Handling the handshake
It is almost 10am and I have arrived 25 minutes late for my class on ‘English manners’. Like many people I know, I am quite relaxed about it – in Dubai most people are ‘fashionably late’. The dozen or so men aged from about 30 to 50 at the RitzCarlton – all sacrificing their weekends to learn some manners at the Essential Gentlemen’s EtiquetteWorkshop – are already milling around the drinks table, some grabbing a bite of breakfast. When William Hanson, who has made a name for himself as the UK’s leading etiquette and royal protocol expert, comes to greet me warmly, I don’t sense anything is amiss, even though I apologise for my tardiness.
It’s only later when the session is in progress that I realise the extent and irony of my etiquette crime. “Never arrive more than 20 minutes past your appointment time,” William says, his smooth mellifluous voice brooking no dissent. I would have been even more ashamed had I not at least done something right: realising I would be late I’d called up to let the organiser know. Around me I watched a few men squirm – I’d seen them sneak in much later than me.
William, our instructor, is just 24 years old, but already has a list of achievements as long as the elegant pink tie he’s wearing. He’s a regular contributor to newspapers and TV shows and stations, including BBC Breakfast, ITV’s This Morning, CNN, and also BBC Radio 5 Live. In England he’s better known as ‘Mr Manners’.
A brochure I was given at the door told me that he had been teaching etiquette and manners since he was 18 at The English Manner, a company founded in 2001 by Alexandra Messervy, former member of the Royal Household of the Queen.
The company specialises in providing “contemporary etiquette and protocol tuition, support consultancy and bespoke training” for individuals and groups, according to its website.
“Good manners are self-less, not selfish,” William begins, and suddenly we get the feeling that this is going to be a morality class. “It is all about treating people with respect, having selfrespect and retaining your own personality, but not being abrupt with people.”
But isn’t that what everybody’s taught as a child, which translates to common sense? “Yes, etiquette and good manners are common sense,” he says. “It is about being nice to people. Sadly, many parents don’t have the time, inclination or, in some cases, the knowledge to pass these skills on to their children.”
William has his own theory on why standards and manners have deteriorated – he squarely blames the ‘liberal 1960s’, although he has no first-hand experience of the decade. It set me thinking; How did such a young man become an expert in manners?
William’s interest in etiquette began at age 12 when he was given a copy of Debrett’s Etiquette andModern Manners by his grandmother. “I read it because you have to read books that are presented to you,” he deadpans. But the truth was he enjoyed it, and the books kept multiplying as his interest and knowledge of the topic grew. By the time he was 15, he was coaching boys in his school in basic matters like laying a dinner table correctly, and by 18, realising that there was a career to be built on his interest, he started working full time as an etiquette consultant.
Over the years, William contributed to the commentary on the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee for the likes of the BBC and CNN. William’s workshops are both theoretical and practical. He shows us how to become confident gentlemen. “Everything starts with the handshake,” he says, and tells us it originates from when gentlemen carried swords in scabbards on their left hip, and drew their weapon with their right hand. “Presenting one’s hand outstretched, away from the body, and with the palm open, showed that one was not carrying a weapon and meant no harm,” he says. He adds, “The handshake is often the only skin-on-skin contact one has with a person and many people have bad handshakes. They are either bone-crushers or limp fishes. What one should be aiming for is the middle ground: firm, but not too firm.”
William has a four-step guide for shaking hands correctly. “Keep your left hand by your side. Don’t use it to grasp the other person’s arm or place it on top of their right hand as this shows, unconsciously, that you want to