Healdsburg etiquette expert offers tips for peaceful holiday in strained times
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.”