on Thursday, 12 13, 2012.Lisa Grotts is an etiquette consultant who splits her time living in San Francisco and Healdsburg, Thursday Dec. 14, 2012. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2012

Etiquette matters just as much today

Call her old-fashioned, but Lisa Grotts loves to give personalized stationery as gifts, particularly to kids.

You'd think that giving paper to kids born into a digital world, where handwriting is now a topic of debate in public schools, would be greeted with the same enthusiasm as a pair of socks.

But Grotts, a professional etiquette consultant who splits her time between homes in San Francisco and Healdsburg's Dry Creek Valley, finds that some kids get a kick out of the quaintly old-fashioned gift, one that was as common as cologne 40 years ago.

Grotts says the trick to getting children into the habit of writing thank-you notes is to select a paper that is fun, along with colorful pens. While stationery stores have almost vanished, a few, like Santa Rosa's Corrick's, survive and still sell fine paper. And infinite options are available online.

"I go through stationery," she says with a laugh, "like some people go through milk."

Paper is still the best tool for delivering a proper thank-you note. It should always be mailed within 24 hours of receiving a gift or attending a party, even if you already said thank you by email or phone, says the 49-year-old maven of manners, who came by her unusual profession heading up the Office of Protocol for the city of San Francisco. Working under then-Mayor Willie Brown, she facilitated events, served as liaison for foreign consulates and hosted dignitaries and heads of state, from princes to prime ministers.

The job taught her not only the rules of etiquette, but why they matter.

Her mission now is to preserve, protect and defend the endangered social niceties in an increasingly coarse culture. Manners may seem anachronistic to the unschooled, she maintains, but they really serve the important function of putting people at ease, whether it's a party or a professional gathering.

"We have rules for everything we do," she said. "We have rules for stoplights. We have rules for balloting."

Knowing the ABCs of social behavior can make one less nervous and more confident, she said. And good manners are not predicated on someone's bank balance. A poor man can be polite and a rich man a boor. Grotts recalls sitting with a wealthy and well-known mogul at a formal dinner who was so confused by all his forks that he asked the server to remove them.

A liberal arts major at the University of the Pacific who grew up in Sacramento, Grotts is hired by private companies, corporations, agencies and organizations to give group workshops on good behavior. Her clients have included American Airlines, Microsoft, The Ritz-Carlton, Stanford University and The Screen Actors Guild.

For the masses curious about the social graces, she blogs for The Huffington Post, exploring how to act in every setting imaginable from the day spa to the elevator.

The holidays can be an especially tricky time, as people are thrown into a thicket of social gatherings fraught with expectations and tender, sometimes tenuous family ties. Knowing a few practical rules of etiquette, however, can promote peace.

Keep the Conversation Light: Everyone knows to avoid politics and religion as topics at social gatherings. But you also don't want to open up issues of health, office problems, or really anything that will invite awkwardness or hurt feelings, or make people feel as if they'd gotten too much information.

"Keep the conversation light enough to stay in the ballpark and move on to the next guest," she says. Good topics include the weather, movies, possible friends in common.

If You Spill at a Party: "Own up to it and offer to reimburse the host for damage."

RSVP In a Timely Fashion: There's a practical reason to do this ASAP. Hosts need a head count so they know how much food and drink to prepare.

Tipping: The general rule of thumb for a Christmas acknowledgment to your hairdresser, housekeeper, etc., is the equivalent of one full service. If you can't swing that, give something homemade.

Put People at Ease: If you're hosting, make sure you take your guest's coat, point out the food and introduce them to someone in the room they may have something in common with to get the mingling going.

Don't Be Picky: If you are a dinner guest, eat what you are served. Unless you have a food allergy, don't make an issue of your diet restrictions. Be discreet if you must and leave on the plate what you don't want.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 521-5204.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


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