Terence Blacker: How to be the perfect gentleman

These are confusing times for the English gentleman. Everything in his background has told him that manners are what help define him, but in this sharp-elbowed, aggressively egalitarian world, he has discovered that old-fashioned niceness is no longer quite enough.

If he offers a woman his seat on the Tube, she thinks he wants a better look at her legs. When he opens the door for someone in a public place, he can still be waiting to be allowed through 10 minutes later. Sometimes, when he thanks someone in the normal gentlemanly way, he gets an odd look, as if he were a mickey-taker or simply feeble-minded. Manners never used to be this complicated.

There have been many attempts to bring etiquette up to date. It has been a favourite subject of writers from J P Donleavy to P J O'Rourke but their guides, however brilliant, quickly went out of date. This week, the gents' outfitter Austin Reed revealed it had sponsored a survey into how a modern gentleman should comport himself. Apparently, he should send a lot of texts to his beloved, and commiserate when she is suffering from PMT.

As a guide to behaviour, this is pathetic. Tapping a few words into a phone or discussing period pains is hardly going to help a gentleman survive in today's tough social environment. Some basic guidelines to the etiquette of 2010 are required.

Upon dining out with a lady who communicates more with her iPhone than oneself.

There was a time when a date involved two people; not any more. The modern woman will be no more 50 per cent present at any one time, rising possibly to 70 per cent at moments of intimacy. The rest of her – brain, heart, conversation – will be in cyberspace where she will be communicating with "friends" and "followers".

Just as a gentleman once respected a woman's privacy, now he should accept the all-important public side of her personality. For her, this date only truly exists if she shares it with others through her mobile phone. He should join her online community and converse wittily through a screen even when he is sitting across a table from her.

Upon being in the company of a lady who is publicly indisposed having dined too well.

No one likes to be touched when being sick. A gentleman will understand this basic fact of human nature. Yet, for many women, ending the evening by throwing up into a nearby gutter is an important part of a good night out. The correct behaviour is to stand well out of range until the lady is feeling well enough to continue her journey home.

Upon finding a grammatical error on one's beloved's bottom.

Once young women expressed their thoughts, hopes and aspirations in a private diary. Now they have them tattooed on their bodies. A man of the world will be expected to read a new girlfriend's skin like an intriguing, occasionally annoying memoir of her past. What, though, if he finds a painful error – "My sole is unbreakable" on a shoulder-blade, "J'amour vous" on a buttock? He should smile and avert his eyes. It is regarded as highly impolite to make pedantic references to any grammatical or linguistic accuracy in a tattoo.

Upon being told in the morning "I'm soooo hungover".

For most people, this expression is simply a way of greeting the day, a new version of "Good morning". The correct response is a long, anguished groan, possibly decorated with a swear word and a belch. It is now thought to be the height of bad form to start the day clear-eyed and cheerful.

Upon being sexted.

For many people, sending sexy text messages to one's beloved has replaced the old-fashioned act itself, being quicker, cleaner and generally less tiring. When sexted, it is polite to respond in kind, but with a certain awkward reserve. It should be remembered that, while erotic liberation is always attractive in a woman, there is the thinnest of lines between being a gentleman and a pervert.

terblacker@aol.com

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