Five Questions with Lea Berman

Former White House Social Secretary Lea Berman is the co-author (with Jeremy Bernard, who was a White House social secretary under President and Mrs. Obama) of the upcoming book, “Treating People Well: The Extraordinary Power of Civility in Work and in Life”, out Jan. 9. Lea is also creative force behind America’s Table, a food and entertaining blog she writes from Washington, D.C. Earlier in her career she served as chief of staff to Lynne Cheney and was senior fellow in Latin American Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Lea joins us this month to talk about the book, entertaining at the holidays, and a White House “caper…worthy of an Ocean’s Eleven remake.”

Q: In Treating People Well, you and Jeremy write about the power of civility and social skills – in both professional and informal settings. What is the state of social skills in America today and what do you most want people to take away from your book?

Social skills are a reflection of our sensitivity to others. Our manners tend to mirror our values, and form a pattern of behavior that shapes an individual’s character. Democracy requires inclusiveness and cooperation to work effectively, so a lack of social skills has more of an impact on our society than you might think; they are an important civilizing influence. I do think we’re in a low point on the common decency spectrum, but our country has overcome more difficult things and I have faith that people will recognize how much more successful and productive we can be when treating others with respect and dignity.

If there’s one thing I’d like people to take away from our book, it’s that background, income or status do not serve as a substitute for treating people well, and no amount of celebrity or wealth gives anyone a free pass to treat others poorly.

Q: What can parents do to help their kids be more skilled in these areas – both while growing up and when it comes time for college visits and job interviews?

Kids learn how to get along in the world by observing their parents. We’re constant examples for them, and they emulate us sometimes without even realizing it. When a child sees a parent managing an angry confrontation with patience and humor, it gives them a practical lesson in how to handle that type of situation themselves. If they learn from early on to make eye contact when speaking to another person, shake hands and say hello, and listen politely and patiently to others, it becomes part of who they are – something they never need to think about because it’s natural for them. It’s harder than ever today to make children comfortable with other humans because they spend so much time in the digital world, but the ability to get along with people face to face is still a significant determinant of success in life. Those ‘people skills’ are valuable because they build confidence and make it easier to work successfully with others.

Q: What White House tips for entertaining around the holidays can you pass along to help make the season more special in our own homes?

I always remember what President Eisenhower said about the D-Day invasion: “…plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Make lists, delegate assignments so that everyone can feel a part of the Christmas fun, and don’t try to do too much. Perfection is overrated; take the time to savor the season and create a few special moments with family and friends – that’s what people remember. So much attention is always paid to the White House Christmas decorations each year, but what I remember most fondly about those times is the goodwill and sense of family we felt at those parties. Sure, everyone loved the eggnog and the Barney cookies, but what they remember is being welcomed warmly by the Bushes and being given that exceptional experience. We all have it in our power to think of the small but important details that create genuine connections with others, and it’s the most satisfying way I know to appreciate the holidays.

Q: Can you tell us a favorite story from your time as White House social secretary – maybe something that would be surprising?

I will always be amazed and amused by the lengths to which people would go to have a memento from the White House. It didn’t matter if it was the paper napkins with presidential seal from the buffet tables, the bathroom towels (which Barbara Walters took and then proudly displayed on The View the next morning,) or the gold place card holders at formal dinners. The best caper was worthy of an Oceans’ Eleven remake: At the White House Easter Egg Roll one year, a group of volunteers kept disappearing into the temporary lavatories for long periods of time. The head of the White House Visitors’ Office, Lindsay Reynolds, noticed the odd behavior and quietly followed them into the restroom to find they had been slipping dozens of the White House Easter eggs inside their clothes and then delivering them to the porta-potties, where hundreds of eggs were hidden in plastic lawn bags. Lindsay made a polite observation about the theft of federal property to the red-handed volunteers and they were escorted from the grounds without their cache of eggs. It was a premeditated conspiracy thwarted in the act - and there were fewer White House Easter eggs for sale on eBay that year.

Q: What did you learn from working with Mrs. Bush that most influenced you?

Mrs. Bush is one of those quietly hyper-competent people who manages many things so quickly and efficiently that we didn’t always understand how much she was doing until after it was done. She is tremendously productive and seems incapable of procrastination. This taught the rest of the East Wing to do the same just so that we could keep up! Her work ethic is tremendous, and I think it changed how all of us did our jobs. More than one former East Wing staffer has commented on the working style they developed in the White House and how well it prepared them to move forward in their careers. She set a standard of behavior in a quiet, friendly way that changed how I work with people now. Her example made me more patient and understanding, and gave me a broader perspective in approaching new or difficult things. I remain deeply grateful.