Haute man­ners

Learn­ing to master good man­ners, strict eti­quette, and how to avoid ‘fa­tal’ faux pas.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Living - By NINA LARSON

EIGHT women sit primly around an elab­o­rately set ta­ble mak­ing pleas­ant small-talk about the weather, as im­mac­u­lately starched wait­ing staff stand at the ready.

But as one of the servers steps for­ward hold­ing a sil­ver soup tureen with white­gloved hands, an in­struc­tor helps her ad­just the an­gle of the bowl to make sure the la­dle is fac­ing the diner.

And a sec­ond tu­tor whis­pers in the ear of another diner to lower her el­bow as she brings the spoon to her mouth.

The women are not at a fancy restau­rant or a high-end so­cial club, but at Switzer­land’s last fin­ish­ing school, learn­ing to master good man­ners, strict eti­quette and how to avoid a fa­tal faux pas.

“I re­alise now that I have been mixing the French style of eat­ing with the Bri­tish style,” says In­sti­tut Villa Pier­refeu stu­dent Heba, ask­ing that her last name not be given.

With some em­bar­rass­ment, the 34-yearold Egyp­tian na­tional ex­plains that she had placed her knife on her plate even though she had not used it dur­ing her meal – a no-no in French din­ing eti­quette.

Heba is among 30 stu­dents from 14 dif­fer­ent coun­tries tak­ing an in­ten­sive Pier­refeu sum­mer course, last­ing ei­ther three or six weeks, and of­fer­ing classes like in­ter­na­tional busi­ness eti­quette, flo­ral art, and staff man­age­ment.

Not all princesses

The stu­dents are a di­verse crowd, ac­cord­ing to Vi­viane Neri, who took the reins of the school in 1972 – nearly two decades af­ter her mother founded it.

“Ob­vi­ously we have daugh­ters of pres­i­dents and princesses, but those are def­i­nitely not the ma­jor­ity,” she says, her warm smile off­set­ting the strict­ness of her im­pec­ca­ble at­tire.

“We also have peo­ple who save money to fi­nance their stay be­cause ... they re­alise that this will give them ex­tra knowl­edge that very few peo­ple have,” she says.

It is not cheap. De­pend­ing on the for­mula cho­sen, a six-week course, with ex­ams and board at the school’s ma­jes­tic manor houses, can cost close to 30,000 Swiss francs (RM130,000).

The cur­rent stu­dents, aged be­tween 18 and 50 and rang­ing from pro­fes­sional busi­ness­women to doc­tors and house­wives, do not re­veal their last names to each other to en­sure equal treat­ment.

Half a cen­tury ago, the stu­dents at In­sti­tut Villa Pier­refeu, which over­looks the pic­turesque town of Mon­treux, were among thou­sands at­tend­ing a plethora of fin­ish­ing schools dot­ting the hills around Lake Geneva.

Back then it was com­mon for girls and young women from wealthy, up­per-class fam­i­lies to at­tend so-called “charm schools” to pol­ish their man­ners and so­cial graces.

Bri­tain’s late Princess Di­ana was among the fa­mous alumni of since shut­tered fin­ish­ing schools in this area.

Ashamed, post-1968

But to­day, Pier­refeu is the only one left, af­ter the in­dus­try was dec­i­mated by the 1968 stu­dent rev­o­lu­tion – there were protests around the world against the sta­tus quo, and usu­ally serene Switzer­land was not ex­empt – and rise of fem­i­nism.

“There was a huge dip in at­ten­dance right af­ter the stu­dent rev­o­lu­tion,” Neri says, adding that “the few who came said they were go­ing to a lan­guages school. They were ashamed.”

Neri at­tributes her school’s longevity to its broad in­ter­na­tional fo­cus and its rig­or­ous ef­forts to keep the course ma­te­rial, in­clud­ing text­books avail­able only to Pier­refeu stu­dents, con­stantly up-to-date.

The stu­dents learn and prac­tise the proper eti­quette and pro­to­col of 20 dif­fer­ent coun­tries, as well as cul­tural taboos to be avoided.

“Cul­tural dif­fer­ences you are not aware of can cre­ate con­flicts for very silly rea­sons,” Neri says, point­ing out for in­stance that in Ja­pan it is rude to blow your nose in pub­lic, while in Ger­many it is rude not to.

She sug­gested that many jour­nal­ists could use a Pier­refeu course to avoid “em­bar­rass­ing” ar­ti­cles like those crit­i­cis­ing US First Lady Me­la­nia Trump for not cov­er­ing her head dur­ing a re­cent trip to Saudi Ara­bia.

“She doesn’t have to be­cause it is not com­pul­sory for non-Mus­lims who come to Saudi Ara­bia. That’s pro­to­col,” she says.

The stu­dents seem to en­joy delv­ing into such de­tails, al­though some ex­press sur­prise at the in­ten­sity of the course.

“I don’t know if, when you hear fin­ish­ing school, you take it as se­ri­ously as I think we all do now,” says Tay­lor, a 34-year-old Amer­i­can stu­dent, who also re­frains from giv­ing her last name.

“It is very rig­or­ous ... very com­pre­hen­sive,” she says, adding that she feels she is “be­com­ing ed­u­cated here in a very rounded way”.

‘Not about snob­bism’

Un­like the post-1968 gen­er­a­tion, she and oth­ers say they proudly boast of at­tend­ing the school.

For­mer stu­dent Na­dine Abou Zahr, 46, says she had been scep­ti­cal when she first heard about the school while at­tend­ing univer­sity nearby two decades ago.

But the French-Lebanese for­mer fash­ion mag­a­zine editor, who de­clines to re­veal her cur­rent oc­cu­pa­tion, says in an e-mail in­ter­view that she could not be more de­lighted with her ex­pe­ri­ence.

“Learn­ing good man­ners in my opin­ion is not about snob­bism or su­per­fi­cial­ity. It’s about re­spect, for your­self and oth­ers,” she says. The course is not about cre­at­ing “dra­matic” ca­reer or life changes, she says, but rather, is de­signed to broaden cul­tural hori­zons and teach the im­por­tance of pay­ing at­ten­tion to de­tail.

Eti­quette roar­ing back

Neri says she has noted a clear shift in at­ti­tudes to­wards the need for good man­ners.

“I think peo­ple, af­ter two gen­er­a­tions of no eti­quette, re­alise that it is so much eas­ier when peo­ple share the same codes,” she says.

The shift has led Neri, along with her son and would-be suc­ces­sor, Philippe, to ex­plore a range of ex­pan­sion op­tions.

Three years ago they opened shorter sem­i­nars to men. They are also look­ing into re­in­stat­ing a full school year and on­line cour­ses.

At the same time, Neri is work­ing to clear up com­mon mis­un­der­stand­ings about what fin­ish­ing schools ac­tu­ally rep­re­sent.

Far from see­ing girls walk­ing gin­gerly with books bal­anced on their heads, or be­ing fo­cused on how to find a hus­band, her fin­ish­ing school pro­vides for in-depth learn­ing and open­ing-up of the mind, she says.

“I al­ways say we don’t fin­ish them (the stu­dents), we start them,” Neri says.

“We open their eyes to the di­ver­sity there is.” – AFP

— Photos: AFP

Here’s how you do it: Stu­dents take turns be­ing guests and servers as they learn the finer points of fine din­ing. The in­struc­tor (in grey jacket) is cor­rect­ing a stu­dent’s at­tempt to serve soup.

Neri and her son Philippe at the school’s front door.

Serv­ing a dessert the right way can be tricky!

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.