Cradle of Civility
My roots are in the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The Assyrian Empire and its capital city, Nineveh, were destroyed in 612 B.C., and its language was Aramaic. My grandparents, Christian Assyrians, came to America in the 1950s, making heart-wrenching sacrifices to live in this country that my father recounts in his book, An Assyrian Dream: The Mirza Family Story. Their story is the American dream come true. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a specialized agency of the United Nations aimed at promoting world peace and security, now refers to Assyrians as an endangered population. Everyone embodies their history, and a civilization without “civility” cannot survive. Etiquette used to be the glue that held a society together, allowing people to coexist harmoniously. Some rules are painfully outdated, but most are relevant today. I learned that “actions speak louder than words” when I was 10 years old. A jet crashed into Farrell’s ice cream parlor in Sacramento, killing 12 children and 10 adults. Among them was my school friend, Elaine Jugum and her father, Louis. When my mother said we’d be going to the Jugum’s house to pay our respects, I resisted out of fear: it was my first experience with death. Mom had enormous empathy, and her frame of reference made clear the importance of placing yourself in another’s position during difficult times. As we walked back from Elaine’s home, my mother told me that sometimes you must do what you don’t want to, and then said, “what you wish upon others you wish upon yourself” – the emphatic formulation of the Golden Rule.
A Solid Foundation
My work in etiquette is foundational. I didn’t choose this career; it chose me. I discovered manners when our house was bursting with relatives. My mother taught me to be hospitable and to make sure that everyone was comfortable and provided for. Childhood memories bring back so much joy because our home was always full of life. We were the busiest house on the block: if we didn’t have 20 guests at our table, it wasn’t a party. My family gave me all the tools I needed to move through life with tenacity and resilience; they are at the core of my passion for etiquette and my anchor. I loved absorbing the exaggerated tales of a parade of colorful personalities. Their life lessons were simple: show compassion for others; the get is in the give; when you’re nice to people, they’re nice back. Initially, I thought I was lucky with people, but that luck came from my value system, which I took with me to Great Britain. Picture this: It’s 1983, and I’m standing in Room 6 at the British Museum in London in front of two colossal winged-bull statues. I had promised my mother I would visit the famous Assyrian exhibit during my university junior year abroad at Oxford. My roommate, Joyce, whispered that two women were staring at me. Without turning around, I knew they had to be Assyrian. They were, and for the next four months, Nina and her Assyrian family became my family. On weekends, I would take the train from Oxford to London to spend time with her and her husband, Colin. Their children were grown, but occasionally I would see their daughter Carrie. I was 5,000 miles from home, yet I felt an emotional pull to the charming woman who plucked me from a museum gallery and welcomed me into her home. The influence of my Assyrian heritage connected us and will always be central to my etiquette lessons.
When I was Director of Protocol for San Francisco Mayor Willie L. Brown, Jr., my job was to organize international trade missions and provide a wide range of protocol services for visiting dignitaries such as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama; President Bill Clinton; John F. Kennedy, Jr.; the prime ministers of Russia and Jamaica; the presidents of Brazil, Greece, the Philippines, and South Korea; Ambassador Pamela Harriman; and Pio Cardinal Laghi. On one such trade mission to San Francisco’s oldest sister city, Shanghai, our delegation hosted a dinner at the Shanghai library. The tablecloths that we brought with us were confiscated at the Beijing airport, and I had 48 hours to figure out how to get new ones made in time for the banquet. I didn’t speak Chinese, and no one around me spoke any English. After a moment of panic, I remembered what my mother said to me when I was thirteen years old. It was a Sunday afternoon, and I was working on a science project that I was having difficulty completing. I walked out of my bedroom in tears looking for sympathy, and that’s when she very calmly said that I could do it and that I needed to learn how how to solve problems on my own because one day I would be on my own. Thinking of that story at that very moment didn’t really surprise me because strength and courage were always the fabric of our family, even in the face of adversity. The next day, our new red tablecloths magically appeared, and after that experience, I knew there was nothing in life that I could not accomplish. After working for the mayor, I attended protocol school in Washington D.C., became a certified etiquette expert, and established LisaGrotts.com to conduct etiquette and protocol training. My clients included corporate and educational institutions such as BlackRock, KPMG, Oracle, Levi Strauss, American Airlines, Cornell University, University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford Hospital.
My parents gave me the best inheritance, but it wasn’t money. It was the inspiration to achieve my goals and aspirations, to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Candlestick Park at a Giants game, write a book on travel etiquette, pen a manners blog for HuffPost, and have a separate career in the non-profit world. For the past 20 years, I have shown appreciation for my good fortune by raising millions of dollars for nonprofit organizations, including the Assyrian Aid Society of America, California Pacific Medical Center, the Junior League of San Francisco, San Francisco Ballet, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design, San Francisco Suicide Prevention, and the San Francisco Symphony. Currently, I raise money for pediatric cancer and serve at the pleasure of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, who in 2019 bestowed upon me membership in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, a British order of chivalry founded by Queen Victoria in 1888. The priory’s mission is to provide financial support for the Saint John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital Group and maintain a volunteer service corps that serves veterans in the United States.
New Manners Movement
Etiquette is not about following rules only on important occasions. It’s important every day. Good manners are more than knowing how to fold a napkin. Good manners should exhibit a concern for others. My brand is good behavior; it’s a serious endeavor because I’m positively influencing people’s lives. Every person we meet reflects something back at us, and how we mirror that reflection speaks volumes about who we are. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novel Little House in the Big Woods gives us a glimpse into life on the American frontier. It teaches us family values including honesty, generosity, and kindness – important qualities that seem to be missing today. What matters most is your behavior and how you treat others. As the rules of etiquette evolve to serve new challenges, I offer observations and suggest constructive adjustments to what has guided us in the past.
In March of 2020, we fell asleep in one world and woke up in another. The paradigm of communication changed: a handshake became risky business, and “don’t stand so close to me” became polite. With the resilience of my background, when “life-quakes“ happen, I go to the positive quickly. The way that each of us face challenges shows who we are. When life came to a screeching halt, the Golden Rule required new ways of interacting. Keeping our distance, wearing masks, and getting vaccinated showed responsibility and concern for ourselves and others. COVID led us back to basics and made us realize what is important, even with frequent uncertainty. The rules haven’t changed, but there has been a shift in their priority. My napkins aren’t so starched because I haven’t been entertaining. Every day was a bad hair day when the salons were closed. As new rules take root and we adapt to changes, it’s clear to me that you must treat others as you want to be treated, think before you act or speak, and always be grateful, thankful, and appreciative. Most of all, “be kind, so you never have to rewind.” You might be uncomfortable in our new world, but you have everything to lose if you don’t know the new rules of behavior. It’s the foundation of where we come from and points to where we are headed.