Even so, the herd’s been awfully thinned out lately. Maybe it’s partly because gentleman is such a tricky word. If we’re speaking historically, it calls to mind idle and inbred European aristocrats who were too listless to light their own Dunhills. If we’re using the word the way your grandmother did, we might imagine a dutiful, well-mannered doormat. But the new gentleman is neither a toff nor a milquetoast. “It has nothing to do with money or social standing,” says etiquette scion Peter Post, a director of the Emily Post Institute and the author of Essential Manners for Men. “A person who thinks of other people first and does things to make the world a more comfortable place for everybodythat’s what I think a gentleman really is.” Setting aside the musty associations with privileged birth, what noblesse oblige is really about is being man enough to switch off your selfish impulses in service of the greater good.
Not all selfish impulses, of course. The resurgent gentleman knows that discreet and considerate conduct might very well wind up being the ultimate career advantage. “Telepathy, that’s the perfect word for it,” says Gunn. “When I have people coming for meetings in my office, I try to find out beforehand, do they like coffee or tea? How do they take their coffee? Are they bagel people? Are they pastry people? I want them to feel comfortable when they’re here. That helps breed some trust, and in their own way they’re kind of seduced.” Restraint, too, serves as an ally of the gentleman’s own ambition, not as a sign of weakness. “I have found that the boor, the person who tries to barge through everything and get his way, is someone people don’t like,” says Nashville writer and columnist John Bridges, the author of a series of pensée-sprinkled guidebooks on chivalric habits and principles. “If you try to be civil, it puts you in a negotiating stance with people, and you get places a lot more easily. Being a gentleman gives you the tools to know how to get your way without everybody hating you.” Forcing everyone in the corporate cafeteria to listen to you crow about your ride on a private jet might make you feel like a master of the universe, but in fact it could be the very thing that convinces your boss that you’re not ready for a promotion. “The new gentleman has manners,” says Richard Torregrossa, who, as the author of Cary Grant: A Celebration of Style, can be presumed to know what he’s talking about. “His conversations are discreet, so he controls his cell phone. His cell phone does not control him.”
And whether the topic is the Redskins or Der Rosenkavalier, he knows well enough not to inflict his stream-of-consciousness commentary on other people. He doesn’t need to be the center of attention. In fact, if there’s ultimately a core trait that distinguishes the new American gentleman from the rest of the pack, it’s this: A gentleman is confident enough not to broadcast his every passing whim. “I always say that a gentleman is somebody who knows how to be there when he’s wanted,” says Bridges, “and the rest of the time gets out of the way.”