For years, the wealthy have been attending schools where they are taught the art of being elegant. Known as finishing schools, they teach among other things when to give a business card when in Asia, which flowers to avoid when hosting a party, where to place bread when in a French restaurant or how to serve afternoon tea.
For about Sh1 million, well-heeled men and women can take part in two-weeks courses, with lessons covering the European art of dining and exploring. To study for an international etiquette protocol diploma course costs Sh2 million for six weeks, exclusive of accommodation and other costs.
Some of the classes include the art of drinking and serving champagne; the smaller the bubbles, the better the quality of champagne. They also learn floral art and table decoration.
On the list of their students are Africans who are incredibly affluent and interested in adopting a higher measure of quality of life.
Swiss finishing-schools were once the place to send well-connected girls who wanted to brush up on their French and spend time before they settled down. For example, Diana, Princess of Wales, attended Institut Alpin Videmanette, which is now closed.
These schools have reinvented themselves to now teach use of soft skills in businesses, office culture, social and business customs around the world.
Viviane Neri, the headmistress of Institut Villa Pierrefeu (IVP), a traditional finishing school in Switzerland spoke to BDLife on what men and women from families of presidents, prime ministers, sheikhs and business leaders are taught.
What is the art of polite conversation?
It is showing genuine, unobtrusive curiosity and sincere consideration for someone other than yourself. Polite conversation is used as a gateway for developing trust and possibly future conversations, and possibly meeting people with similar interests you might enjoy spending time with. In a polite conversation personal affairs (jobs, marital status, etc) are not mentioned until people have developed a relationship of trust and feel comfortable discussing these subjects. (Be aware this may never happen).
Moving, sitting, standing in a way that conveys confidence and elegance. Creating enough space for the internal organs, bones and muscles to move, sit and stand gracefully according to each individual’s physiognomy without tension. (Slouching, for example, crushes the digestive system, the lungs and the heart there is no way they or you can function at their best).
How does one choose a finishing school?
A school has its own facilities for boarding and teaching, as well as a structured programme of a certain duration. Today there are many so-called “Finishing schools” on the market that give their classes in hotels and do not go beyond a one-week programme. These are commercial organisations offering short seminars, not schools, and they just skim the surface of the subject of etiquette.
Why are finishing school institutions fallen off the radar?
Finishing schools were many until the 90s. They have disappeared for several reasons: lack of people (successors) to take over from the owners, expensive real estate, not adapting the curriculum to changing trends (teaching not only social etiquette but also business etiquette), not understanding the importance of the customs and etiquette of other cultures than just the European ones, a diminishing interest in doing a full-year course (people prefer shorter modules). There is also an attitude that good manners are simply common sense, so everybody already knows how to behave, many people do in their sphere, but acceptable behaviour is not universal.
What does it mean to dress in good taste?
For the outfit to be appropriate for the situation, the location and the type of event. To dress to suit the proportions of your body. Be aware that fashion and expense often have nothing to do with good taste.
How diverse are your students?
Out of 195 countries in the world, we have had students from 117 (and from 22 African countries). In each course about 16 different nationalities in a group of 30 students. Their professional or social background is also very diverse, ranging from businesswomen to daughters of industrialists, daughters or wives of heads of state or province to doctors, women who have saved the money to achieve life-long dreams. In the one-week themed seminars we now also have men who attend, eager to understand the diversity of customs their colleagues or customers might have and so as to be able to better communicate with them.
Does the course also focus on some of the African countries in regard to manners, cultural sensitivities etc?
We have the most know-how on Nigeria, South Africa and Northern Africa through the interaction with our students who are happy to share their knowledge and experiences, whenever there is a subject of general interest where there are many cultural variations, such as greetings, gift-giving, etc.
We also do a lot of research, emphasising the scope and size of Africa, its diversity, languages, ethnicities, religions, extended families, village life and city life, the sense of community and especially the role of African women (their style, strength and how they teach their children to respect their elders and to behave with a glance of an eye).
What are some of the most common mistakes made at dining tables? What are some of the tricky foods?
Unattractive posture, unpleasant sounds, using cutlery in a clumsy and inefficient way, using the tableware that is not your own, not contributing to the table conversation (or monopolising it) and using your phone in any way. Not to inform the host/hostess in advance about special diets and food requirements. Not being able to adapt to the situation, time and place.
What are some of the most common mistakes made by public and business leaders?
Believing that what has worked for them in their backyard will work in another country or culture. Or that because they are someone at home, that position will be automatically granted to them in the other country. Underestimating cultural differences and sensitivities, not “doing their homework “(getting information on history, customs, famous people) or not listening to the advice of the people around them who know these differences. The importance of time-keeping, whether a contract is binding or just the beginning of the negotiation).