August 13, 2001 12:00 PM

Even as a boy growing up in rural Slapout, Ala., John Bridges was shocked by bad manners. “Kids would giggle in church and I would think, ‘That’s a rude thing to do when people are trying to pay attention,’ ” says Bridges (who asked for—and received—etiquette books for Christmas from his teacher mother and car-salesman father). “I would be alarmed at how poorly behaved other kids were, because that was never a possibility in our household.”

When he grew up and realized many adults’ manners weren’t much better, he set out to change things. Now director of cultural affairs for Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, Bridges, 51, is also the author of three guides to better behavior (the last two cowritten with publishing executive Bryan Curtis): How to Be a Gentleman, A Gentleman Entertains: A Guide to Making Memorable Occasions Happe and the new As a Gentleman Would Say: Responses to Life’s Important (and Sometimes Awkward Situations. “The basic rules of good manners are the same for everyone,” he says, “but most etiquette books are aimed at women. I wanted to write something that would be user-friendly and relevant to the life guys live.”

A graduate of Lipscomb University in Nashville who held various jobs in journalism before landing his current gig in 1999, Bridges says he has “a reputation for knowing how to behave.” (Case in point: Although he is single and lives alone in a one-bedroom condo, he wouldn’t dream of leaving the toilet seat up.) Not that he hasn’t learned a thing or two from writing his books: “I used to make scenes and put myself at the center of all activities. But the less of a jerk I’ve become, the easier my life has become.” Bridges discussed the dos and don’ts of gentlemanly behavior with correspondent Lauren Comander.

What is a gentleman?

Gentlemanliness is not about which fork to use or what to wear. I have stuff in my books about that kind of thing, but that’s not the basic principle. A gentleman is a man who thinks of others and puts himself in the other person’s place. He’s someone people like to be around, who knows things like, “Don’t drink milk out of the carton if there are other people in the house.”

Is it just men who need to work on their manners?

I also see women who interrupt other people’s conversations, who have terrible driving manners, who talk loudly in movie theaters, who are rude about the service in restaurants.

Can rude men transform themselves into gentlemen?

Oh yes. I believe there’s a gentleman gene in every male; it just has to be tapped—although it can be harder to reach for some people than others. Many men truly want to behave well, but they think they don’t know how. For example, men are honestly in a quandary about whether they should open the door for a woman, pay for dinner on the first date and so on.

Okay, let’s clear it up. In those instances, what’s a guy to do?

I’ve yet to find a woman who says, “I don’t want a man to open the door for me.” He shouldn’t do it in a condescending way—like, ‘Hey, little lady, let me get that door for you’—but there’s nothing wrong with doing something nice for somebody. As for who pays for dinner, I think whoever has done the inviting on the date should at least offer.

What other etiquette issues do modern men have to contend with?

Cell phones have created special challenges. I find it astounding how people abuse the privilege of having them. My rule of thumb: Never talk on a cell phone in a restaurant. I can’t imagine anything ruder to the people you are with.

Also, men today don’t always have a woman to guide them in matters of etiquette—how to write a sympathy note, how to say thank you. These things used to be taken care of by the woman in the relationship. Years ago a man wouldn’t have had to figure out what to say, for example, to a coworker who has had a miscarriage.

What should he say?

You say, “I’m sorry. Are you doing okay? I’ve been thinking about you.” Don’t ask probing questions. My rule in general is to keep it simple. It’s the same with any grieving person: Just “I’m sorry” is a real good thing to say, not “If I can do anything, let me know.” It’s not the grieving person’s responsibility to call you and ask for help. You should be thinking about them. Again, it’s consideration—that’s what makes a gentleman.

Are today’s parents raising their sons to be gentlemen?

In general, I think there’s a revived awareness of manners, but I also think there’s a whole generation of kids who don’t have respect for other people. Kids need to be taught not to interrupt, to stand in line and wait their turn.

If you had a son, what would you tell him about the importance of being a gentleman?

It will get you through life much more easily and conveniently. People will want to be around you more. It’ll keep your stress level down. It’ll get you invited to parties—and invited back.

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