Michael Hall approached women on the streets and called hundreds more to research his book. But he was always the perfect gentleman.
In fact, that’s what he wanted to talk to them about. Does a gentleman have a place in today’s society, he asked? How should a man treat a woman? Do you like a man to pick up the check and open doors for you?
Do you like a man who understands a woman sexually? “That was always yes, and most of the time they said they don’t know anyone like that,” says the Kansas City native, 34, single and a doctor, to boot. It didn’t surprise him that so many women said they didn’t know any gentlemen. That’s why he wrote The American Gentleman: A Contemporary Guide to Chivalry. Hall calls the slim paperback a manifesto, a call to arms for men to adopt the ways of the gentleman.”Trying to achieve chivalric ideals is something we just don’t talk about,” says Hall, a senior resident in community and family medicine at Truman Medical Center-Lakewood. “I think this idea of trying to assign gender-specific behaviors is something we’re not comfortable with.”
Such notions of chivalry and respect for women, however, don’t ring so old-fashioned in an age of female-demeaning song lyrics and teen pop idols who dress like prostitutes. Hall’s book joins others, like Wendy Shalit’s popular A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue, that are sounding clarion calls for kinder, more genteel times. Former college history professor Terrence Moore, now principal of a charter school in Fort Collins, Colo., is also writing a book about modern chivalry, a topic that has perplexed many of his students over the years. In college history classes, Moore, 35, has launched discussions about the Middle Ages by asking students: Is chivalry dead?
“I would get responses to that question like no other,” he says. “And it really engages young women. They really have decided opinions. I would say that most of the women in the middle states and in the South definitely think that chivalry has died, that men don’t respect them anymore … that they act like uncultivated barbarians. “It’s a very hard thing for a woman these days to go out in public without getting approached, without getting gawked at, without getting leered at. Young women are very vocal about these things, and they basically want men to return to some idea of gentility.”
One guess. By Hall’s definition, a gentleman walks through the world in what Hall calls a “state of character,” observing the needs and concerns of people around him, giving of himself freely without expecting anything in return and always doing what he believes to be right. Sound like anyone you know? Hall didn’t interview women only. Many of the hundreds of men he talked to were “absolutely interested in this, and they don’t know where to turn.”
He wrote the book after seeing boorishness in the workplace. In the late 1990s Hall was finishing ophthalmology training at a New York medical center where, he says, he witnessed racial discrimination and medical negligence. He blew the whistle. He believes he did the gentlemanly thing by standing up for his principles and trying to right a wrong. Then he began paying attention to how other men around him were comporting themselves. What he saw worried him. He saw women trying to shrug into their coats in restaurants while no one offered assistance. He saw women entering buildings with armloads of bags and boxes, and no one opening the door for them. “It’s just not part of the American society,” Hall says. “We really go against the grain when it comes to formality and rules. We are impatient people.”
“I think it’s partially our social background. We don’t stress it. It’s not inherently important to the way we behave. It doesn’t make us richer, it doesn’t make the day go by faster, and it takes time.” Moore blames part of the fall of the American gentleman on the dismantling of the American family, the syndrome sociologists call “the fatherless America.”
“He was the natural trainer and caretaker of young manhood,” Moore says. Now when boys look to popular culture for their male role models, there are no John Waynes. But there is Eminem. Moore and others believe that growing gentlemen is really a job for the global community. The training should begin at home, but it is perpetuated, encouraged and supported at school, at church, in social groups and through civic activities. Maybe then men wouldn’t be as confused about all this gentleman stuff as they told Hall they were. Moore doesn’t blame feminism for the death of the gentleman. This isn’t a he-she discussion, he says.
“I really think if we were to return it to a gender-based respect for the sexes, it would appeal to the gallant and heroic in men.”