Heading Out on Your Own — Day 17: Essential Etiquette for Young Men

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 17, 2012 · 29 comments

in A Man's Life, Heading Out On Your Own, On Etiquette

“In whatever society, or in whatever part of the world, a gentleman may happen to be, he always complies externally with the spirit and usages of the place… A gentleman always possesses a certain self-respect—not indeed touching upon self-esteem, and far removed from self-conceit…Indeed a gentleman, in the highest signification of the term, is a noble animal…Employing in the regulation of his own conduct, the strictest standard of propriety, and in his expectations of that of others, the most lenient; cautious in accepting quarrel, more cautious in giving cause for it; lending to virtue the forms of courtesy, and borrowing from her the substance of sincerity; forming his opinions boldly, expressing them gracefully; in action, brave, in conference, gentle; always anxious to please, and always willing to be pleased; expecting from none what he would not be inclined to yield to all; giving interest to small things, whenever small things cannot be avoided, and gaining elevation from great, whenever great can be attained; valuing his own esteem too highly to be guilty of dishonor, and the esteem of others too considerately to be guilty of incivility; never violating decency, and respecting even the prejudices of honesty;…full of courage, but free from ostentation; without assumption, without servility; too wise to despise trifles, but too noble ever to be degraded by them; dignified but not haughty, firm but not impracticable, learned but not pedantic; to his superiors respectful, to his equals courteous; kind to his inferiors, and wishing well to all.” –Richard Wells, Manners, Culture and Dress of the Best American Society, 1894

Manners. Etiquette. For some men, these words don’t belong in the same breath as manliness. For them, etiquette and manners conjure up arbitrary lists of dos and don’ts, a nagging mother, or scenes of artificial formality, complete with images of bowing and scraping, the polishing of monocles, and a bunch of treacly, “How do you dos?” and “No, after yous!”

It wasn’t always so. Our forbearers saw no contradiction in being ruggedly manly and a refined gentleman. For centuries, well-bred men were trained in all the manly arts, from the skills needed to be a soldier to the proper etiquette for dinner parties. They were quintessential gentlemen—dapper in dress, polite in conduct, and yet every bit a true man.

George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Robert E. Lee are some examples of men who combined gritty manliness with gentlemanly bearing. They paid attention to how they dressed, groomed, and conducted themselves and were as comfortable at a stately ball as they were on the battlefield. For these great men, having good manners did not make them less of a man, but more of one.

This is because they saw good manners in the way Edward John Hardy, author of Manners Makyth Man, defined them: as “little morals,” “the shadows of virtues, if not virtues themselves.”  If character was the root of inner manliness, then manners were the outer fruits that sprouted from the tree – the external behaviors and code of conduct that naturally followed from a life of virtue. These great men understood that while it is true that the rules of etiquette change over time and from culture to culture, the underlying principles of all manners remain constant: a respect for others, and a desire to treat all people with honesty and consideration – just as you’d like to be treated.

Still unconvinced? First let’s take a more specific look at some misconceptions about manners, and then at the reasons you should cultivate them.

What Good Manners Are Not

A young man’s negative opinion on manners sometimes springs from observing others practice them badly. But these are not true manners, for:

Good manners are not stiff, formal, or awkward. Good manners should come off as entirely natural. Some young men, knowing this and not wanting to seem like they’re trying too hard, swing the opposite way, and try so hard to be “natural” in their manners that they come off as even more contrived! Real naturalness comes from a few things:

  • Forgetting yourself and concentrating on others. The more you focus on making others comfortable, the less self-conscious you will feel, and the more comfortable you will become yourself.
  • Catering your behavior to the crowd and event in which you find yourself. Your manners should be more formal when visiting the White House than when eating at Chili’s.
  • Practice. Good manners shouldn’t be something you cram for in emergencies like studying for an exam. Rather, they should be a habit you develop through practice over time, like a leather coat that gets softer, more comfortable, and better-looking the more you wear it.
  • Cultivating an inner sense of character. This is most important. At its root, naturalness in manner springs from your sincerity and desire to treat people well for the right reasons; as mentioned above, it should be a natural extension of your character. Even if you do end up being a little awkward, if it comes from a sincere place, people will be very forgiving of it.

