What does it mean to be gentle? You may recognize it as the handling of adversity with a calm attitude, or in the soft nature of how we interact with others. However, we know almost nothing about gentleness from a scientific perspective. Gentleness has been a relatively popular topic in Christian circles and among theologians. But, not among scientists. And not among many other belief systems.
A science of gentleness would be off to a good start with a strong definition of what gentleness is and a validated measurement tool to assess it.
In order to support that, I'll offer some hypotheses about the character strengths that might encompass this strength called gentleness. It's likely that gentleness is a compound character strength, or a character strength constellation. This refers to characteristics that cannot be boiled down to a single strength or construct (which is one of the main criteria set forth by scientists when creating the comprehensive VIA Classification of character strengths). Instead, the strength seems to reflect multiple strengths together (a model of 1 + 1 + 1 = 3, or close to 3 as no combination will perfectly capture all the nuances of a multi-layered construct). Other compound character strengths, if you follow the science, include mindfulness, grit, respect, patience, responsibility, the propensity to apologize, encouragement, and tolerance.
Let's attempt to understand gentleness as a compound strength within the lens of this VIA Classification. Gentleness involves being down to earth (humility), having a quiet ego (humility), being quick to let things go (forgiveness), having a soft and supportive demeanor (kindness), and being oriented toward the other (kindness). Hence, my perspective is gentleness fits under the virtues of humanity and temperance and is captured by the primary character strengths of humility, forgiveness, and kindness.
Of course, gentleness is more than those three. There are a few secondary character strengths to consider. Gentle people seem to be empathic and grounded with their emotions (social intelligence), offer deep tenderness for others (love), as well as a high degree of openness/receptivity (judgment or curiosity).
To be sure, we can keep going and filter through virtually any of the character strengths as we consider a versatile construct like gentleness. We can be gentle with our curious questioning of a friend. We can be gentle with an injured bird resting in our hand (appreciation of beauty). And, we can be gentle with ourselves as we face our fears (bravery).
Perhaps gentleness is the ultimate "other-oriented strength"? Those who are the "gentle souls" (and we all know some) are the ones who softly walk from place to place, sweetly and humbly attend to anyone they encounter, and are so soft and light that they don't carry the baggage from the last interaction. They left that far behind.
Gentleness matters. It's time to elevate it in research and practice.