Write & Wrong Christmas is no time to take a holiday from the thank-you note, advises Protocol School founder Dorothea Johnson, for whom etiquette is a gift.

December 26, 1998|By LINELL SMITH | LINELL SMITH,SUN STAFF

In the long hard season of the thank-you note, the best thing about Santa is that he doesn't require one.

Never has. Never will. Never should, most people say.

Not so, says Dorothea Johnson, etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Washington. Long ago, when Johnson was a polite child growing up in Pinehurst, N.C., she always composed a Christmas appreciation to Santa. She always slaved over a note that mentioned every single gift he had brought her.

It's still the proper thing to do, she says. It's appropriate early training for what should become a lifelong reflex to express thanks in an artful way.

Does it count if you e-mail the jolly old elf?

"I don't think much of e-mailing a thank-you," Johnson replies. "But in this day and age, you do what you can. Everyone wants a quick fix, an easy way out. So if others choose to, fine.

"But in doing so, a child will lose his or her ability to practice penmanship. Although I don't think that penmanship is even taught much today. Nobody learns how to hold a pencil any more."

Johnson hails from a European background where precision in such matters was stressed.

"When we tell the children in our classes to pick up their forks and hold them like a pencil -- you wouldn't believe some of the positions they get into! Because most of them hold pencils any old way they choose, they have no concept of how to hold a fork or spoon."

She pauses. "And affluency has nothing to do with it."

Johnson has been in the etiquette biz for more than 40 years. Her school has trained and certified etiquette consultants throughout the country. At this point, the Protocol School has helped educate roughly 50,000 unintentional louts.

But much work remains.

"We are hearing terrible reports from all over the country that hostesses never receive thank-you notes," she says. "Thank-you notes are not only for children. Adults should write a thank-you note for any present they receive and any party they attend. If the host or hostess went to the expense of inviting and feeding and entertaining them, the very least they can do is reciprocate with a thank-you note."

There are many days when Johnson -- a busy woman by any

measure -- sits down to compose three or four heart-felt notes. Every year she pens a couple hundred -- at least.

"But my case is a little unusual," she chuckles. "If I didn't, people would say 'My word, to think that she's in the etiquette business and didn't even write a note!' "

The key to thank-you note success, she says, is the proper

production schedule.

"The longer the note's put off, the more elusive it becomes. For instance, we got a big box of peanut brittle in the office from a woman we know who makes her own. I wrote a thank-you note within an hour of its arrival.

"I was most impressed to learn what Charles Revson, the CEO of Revlon, does. Before he goes to a luncheon, the secretary will put the note card on his desk with a stamped envelope. Then he addresses the envelope before he goes to lunch and writes the note as soon as he gets back. It goes in the mail the same day.

"His system works like a charm! Everything is fresh in your memory: 'The salmon steak was delicious' or 'The dessert was heavenly.' The longer we put it off, though, it becomes stale. That is to say, one's enthusiasm."

Should a thank-you note ever allude to one's intention to exchange a gift?

A tactfully brief silence.

"I always thank the person as if it were the most cherished gift that one could ever get," Johnson answers. What happens after the note is written, however, is a different matter.

"There is absolutely nothing wrong with recycling a gift, but just make sure you don't give someone the gift they gave to you," she advises. "Even though I don't think I could ever make that mistake, I put little labels on each gift saying who it's from."

Johnson is a treasury of pleasant information, a woman with a genuine desire to show you which glass is for wine, and which for water. Her book, "The Little Book of Etiquette," has sold more than 100,000 copies.

"My former husband used to say that I was born an old lady!" she confesses. "I could go to an antique shop at the age of 5 with my mother and never create a problem. I was always interested in table settings. I'm in a business that is very natural to me."

Over the years, she has passed on her knowledge to her daughter, entertainment manager Bebe Buell, and to her 21-year-old granddaughter, actress Liv Tyler, a Generation-Xer who knows how to use finger bowls.

"Everyone mentions how mannerly Liv is," her grandmother says proudly.

To encourage the habit of writing thank-yous, Johnson started buying her granddaughter informal fold-over note cards from Tiffany's years ago. Her strategy seems to have worked.

"When she's overseas, Liv makes a point to call or send flowers," Johnson says. "Liv never forgets a favor that is done for her."

Yes, and even though Tyler is traveling so much these days, -- just imagine completing three movies in the last year! -- her grandmother is quite sure she keeps up with all of her thank-you notes.

Pub Date: 12/26/98

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