Good manners are not ostentatious. Good manners should never be showy or call attention to themselves. In fact they should not even be immediately noticeable in the moment and instead should create an overall positive impression, which the people with whom you interact only reflect on later: “I really enjoy his company.” “I had such a good time at his party.”

Good manners are not smug and judgmental. You don’t practice good manners to feel superior to others or to wield them as a club, policing people’s behavior.  As Charles Dickens once wrote: “My boy,” said a father to his son, “treat everyone with politeness—even those who are rude to you. For remember that you show courtesy to others not because they are gentlemen, but because you are one.”

Why Practice Good Manners?

Good manners give you confidence. Much of what constitutes good manners consists of common sense. Yet common sense can often fail us when we’re nervous, in unfamiliar territory, and just winging it. Look at manners as the signposts along the broad highway of common sense, guiding you in how to act and react in any situation, without veering off and getting lost in the thickets when you’re not sure what to do.

Good manners make a positive impression on others. A man with good manners makes enjoyable company, a welcome party guest, a referable contact, a trusted employee. Good manners attest to a man’s self-respect and self-control, qualities that apply to all areas of life. Plus, as good manners are in such short supply these days, they instantly put you head and shoulders above other young men out there.

Good manners add texture to life. In our day-to-day lives, we often just move from one thing to another, as each day bleeds into the next. Thus from time immemorial people have sought a break from the ordinary by creating festivals, rituals, special occasions. But special occasions aren’t special if we behave and dress exactly as we do in our everyday lives. Manners provide a unique texture to our lives, and contribute to adding a special atmosphere to special events – the solemnity of a funeral, the pomp of a wedding, the grace of a baptism, the significance of a graduation, even the escape of a movie. At the same time, creating this atmosphere is a community effort –with the guy in a t-shirt and shorts, the ringing of a cell phone, or the man walking in late, the spell is broken.

Good manners make things in life smoother, more pleasant, and more comfortable for everyone. Ironically, manners both add texture to life, and make our interactions smoother. Many old etiquette books described manners as the substance that “oils the creaking wheels of life.”  While we’d like to think that left to our own devices, everything would just flow naturally between people, without any guidelines on how to act – who does what and when – a whole lot of awkwardness and impoliteness ensues.

Good manners make other people feel comfortable. Ever been at a dinner where a guy brought up embarrassing stories from someone’s past, or insisted on pontificating about politics? Have you ever been with a friend who started talking to someone who was a stranger to you, but never stopped to introduce you to him, leaving you standing there awkwardly? “For what is a good manner?” William John Hardy wrote, “It is the art of putting our associates at their ease. Whoever makes the fewest persons uncomfortable is the best mannered man in the room.”

Good manners ultimately show respect for others. Do you like to wake up early to meet someone, only to have them be 20 minutes late? Do you enjoy it when your friend throws a tantrum after losing a round of golf? Would you like it if you made $2.50 an hour, busted your butt serving people, and then got stiffed on a tip? Do you appreciate being interrupted while you’re speaking? No? Then live the heart of good manners: the Golden Rule. Treat others with the same respect you’d like to be treated with.

In summary, good manners make life richer and more enjoyable for you and for others. Unfortunately, many young men are raised with very little guidance on the proper manners to cultivate for different areas of their lives. The good news is that good manners can be learned by any young man no matter his background (and by any older man, no matter his age).

We’ve written about the basics of etiquette extensively in the past, and while we still have a few areas to hit, have covered nearly all the essentials. So below we put together this etiquette study guide for a young man seeking to become a more dignified gentleman. Go through these links at your own pace, brushing up on the ins and outs of good manners, a little bit at a time.

