Yesterday a lady told me, “I like men who are gentlemen. Until it’s time for them not to be.”

Well crap. I’m confused enough about this gentleman thing without having to figure out when it’s time to stop being one. It’s like saying, “I like freezers that make ice. Until it’s time for them to stop making ice. And I’m not going to tell the freezer when to stop making ice, or what it should start making instead. Maybe the freezer should start making bran muffins. Yeah, let it try that, and then I’ll tell the freezer whether more bran muffins are really what we need around here.”

My parents never told me what it means to be a gentleman. I think they were too busy paying bills and fixing whatever I broke, insulted, or destroyed. So I just watched my dad and figured I was seeing the gentleman thing in action. I carried those nuggets of gentlemanly behavior with me out of childhood, and when I set off on my young man’s life I forgot every one of them. Who needs to be a gentleman when you can drink 160 proof punch, mumble at girls in a language that doesn’t exist, and puke indiscriminately?

When I outgrew all that, I found myself puzzled about gentlemanly behavior. I did some research. No joking. I discovered that a gentleman did things like hold chairs, hold doors, and hold purses for his lady. He would kiss her hand, kiss her forehead, kiss the back of her neck, and kiss her nose. He would be confident, be humble, be polite, and be willing to punch somebody for her. He would dress well, but not better than her. He would never keep her waiting, but he’d be okay if she kept him waiting. He’d never forget anniversaries or birthdays, and of course he’d learn to play the guitar.

There was a lot more like that.

The thing bothered me about these recitations of gentlemanly behaviors was that all of them are directed at the object of the gentleman’s matchless love. It seemed as if being a gentleman, as opposed to being just a man, springs from how a man treats the woman he loves. That seemed unlikely to me. I figured there were about six billion people on the planet. Am I a gentleman because of how I treat one of them, or because of how I treat 5,999,999,999 of them?

I thought about that for a while, and I tried to separate being a man from being a gentleman. A male human can be a man without being a gentleman. I do not cling to any doubts about that. I’ve known a lot of honest, courageous, faithful, and generous men, enough to demolish all the hot wings a large sports bar—but many of them were not gentlemen. (And by the way, when did it become okay to charge seven bucks for a plate of chicken parts that we used to throw away?)

So you can be a man without being a gentleman, but you can’t be a gentleman without being a man. That’s axiomatic. I think maybe Pythagoras even said it, or one of those other ancient smart fellows. And if that’s true, then I can only be a gentleman if I do something extra, something more than the things required to be a man. Something I can do for everyone I meet, and not just for the woman with whom I share saliva.

A list of those things might be pretty long. I could give everyone I meet a puppy, or a popsicle, or a t-shirt that says “Kiss Me If You Have A Strong Immune System.” I could tell them a joke. I could refrain from singing them a song. I could compliment them on one of their entirely unexceptional physical features. I could give them a massage in a way that’s friendly, and not like an unwashed creep with baggy trousers and an under bite. I could do all those things, but what I’m really looking for is a unifying principle for being a gentleman. What is the theme here?

I thought back to my dad and tried to remember if he gave everybody something. It couldn’t have been much, because his Sears credit card was generally charged to the limit. He didn’t tell jokes or give compliments, and he sure as hell didn’t give massages. He gave us a puppy once, which is a point in his favor. It was a toy poodle as dumb as a chunk of excrement and mean as a snake, so I’ll take that point right back.

I only remember one thing that my dad gave everybody. He did whatever he needed to do to make everybody around him feel comfortable. Even safe. No matter who he was with, they didn’t need to worry about being embarrassed, or left out, or the point of someone else’s joke. He didn’t try to make them happy. In fact, it’s impossible to make some people happy. But they could feel respected, even if they weren’t too respectable themselves when you got down to it. They might even feel that nothing horrible could happen to them right then, because my dad had banned horrible from the room. As a boy, I felt safe when I heard him snoring in his bedroom. If I heard him snore today, I’m sure everybody around would feel safe too.

A gentleman does whatever he needs to do to help the people around him feel comfortable. That’s my working definition. So when in the name of Gregory Peck is it time to stop being a gentleman? I suppose that would be when it’s time for people to stop feeling comfortable. I can think of two times that would be true.

You don’t want people to feel comfortable when they’re about to hurt somebody, and you don’t want them to feel comfortable when they’re about to hurt themselves. If someone is kicking his dog, or screaming at his spouse, then maybe it’s time for the gentleman in you to take a break. And if someone is throwing back his twelfth Wild Turkey shot, or committing professional suicide by doing something rude in his boss’s desk drawer, the gentleman in you should go outside, smoke a cigarette, and play with his iPad.

“I like men who are gentlemen. Until it’s time for them not to be.” When that lady expressed this astounding observation to me, I asked her how a man was supposed to figure out such a thing. She suggested that I might need a flow chart. Well, this isn’t a damned flow chart, but at least now I have something to go by. And now that I think about it, there may be a third situation in which the time arrives to stop being a gentleman. Sometimes the gentleman in you ought to stop outside the bedroom door while the rest of you goes on inside. Everyone’s better off if he hangs out in the living room and plays Wii for a while. I may run that concept past that lady and see what she says.