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What is a Gentleman's Agreement?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A gentleman's agreement, more commonly “gentlemen's agreement” since presumably all parties involved are gentlemen, is an unwritten agreement. It is not legally binding and cannot be enforced in a court of law. Instead, the parties rely on the integrity and honor of participants in the agreement. This can sometimes backfire, and people are strongly advised to secure a legally binding agreement in lieu of an informal arrangement for their protection, as well as the protection of the other party.

The terms of a gentleman's agreement may be unstated, oral, or written. Writing down an agreement does not necessarily make it legally binding, as agreements need to meet certain terms to be considered legally binding contracts. The parties to the agreement reach a mutually acceptable arrangement and agree to trust each other to fulfill the terms. Such agreements were historically sealed with a handshake, a concept referenced when people “agree to shake on it” when deciding on the terms of an arrangement.

This term dates to the 1800s, when it was first used in the railroad industry in the United States, although the concept itself is much older. Informal agreements have determined everything from national sovereignty to ensuring that particular people get jobs. The gentleman's agreement has historically been criticized as a means of exclusion and sometimes such arrangements were used in highly abusive ways. One example could be seen in some regions of the United States historically when real estate agents informally agreed to discourage people of color from purchasing homes in white neighborhoods. By not openly stating or codifying the practice, real estate agents avoided running afoul of antidiscrimination laws.

In some cases, a gentleman's agreement can be a tool for facilitating a formal agreement at a later date or for streamlining proceedings. International organizations and other large groups may reach informal agreements while hashing out details. Taking time to write out and codify the agreement might be wasteful if everyone is in agreement; for example, people in a meeting could agree that people should not be allowed to speak for more than 10 minutes at a time to keep the meeting within a reasonable time limit.

The problem with a gentleman's agreement is that it is unenforceable, and if it is violated, the injured party has no legal recourse. For this reason, even when an agreement is made between friends, getting a legally binding contract is strongly recommended. For example, if someone agrees to rent a house to a friend, a standard lease contract could be used to generate a basic agreement to protect the friends in the event of a problem.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a SmartCapitalMind researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon990057 — On Apr 03, 2015

Unenforceable OK. However if this gentlemen's agreement is written and signed, did that make it somehow something you could use in a court of law ?

By Reminiscence — On Apr 23, 2014

I think some people enter into gentleman's agreement just because they don't see the need for anything more formal than that. My best friend from elementary school wouldn't dare skip out on a car payment, and my co-worker is a stand-up kind of guy. He wouldn't renege on a promise to return my motorcycle in good condition. Asking them to sign legal papers or contracts would seem wrong. But a lot of people have been burned by a gentleman's agreement, and they found themselves without a legal leg to stand on.

By Inaventu — On Apr 22, 2014

I think if you enter into any kind of gentleman's agreement, you should never forget how unenforceable it actually is. The best you can hope for is having some witnesses to the conversation or some electronic recording of the agreement. Integrity and honor are critical elements of a gentleman's agreement.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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