Essential Etiquette for Young Men





{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Buck August 17, 2012 at 5:58 pm

Excellent advice! I am proud to say that my son has learned most of these lessons and the value of them.

2 Vincent August 17, 2012 at 8:34 pm

Good manners begin with taking a genuine interest in others and their well being. The most awkward thing is to fake it. It’s funny how society got rid of etiquette because we thought it was stuffy and too challenging, but now, we’re awkward and our relations are even more challenging. I actually wrote a thing on this right here: http://ritualandspontaneity.blogspot.com/2010/09/fornication-and-need-for-ritual.html

3 Harrison August 17, 2012 at 10:52 pm

Brett & Kate, thank you for the article.
I was just wondering what you think a gentleman should do when, for example, he needs to return a faulty product he has bought, even though no receipt/warranty was given to him. In such cases, when he is not in the wrong, how does a gentleman be gentle, yet not get walked over?


4 Kevin August 17, 2012 at 11:58 pm

I have always stressed to my sons(three of them) that The Golden Rule is the basis of a civilized society. Unfortunately, we as a society, seem to have lost touch with this. I hope that somehow we can reverse course.

Thanks, Kevin

5 Pdot August 18, 2012 at 12:18 am

I’m a long time reader and I just have to say this site is spectacular.

6 Jeremy August 18, 2012 at 12:27 am

Dear Brett and Kate,

This is a great article with links to other great articles. It seems to me there ought to be enough here to print and create a very useful third AoM book. Just a thought. Keep up the great work.

Stay Manly,

7 Jesse August 18, 2012 at 1:21 am

One little piece of etiquette that I see people messing up that I haven’t seen covered in your columns: always stand up when you are being introduced to someone who is standing. If you stay seated while they shake your hand it makes it seem like you’re “receiving” them, poor form especially if it’s an interview (e.g., you’re sitting down when the interviewer enters the room).

8 Kristaps B. August 18, 2012 at 2:42 am

Greeting from Latvia!

This is the nectar of AoM! Great advice and explanations at the beginning and links to all the goodness at the end – truly one of the best articles on AoM if not on the whole Internet-land.

This even made me share my appraisal – I’m usually more of a passive reader.

9 Dave D August 18, 2012 at 5:21 am

Another great article. While fairly well mannered myself, I am far from where I want to be. This is a great reminder and your site is a great resource. Thank you, Brett.

10 Marc August 18, 2012 at 6:38 am

I think these lessons are very important for all men to learn and I would like to thank you for doing this every day

(I would like the mockingbird black)

11 craig August 18, 2012 at 7:11 am

I love the 31 days of Heading out on your own – I pass them on to my son. Hopefully I’ve been leading by example.
PS – The Icebreaker hoodie!

12 Brady August 18, 2012 at 11:14 am

This is probably my favorite of the articles in the series thus far.

Keep up the good work, AoM!

13 Matthew D August 18, 2012 at 1:11 pm

I think this is one of the most well written, helpful, and extremely thought provoking articles of its kind that I have ever read. Artofmanliness is definitely is definitely becoming a bookmarked page for me.

14 Jack August 18, 2012 at 4:44 pm

Maybe I missed the instruction on shaking hands with ladies. I think it’s gentlemanly to wait for her to offer physical contact. If she doesn’t offer, no handshake. What’s your view?

15 Steve Sanders August 18, 2012 at 8:00 pm

I was born a boy,
Raised to be a man,
But choose to be a gentleman.

Great articles. I’ve been sending them to my 21 year old son who just moved off to college.

16 Sam August 18, 2012 at 8:04 pm

Great article; the links to your other articles at the bottom were especially helpful.

The Straight Leg
(PS it’d be great to have these for my next casual date.)

17 Lio August 19, 2012 at 12:05 am

This post is one of your best! The advice you’ve generated and gathered together is truly impressive. Thanks for your wonderful insights, Brett and Kate!

