Healdsburg etiquette expert offers tips for peaceful holiday in strained times

Lisa Grotts, a professional manners consultant, offers tips for the multitude of holiday occasions ahead.|

The holidays are fraught with challenges in terms of putting your best foot forward - and not putting your foot in your mouth.

Navigating through the perilous gauntlet of cocktail party chatter and dinner check debates, gift-wrapping marathons and tipping dilemmas can be exhausting and bewildering.

Enter Lisa Grotts, a professional etiquette consultant who divides her time between homes in Healdsburg and San Francisco. No-nonsense and down-to-earth, this maven of manners served as director of protocol under then-Mayor Willie Brown and offers a wealth of practical advice for our high-tech, low-contact world, where courtesy has become somewhat of a lost art.

“We are all glued to our PDAs (personal digital assistants) when an interpersonal conversation now and again wouldn’t hurt, just to sharpen our communication skills,” she said. “Without face-to-face communication, we don’t always realize how much body language conveys meaning.”

The holidays can be an especially difficult time for communication, with everyone’s nerves wound as tightly as a ballerina’s toe shoe. Dad’s cursing the Christmas tree stand, your brother’s arguing about politics and the kids are fighting over who gets seconds on the pumpkin pie.

Here are her tips for getting through the top 10 holiday hurdles while keeping your home life peaceful, calm and bright.

Hassle-free thank-you gifts

Grotts keeps a stocked gift closet full of gifts so she doesn’t have to run out and hunt for a hostess gift at the last minute.

“I buy things all year long - anything that looks like a friend of mine, I will pick up,” she said. “That way you can just go in and pull.”

Instead of the usual candles, soap and wine, however, she prefers to give something homemade and edible, like pickles, jams or pesto.

“People love that,” she said. “I’ll put the pesto with some pasta in a basket - here’s your dinner.”

Home decor items are tricky, because your taste may not match someone else’s taste. Instead, she suggests giving a gift for the pets or children in the family, to keep them occupied.

For stocking stuffers, she likes to shop at the Dollar Tree for fun items such as holiday note cards that can double as thank you notes, Hershey’s Kisses, gloves, socks, glitter markers, felt pens, car chargers and sunglass cases.

Gifting no-nos: Although some people dislike gift cards, Grotts said it’s OK if you give them a card to a store that you know they like, such as Anthropologie or Crate & Barrel.

She heartily endorses the idea of re-gifting, as long as you avoid certain pitfalls, such as giving a bottle of wine back to the person who gave it to you. (To avoid that, keep a list of everyone who has given you wine.)

“I say regift without fear but never to the same social circle in case that person finds out,” she said. “Don’t give a book inscribed to someone else and do not regift a gift card - that’s tacky - especially if you don’t know how much is left on it.”

Her rule of thumb for gifts: “You always want to give a gift that you would want and want someone else to have.”

Wrapping like a pro

Grotts used to love wrapping as a kid, but as a busy adult? Not so much. To make the chaotic chore easier, she keeps plastic bins stocked with wrapping paper, scissors, tape, tissue, stickers and tags, most of which she buys at the Dollar Tree.

“You can keep a used bag if it doesn’t have a written tag,” she said. “But buy fresh tissue paper.”

Always buy wrapping paper, ribbon and gift tags in bulk and tissue paper in all colors. Gift bags with clever sayings on them are also a good bet.

Are you into recycling? Try using dish towels, wallpaper, fabric remnants, old maps or newspapers, but make sure you tie them up with some fabric ribbon, not plastic.

“French ribbon has thin wires on both sides so you can make free-form bows that stay in place,” she said.

Wrapping no-nos: Don’t use old tissue paper, torn wrapping paper or bags that are ripped.

Dreaded thank-you note

Like the canary in the coal mine of manners, the handwritten thank-you note has become nearly extinct. And yet, for very little effort, Grotts said, it can reap great rewards in the business as well as personal world.

“We can never say thank you enough,” Grotts said. “E-notes are fine, but follow it up with a hard copy. It takes three minutes to write three lines. That sets you apart and makes you stand out.”

If you give a thoughtful gift to a young person and don’t get a thank-you note in return, Grotts suggests letting the parents know.

“This has to be learned at home,” she said. “Parents have to reinforce it.”

Another tactic that Grotts suggests: Give personalized stationery and custom pens to young people, to make the thank-you-note duty more fun.

Pointers on tipping

When thinking about giving gratuities to your steady and reliable helpers, you should consider the frequency and quality of their service, your relationship to the person and of course and your own budget. But remember, although it’s the thought that counts, folks in the service industry do not make a lot of money.

