Well Mannered

A grandmother’s lessons shaped the person her granddaughter became.

Photograph courtesy of Carter Smith.

For more than four decades, Dorothea Johnson taught etiquette, many of those years in Washington, DC, where she lived and honed in on the large diplomatic corps, as well as the vast professional landscape of the city’s denizens. She eventually opened the Protocol School of Washington in 1988, which still exists to this day, where she focused on image, social skills, business acumen, and good manners, along the way becoming one of the country’s most sought-after experts. Johnson’s credo: It’s better to know proper etiquette and not need it than to need it and not know it—just one of many lessons she passed along to her granddaughter, actress Liv Tyler. “My grandmother was very influential in my life; the things she taught me made a deep and lasting impression on the woman I am today, both personally and professionally,” says Tyler, now mom to Milo, nine. “The way she engaged me was unique because I didn’t know she was teaching me; I was having fun.”

The two often spent time in Washington, where a young Tyler joined her grandmother on trips to the theater, shopping excursions, museum visits, restaurant outings, and social events. “I could fill dozens of pages with my wonderful memories of Washington,” Tyler says, recalling their adventures here. “It is such a beautiful and important city, unlike any other. I’m due for a visit.”

Late last year Johnson and Tyler celebrated the publication of Modern Manners: Tools to Take You to the Top, a serious yet user-friendly manual they penned with tips and insight on everything from phone etiquette and business attire to crafting a cover letter and being a guest at a dinner party. “I found that if I knew the most formal way of doing things in my day-to-day life, I could always scale down to a more casual way, if needed,” explains Johnson, who now lives in Maine. “But if I only knew a casual way, it would be more difficult, if not impossible, to scale up to a more formal way.”

The book is a combined effort between grandmother and granddaughter, a professional accomplishment brought about by an abiding personal connection. “She taught me so much, but one of the most important lessons was to always treat people with kindness and respect; it has a sort of boomerang effect that seems to be contagious,” says Tyler. Johnson, for her part, is already on to the next generation. “I’m happy to report that Liv has passed along her good manners to Milo. He always asks permission and says ‘thank you’ when it is given; he has a great handshake and good eye contact.” We wouldn’t expect anything less.