18 Aaron August 19, 2012 at 7:15 pm

A great read, as always, and an excellent idea to organize the related articles by category. Your sheer amount of related materials is impressive. That this is part of a series and yet could be its own series, with all the referenced articles you’ve indexed, reminds me of just how much you’ve written and compiled over the time you’ve maintained the site.

Do you ever find yourself surprised at the volume of your work? It’s never hard to see the great effort that goes into each one of your articles; the small compilations only serve to remind.


19 Richard August 20, 2012 at 11:12 am

Enjoyed this post. I hope everyone takes note of the “How would you like to make $2.50 an hour and get stiffed on a tip after busting your butt serving people” line. I, in fact, make $2.13 an hour serving people, and it seems more and more people are leaving lousy tips (maybe it’s the economy?). If you’re not going to tip properly because it’s the right, appropriate thing to do, then at least do it because when you leave a poor tip, you are viewed by many people (myself, my co-workers) as a horrible, un-compassionate jerk. Not gentlemanly at all.

20 Staci August 21, 2012 at 9:18 am

Kind of wish I could download this to my son’s Kindle…can I? Bahaha! Anyhow, if I can’t, I’ll print in sections…

21 Nathanael J. Putrich August 21, 2012 at 9:06 pm

Brett and Kate,
Love the Article. As a 17 year old young man, it is so helpful to get some quality advice on mannerisms and etiquette. Honestly, with the material you have in this article and the links you provided, you could definitely make a third book. I would definitely lined up to purchase it! Thanks again!

22 David August 22, 2012 at 7:40 pm

This article is excellent.So many young men could use a read like this. Manners go a long way in life, the sooner you learn them the better.

23 paddy August 23, 2012 at 1:08 am

Helps to understand where you are as well. In Britain it is not common to tip. At a restaurant you may round the bill up to the nearest £5 if you like but nobody will think any the less of you for no tip. If you are paying by card then you can’t leave a tip anyway. In certain circumstances it is seen as flashy at best and condescending at worst. You wouldn’t tip at a bar for a round of drinks… the Barman is only doing his job.

24 Ben Stafford August 23, 2012 at 8:18 am

This is serious e-book material. I hope you consider it :-)

25 Bryce August 24, 2012 at 4:48 pm

In the spirit of the matter, thanks for positing this.
In the spirit of making things simple, remember these four things:
1. Be kind.
2. Don’t be gross.
3. When in Rome, do as the Romans do
4. When in doubt, ask.

26 BCMcC August 30, 2012 at 10:31 am

Greetings –

I have only scratched the surface of this site – but it is timely and wonderful. My only request is an addition to this article – “How to break a date like a gentleman!” I’m a gay man who has been stood up too many times (from my teens to last week…) and if something ever comes up on my end, I always call, give an explanation, and apologize and hope to reschedule.

If I am no longer interested in the individual, I tell them that pointblank. Perhaps not the best way, but if you tell someone a week in advance, that is kinder than the day before or worse, an hour before. Maybe the authors of the site have a better solution under this sub-topic. A few years ago, there was a book published called “He’s Not That Into You.” As a gentleman and a gay man I find that book troubling – so many straight and gay men behave badly when dating – and we aren’t even discussing sexual encounters (a gentleman probably never does that anyway.)

My ex-boyfriend went beyond the typical gentleman call. When we would go on a date and he would drive, he would pick me up, unlock his door, walk around behind the car, come beside me and unlock my door and open it for me. THIS IS SOMETHING I WILL NEVER FORGET ABOUT HIM! Do that on a first date and every subsequent date, you will be half way there to having her or his heart – just make sure you want it!

27 Charles H. Westgate III January 5, 2013 at 9:40 pm

I learn Good Manners from my family, my parents!

28 Rex Berg March 30, 2013 at 2:57 pm

Huge congratulations on being mentioned in the New York Times! Love seeing this blog enjoy much-deserved success.

29 Ogbu Anthony September 3, 2013 at 2:01 pm

Man could be a perfect being if he observes these principles here.

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