“You give a tip equal to one service, whether it’s the housekeeper, the haircutter or the dog walker,” she said. “If you cannot afford that, then bake cookies.”

If you are tipping your babysitter, it’s also nice to include a handmade gift from your child.

Entertaining on a budget

For entertaining at home, Grotts suggests holding dinner parties with six to eight guests, because parties of 10 to 12 are too loud and no one can have a conversation. Make sure your invite clearly states what it is - cocktails or dinner - as well as the who, what, where, when and why.

Keep the menu simple: serve one to two appetizers, followed by the usual three courses: soup or salad, entrée and dessert.

“Seating is more important than the food,” Grotts said. “Never seat family next to family, and seat a talkative person with a quiet person.” (the exception: keep couples who are dating or newlyweds together.)

Instead of place names, Grotts like to buy small picture frames from the Dollar Tree, filled with photos from magazines of famous people who resemble her guests. That turns the seating chart into a fun, guessing game for guests.

Keep conversation light

“There is a reason we don’t talk politics or religion at the holidays,” she said. “No one agrees on them.”

If someone else brings it up? Acknowledge their comment but quickly change the subject to something neutral, like the latest films, new restaurants, mutual friends or holiday travel plans, she said.

“To engage in small talk, one does not need to have an in-depth conversation,” she said. “A successful encounter requires only a few well-chosen, friendly words and good eye contact. Ask the other person about him- or herself.”

But stay away from questions of a private nature. Among the questions never to ask at a cocktail party: “Are you sick?” “I didn’t know you were pregnant - when are you due?” “Are you married?”

If you are looking for a conversation starter, she suggests: “What are some of your interests?”

And if you feel moved to offer a holiday toast, keep in mind the three Bs: begin, be brief and be seated. And don’t clink your silverware on your glass: simply lift it up and loudly ask for everyone’s attention.

Are holiday cards relevant?

Like our beloved bookstores, the traditional holiday card refuses to die. About 90 percent of people surveyed by The Stationary Studio in 2017 planned to send some kind of holiday card, whether it be digital or a custom card printed with photos.

“Paperless cards are fine … and photo cards are lovely,” Grotts said. “But you still need to write something personal on there … there’s nothing worse than a holiday card with a blank message.”

If you are uncertain whether the recipient celebrates Christmas, stick to a neutral greeting, such as Happy Holidays or Peace on Earth.

If you feel the urge to write a “holiday newsletter,” she suggests sending it only to close friends and family who care, not acquaintances.

“I cannot take the form letters,” she said. “People do it, and people don’t ever read them. Now, with social media, who needs those letters?”

Picking up holiday check

Whether your friends and family fight over the bill or tactlessly ignore it, both can lead to awkward moments at the end of a festive meal.

To avoid sticky situations, Grotts suggests discussing the issue ahead of time, so that everyone knows if the group will split the bill down the middle, or if someone will host.

“If you invite someone, you host it,” she said. “But do tell them ahead of time to avoid confrontation.”

And to the ladies, she stressed that days of asking for separate checks are over.

“It’s a pain for the servers, and some restaurants won’t do it at all,” she said. “Be gracious … and don’t worry about the amount you owe being unfair or unequal.”

The one exception? If you want to order an expensive wine, tell the group ahead of time that it will be on a separate bill that you will pick up.

Dining mistakes

Whether you’re at a restaurant or a party, you don’t want to make a faux pas that will raise eyebrows, or worse, make other guests lose their appetite. One of Grotts’ big pet peeves is when people use their napkin as a Kleenex.

“That’s a no-no,” she said. “Just excuse yourself and go to the ladies’ or men’s room. But don’t be gone too long.”

What if you finish your plate and are still hungry?

“Never request seconds but accept them graciously if offered,” she said.

What if you want French fries but they’re not offered?

“Never ask for foods that are not offered by your host,” she advised.

Minding your Ps and Qs

A little dining etiquette knowledge goes a long way when kids are dining in restaurants or in someone else’s home, but not all the rules are intuitive. Here are a few pointers:

When is it OK to start eating? “Wait until everyone is seated … or until your host gives the OK,” she said.

How much food should I take? “Take small portions when serving yourself,” she said. “You can always have seconds … and do take small bites when eating.”

How do you pass foods around the table? “Pass foods, bread, salt and pepper to the right - the salt and pepper travel together,” she said. “Don’t use salt and pepper until you first take a bite of food. It may already have the perfect amount of seasoning.”

You cvan reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.

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