleman” have a stigma, too? And what does “being a gentleman” even mean these days, anyway?“Ladies” and “gentlemen” seem like such retro concepts because the past few waves of feminism have sanded down the suck-y gender roles and taboos about sexuality. However, “acting like a lady” doesn’t matter anymore, but strangely, “acting like a gentleman” still seems important.

I think men still call themselves a “gentlemen” because nearly every woman, if asked, would say she does want to date one. The whole thing is pretty moot, though, because what men define as actually being a gentleman is all over the place. It can mean anything from paying for dinner (or not), to groping a boob (or not), to paying for her cab ride home (or not). Really, man could just not be Joe Francis and still be called a gentleman.

For example, as long as I’ve been dating, I’ve witnessed guys who say they are “a gentleman” only be polite to pretty girls and treat the less attractive women or the men around them terribly. That’s such b.s.—and the reason why “gentleman” doesn’t have any more meaning for me than “lady” does.

But if I had to define it myself, this is what I’d say: A real gentleman is rare and is someone who treats everyone well—not just the chick he’s interested in. A gentleman is polite to everyone, thoughtful to everyone, considerate to everyone. Yes, a gentleman can be chivalrous, but that’s not the only qualification. Gentleman are chivalrous, but not all chivalrous guys are gentlemen. Most of all, if a guy boasts about what a gentleman he is, he probably isn’t one.

Does the phrase “gentleman” have any meaning to you? What do you think a gentleman is?