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Newport Manners & Etiquette: Mr. Trump’s Thank-You Notes, Small Talk + Dating

Wednesday, March 15, 2017


History will be recorded in part by Mr. Trump's correspondence, how to make small talk, how to repair a broken date and showing respect for the First Lady, were all topics to Didi Lorillard this week at NewportManners.

Showing respect to your spouse

Q.  Wondering about the good manners between the president and the first lady, what do you think of these photos? Why did Trump leave Melania behind?  Name Withheld


A. Let's all hope for the sake of manners and etiquette that the above behavior doesn't set a precedent. Below, you'll see two photos taken eight years earlier of the Bushes greeting the Obamas for the same traditional coffee at the White House prior to the inauguration.

Our entire political system, as well as our system of government, are architectural structures based on manners and etiquette. They allow us to go on living with one another in civilized ways, whatever our views. The alternative is not attractive.

Three strikes and you're out

Q.  A colleague and fellow scholar contacted me about getting together on what seemed like a quasi date. I say quasi because it was a professional event to which he was buying the tickets. 

At the last moment I let him know that I couldn't keep the date because of a family emergency, and that I wouldn't be meeting him outside the event space. I've since tried several times to connect with him, because I would really like us to spend time together. However, he is not answering my emails. I've now sent him two suggesting we meet up. In both I apologized for being a no-show. How long do I wait before contacting him again. Should I even keep trying?   Katherine, Washington, DC


A.  Cease after the third strike. Your quasi-suitor may have been personally offended by your not showing up for a date to which he had bought tickets. His ego may be bruised. Does he feel you stood him up? 

It didn't sound like the kind of event where he could hawk your ticket outside the auditorium, so he probably took a loss. Not responding in a timely fashion to your two followup emails that attempted to make amends may be his way of protecting himself from being stood up again. 

You can always take a third chance. Buy tickets to a professional event, or a concert or play, and invite him to join you, or you could ask him to meet you at an art opening or exhibition. If your prior behavior left him feeling that he had been teased, your taking the lead may perk his interest. Should you not hear from him in a week, forget it. Invite someone else.

Manners for small talk

Q. As much as I dearly love my wife and can even tolerate her friends, I agonize over small talk. Most of her friends are amusing, but not intellectual. Any suggestions for easing my stress over having to make small talk?  PW, Hills, NJ


A. My experience has been that people with the best manners are genuinely interested in whom they are presently talking. Curious to know how other people spend their time, they invariably ask questions in order to get to know them better. 

  • One of the secrets to being a good politician is being able to engage in "Only You" attention.

Being curious is not necessarily asking about their job level, salary, pedigree, or where they went to school.

  • Look for ways to connect through common interests that include: sports, travel, movies, restaurants, hobbies, children, pets, astronomy, history, literature, etc.
  • Studies show that connecting through a common interest eventually leads to deeper conversation about business and relationships.


One study of the habits of rigorist cyclists found that their bond over cycling had the same effect as playing golf does on older generations in forging business and social connections.

People with good manners are generally indefatigable listeners.

  • The president with good manners listens.
  • Lyndon Johnson didn't like listening to people in social settings. According to biographer Robert Caro, LBJ would doze off at dinner parties and would only revive if he had the floor.

The person with manners doesn't make people squirm.

  • Nixon was clueless regarding manners witnessed by the horrible jokes he told at parties: "Why did the farmer bring the bucket of shit into the living room?" Answer: "Because he wanted to keep the flies out of the kitchen." There was dead silence; guests squirmed.

The person with manners doesn't use crudity or profanity.

Nixon and Kennedy, who were both Navy men, used a lot of profanity privately.

  • LBJ used crudity as an elaborate and interesting social tool, according to journalist Lance Morrow.
  • Carter never used profanity.
  • Regan, a known jokester, liked to make innocent dirty jokes.


The person with manners is good at small talk because s/he is curious and listens.

  • Nixon was clueless about manners and had no small talk at all.
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt apparently was a genius at making small talk.


The very phrase "small talk" suggests to most of us that the subject is superficial, unimportant, and not of great interest. But small talk can lead to big talk.


Shy, introverted people or those with social anxieties find small talk empty, whereas those who are more socially confident take great sport in bantering back and forth -- for instance, who knows who and who knows who better.

  • In fact, having the gift of making small talk may be a valuable life skill that enriches and enforces relationships.
  • Small talk can be used to set boundaries with someone you really don't want to be with. The object of course is to make them go away.
  • When you're in the midst of an enthusiastic conversation, the energy can be seductive.


Mr. Trump's correspondence

Q. If Donald Trump is so rude, crude and arrogant in his tweets and in public, one wonders what kind of personal letters and thank-you notes he writes? Are we to take these quotes literally or figuratively?  Arlene, Detroit, MI


A.  We know that Ronald Reagan wrote extraordinarily kind and thoughtful notes. Apparently even his thank-you notes made the recipients feel special. These heartfelt notes were not merely penned to important celebrities but also to ordinary people like you and me. The way you treat people who are not rich or famous inevitably indicates how you manage your manners.

George H.W. Bush also had extraordinarily good manners and wrote touching notes. Indeed, his biographer calls him "The Last Gentleman." As Jon Meacham points out in DESTINY AND POWER: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush, President Bush "garbled" his words, "His verbal exploits could be awkward and often confusing." Similar to Mr. Trump's garbled wording. But, supposedly, "Letters afforded him the opportunity to put his thoughts down in a more sustained and coherent way." Meacham suggests that looking at Bush 41's notes and the good manners they reflect reveal the essence of the best of the old wasp manners. 

Mr. Trump garbles his words and the jury is still out on his manners. Bush 41, who could be a tough guy, is known for "Read my lips. No new taxes." What will Mr. Trump be known for? History will have saved his words for us to read in biographies.


Didi Lorillard researches manners and etiquette at NewportManners.


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