25 May 2022

A Gentleman's Word...

The word of a gentleman is as good as his bond; and sometimes better.”

Charles Dickens

Perhaps the true definition of a gentleman is this: Whoever is open, loyal, and true; whoever is of humane and affable demeanour; whoever is honourable in himself, and in his judgment of others, and requires no law but his word to make him fulfil an engagement; such a man is a gentleman, be he in the highest or lowest rank of life, a man of elegant refinement and intellect, or the most unpolished tiller of the ground.”

 “Let your pledged word ever be sacred.–Never promise to do a thing without performing it with the most rigid promptness. Nothing is more valuable to a man in business than the name of always doing as he agrees, and that to the moment. A strict adherence to this rule gives a man the command of half the spare funds within the range of his acquaintance, and encircles him with a host of friends, who may be depended upon in any emergency.”

The Gentleman’s Book of Etiquette and manual of Politeness by Cecil B. Hartley, 1860

According to 19th-century etiquette guides, firmly endorsed by Charles Dickens, a gentleman’s word was absolutely binding. It was tied up with his sense of honour and probity, and promises, once made, were never to be broken. By the same token, the truth was never manipulated to serve his convenience – it was considered dishonourable to do so.

In business transactions a promise, sealed by a handshake, was considered as good as a contract – breaking that sacred agreement caused irreparable reputational damage and was not countenanced.

These clear guidelines set a high standard of reliability and honesty, which has gradually been eroded. It was once the case that we looked up to influential people, such as politicians or legendary sportsmen, because they kept their word and honoured their promises. These high standards no longer apply, and we have become increasingly cynical about the ability of politicians, for example, to adhere to their pledges, fully expecting them to twist the facts to suit the politically expedient narrative.

In our personal lives we have all suffered the trauma of broken promises. These can range from the simple let-down or last-minute cancellation because a better offer has come along to much more serious offences, such as reneging on a promised debt repayment or backing out of an agreed deal, such as a car purchase or holiday house share. We have become wearily accustomed to the hair-raising manoeuvres that accompany many British house sales, when agreed prices are gazumped and purchasers, whose offer has been accepted, are dropped like hot potatoes because they have been trumped by a higher offer.

For all that we have become accustomed to broken promises, they are still highly destructive, and many friendships have been damaged because of the keen sense of betrayal they engender. Frequently, a broken promise is accompanied by a re-writing of the truth, which is an attempt to justify the action. At the most banal level, these may be trifling white lies to explain non-attendance at a social event, but this can easily escalate into much more serious fabrications, especially when the betrayal is on a bigger scale.

One way to stop this slow decline in standards of behaviour is to ensure that you are as good as your word and that you keep your promises. Never make a commitment you cannot keep, and always consider carefully before you do so. Do not let yourself be swept along by the heat of the moment – a sudden enthusiasm, a blasé belief that you can make it work, a refusal to recognise the difficulties that stand in your way. Never make a promise in the belief that, if all else fails, you can always back out. Take all commitments, big and small, with the utmost seriousness.

If you do find yourself in a situation where you feel you have no choice but to break your promise, do not resort to lies to justify your behaviour. Be scrupulously honest and take full responsibility for your shortcomings.

Being true to your word is the foundation of successful relationships, both personally and professionally. You will gain a reputation for reliability and integrity, and you will earn respect.

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