You’re on a business trip. Your plane lands in Dallas. While you stand hunched beneath the overhead compartment, waiting for your fellow excursionists to putter down the aisle, you’re forced to eavesdrop on a guy who has flipped open his Razr. His “Candy Shop“ ringtone began bleating two seconds after the tires of the plane scuffed the tarmac, and now he is describing with graphic, snorting zeal the woman he “banged“ in Boston last night. He is loud, he is oblivious, and he is dressed with all the élan of an extra on Entourage. That evening, upon checking in to your hotel room, you discover that the dudes in the next suite are throwing a Super Bowl party. You have a breakfast meeting the next morning, and as you search the minibar in vain for a decent bottle of beer, you get the following ping from your colleague on your handheld: “yo dud wassup? OMFG yr n Tex! did U heare bout the Hailey Jol Ozmant sex tape?“
Look, you don’t want to be a crank. You are determined, even as what’s left of your youth begins to evaporate, not to slide into a permanent state of aggrieved, appalled, angst-ridden Andy Rooneyism. And yet somewhere over the course of a normal working day, a man might be forgiven for brooding like a graying viscount who’s just watched a Sigma Chi pledge chug the contents of a finger bowl.
Years ago, a man who had matured beyond a certain age automatically knew how to do things. He knew how to behave on a plane, in a hotel, in a box at La Scala. He knew how to mix a perfect Rob Roy, how to shine his brogues, how to woo a woman with no other weapon than his own wit, how to dress for a power breakfast with his boss; he knew, furthermore, how to spell, how to keep his pants from sagging, how to shut the fuck up in a public space, and how to recover from a career setback without feeling compelled to videotape his swollen member.
Maybe we should start learning those things again. Maybe, if we all try just a little bit harder, the modern American man can be more than the chucklehead we see on countless sitcoms and commercials, crop-dusted with Doritos crumbs and stupefied in front of the flat-screen. Have the last remnants of civilized society crumbled like the Colosseum? Have MTV, Kevin Federline, Casual Fridays, permissive Boomer parenting, and the consumer-electronics industry obliterated all the old standards of cultivation and courtesy? If so, maybe it’s time to bring on the backlash.
Yes, America in these infant years of the 21st century may be awash in money, but it’s also awash in the most loutish, thuggish, clownish, and pantyless hordes since the fall of Rome. The traditional connection between wealth and what used to be known as savoir faire has vanished. Which is why a corrective is in order: a return not to upper-crust priggishness but to a state of personal refinement. It’s time to acknowledge the simple pleasure and power of knowing things. It’s time to admit that a reasonable man should, at a reasonable point in his life, undergo a psychic shift, after which he no longer yearns merely to flip society the bird. It’s time for the dudes of America to grow up and start acting like gentlemen.
If we have a new gentleman in our midst, he doesn’t need to impress people by spending $500 on a bottle of vodka at a tabloid-trash nightclub, though he is perfectly happy to spend $15 on a meticulously shaken crushed-ginger concoction at one of the private and subdued speakeasies that have been cropping up in London and Manhattan and San Francisco over the past five years. Look around and you’ll see a handful of actors and musicians who have somehow not devoted their lives to becoming drooling Us Weekly ass-clowns: Don Cheadle and Edward Norton, George Clooney and John Legend, guys anachronistically committed to upholding high standards in their work and in their personal conduct. If designer Tom Ford’s cultural instincts are correct—and experience suggests that they often are—then it’s worth noting that while much of the commercial world is feasting on big and crass, the Gucci veteran is adjusting his zeitgeist meter for compact and custom-made. This spring, Ford, who could probably sell out to Target and spend the rest of his days studying the sunsets off Fiji, will instead open a boutique on Madison Avenue that will specialize in custom-tailored menswear. “In some ways, Elizabeth Street in Nolita is the antidote to the Targets and the H&Ms and the Gaps—it’s small, niched, and special-feeling,“ says Project Runway’s own perfect gentleman, Tim Gunn, the chair of the Department of Fashion Design at Parsons The New School for Design. “So many things in fashion are reactions, and this is a reaction to the behemoths, and it’s an understandable one.“
All of which makes sense, because the Gen X gentleman looks for things that hover just under the radar. Indeed, just under the radar is a fitting description of where he prefers to hang out. He’s comfortable enough in his own skin to understand the rightness of traveling with both a well-pecked BlackBerry and a well-thumbed book of John Berryman’s acid-tinged verse. He gets fired up by words like small-batch and indie, by microbrewed and bespoke and smuggled Époisses. For him there is such a thing as cultural literacy, after all, and it involves more than knowing where Lindsay Lohan checked in to rehab.
Jason Tesauro and Phineas Mollod, both 35, co-wrote the amusing and encyclopedic The Modern Gentleman: A Guide to Essential Manners, Savvy & Vice, and since its publication in 2002, they’ve detected a revival of interest in letter writing (as opposed to IM’ing), old-fashioned courtship rituals (as opposed to troglodytic MySpace-trolling), and even dressing up for work. “You carry yourself a little differently when you’re wearing pinstripes as opposed to sweatpants,“ says Tesauro, who’s begun leading Modern Gentleman seminars at a Ritz-Carlton outside Washington, D.C. “We are seeing signs of it, and it’s on a small scale, and that’s okay with me. While a gentleman may be an endangered species, he’s not going extinct.“
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 everybody—that’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.“