Last week marked two full years since my father passed away. And though I miss him, I don’t generally feel like he’s really gone. Sometimes, he’s closer to me than he was in those last days, when his suffering and sadness (and brave face) were all I could think about.
And at no times are his energy and values more a part of my daily existence than when I channel his wisdom, look to his example for answers, attempt to fix something around the house, or make a decision about how to handle a problem or conflict with grace.
Because Dad taught me how to be a gentleman.
For sure I’ve slipped at times, and have made gaffes that still give me moments of deep shame (knotted-up stomach aches for past dick moves), but even when I haven’t acted the gentleman, at least I knew it and could regret it.
To be a gentleman is more than always opening the passenger door for a lady (though that is essential). It’s more than knowing you should never wear a brown belt with black shoes (and when it’s okay to break that rule). And it’s not necessarily gender-specific (I encourage Simone to be a mensch at all times).
It’s about treating yourself and others with respect, whether you believe they deserve it or not, and doing your part to keep the world turning more toward the positive than otherwise. It’s being civil and gracious and kind and strong.
Here’s my take on the essentials for men.
Things you should always (or almost always) do
1. Hold the door open for the person behind you, especially if she’s your date.
Whether it’s for a man or a woman, this momentary act of awareness also works as a reminder to yourself to be mindful of your surroundings.
2. Carry a handkerchief.
Nobody wants to shake your hand after you’ve swiped at your runny nose with your fingertips. Dad taught me the proper way to use one, so it doesn’t get gross—unfold it completely and start in the middle, refold it, then use each quadrant in turn (as much as possible). One hanky per day, more if you have a cold or allergies. Bonus: bring an extra (which you don’t use for your nose) to weddings, and offer it to your sentimental date.
3. Get your shoes shined at the airport.
It’s an indulgence that brightens up your look, improves your outlook, and keeps people employed. Stopping to get your shoes shined can be an oasis in a fraught day of travel.
4. Carry cash.
You never know when you’ll need to leave a tip at the open bar, or split a tab. Cash in your pocket (especially a few ones) makes everything easier.
5. Tip well.
That extra buck or two will make more of a difference to the recipient, who lives on tips, than it will for you. Even if the service is sucky, there are better ways to make your dissatisfaction known. In a hotel, leave a few dollars each day, rather than all at the end. Put it in a folded piece of paper that says “Thank you!”
6. Have an answer to the question, “What are you reading?”
Even if you don’t read every day, having a book you’re actually making your way through (whether it’s in a week, a month, or over the course of the year) means you’re furthering your knowledge, improving your vocabulary, and making yourself more interesting to talk to.
7. Step in.
If you see someone being harassed, do something about it. Don't allow others to make derogatory jokes about (or to) women. Or sexual preference. Or religion. Or race. Or disability. Or, even, political positions. Don’t let it go, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable.
8. Say “please” and “thank you.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve winced as people said, “Gimme a tall latte,” rather than, “May I please have…” or “I’ll have a ___, please.” Say “please” when you place a to-go order. Say “thank you” when you pay the toll operator. Small civilities don’t cost a thing.
9. Dress for the occasion.
Don’t wear a tank top and flip-flops on an airplane - dress for travel. Don’t wear a hoodie on a first date - dress to impress. Wear closed-toed shoes to concerts and sporting events - dress to preserve your feet. Wear a suit to a wedding - unless told specifically otherwise.
10. Call a date a date.
Don’t ask a woman if she wants to “hang out,” if you’re interested in her romantically. Ask her out on a date, and use the word intentionally. If she only wants to be friends, she’ll tell you (and a gentleman accepts that feedback graciously).
11. Pay for the first date.
It may be old fashioned, but it’s still the right thing to do. Whether it was a perfect night out with a kiss at the end, or a total disaster, it’s your job as a gentleman to pick up the check, without complaint.
Whatever your party affiliation. Do your civic duty. You have time.
Things you should know
1. How to change a tire and jump-start a car.
Essential functions every man (and woman) should be able to do.
2. How to tie a bow tie.
So much classier than a clippy. And so cool to leave untied at the end of the night.
3. How to cook breakfast.
Because nothing is more charming.
4. How to shine your own shoes.
Because sometimes you can’t wait until you can get them done professionally.
5. All the words to at least one love song.
Doesn’t matter if you can sing it well - as long as you try when the moment is right.
6. The ingredients and techniques to cook at least one stellar dinner.
Because cooking is providing.
7. How to make a martini, a Manhattan, and an old fashioned.
Essentials when you’re the host.
8. How to buy flowers.
That is, ask for help, or do some research. It’s not that complicated.
9. How to start a fire in a fireplace.
You never know when the moment might call for this.
10. The difference between being insistent and being obnoxious.
That airline customer service rep working the desk? Not her fault that your flight was cancelled. It’s okay to insist on a fair solution. Not okay to verbally assault her while you try to make that happen. And, anyway, kindness will always get you further.
11. How to say, “I’m sorry.”
Take responsibility, show remorse, take your medicine. It’ll be over soon.
Things you should never do (or almost never)
1. Speak ill of someone else.
It’s a small world, and saying damaging things about others diminishes you. And, anyway, that stuff always comes back. So endeavor to keep things positive. If you really feel like you need to warn someone off of an interaction when asked about your impression of a colleague or acquaintance, keep it vague. Saying “I think it’s better if you form your own opinion,” sends the “If you don’t have something nice to say” signal without going negative.
2. Stand up your date.
Whether you’ve changed your mind, lost your nerve, or had an emergency, a simple text (and apology) is only fair.
3. Show up empty-handed.
Bring flowers, a bottle of wine (or bourbon), or dessert. Or get creative, and bring something uniquely suited for your host.
4. Spit in public.
On the sidewalk? Repulsive, unhygienic, and unnecessary.
5. Put your briefcase on someone’s kitchen table.
For women, it would be your purse. That thing was between your feet on the train, or on the floor of the coffeeshop. Don’t put it where people serve food, please.
6. Manspread on public transportation.
Take up the appropriate amount of space. Sit up straight. Give up your seat to the pregnant and the elderly.
7. Be a dick.
And that’s really what it comes down to. Being a gentleman means not being a dick. Small acts of kindness and civility, attention to personal care, and a bit of chivalry go a long way.
Did I leave something out? Please add to my list in the comments.