Finishing School: Etiquette lessons for the grown woman


Once while travelling in Ireland, I dined solo at a seafood restaurant. When my entree arrived, I began to squeeze a lemon wedge over it. As the juice poured down, the wedge shot out of my hand: destination unknown. I looked around my immediate vicinity—not as covertly as I thought, however, because when I raised my head from under the table, the couple sitting beside me gave me sympathetic eyes; they couldn’t see where it had gone either. We all shrugged, and I (carefully) ate my dinner. The lemon would reappear eventually, I thought, and indeed I found it later, underneath a table leg.

It wasn’t this specific incident that made me enroll in finishing school, but rather that these things, while they could happen to anyone, tend to happen, more often than not, to me. Surely there must be some way to gracefully recover airborne citrus. Even better, there must be some way to never have to deal with it in the first place.

In theory, this is simply a Google search, but it’s also the edge of an etiquette rabbit hole. The rules of what to do when you spill something leads to which cutlery to use leads to how to be a good guest leads to how to respond to invitations leads to what to wear to particular functions, and on and on. That’s a lot of Google searches. And it’s not just flying fruit that I’m unsure about. Small talk, gift giving and email correspondence—all come with their own set of social guidelines and potential gaffes.

Embarrassed confessions to friends that, in my mid-30s, I don’t already know these things led to admissions that they felt the same. I realized I’d reached the age when the self- deprecating act of “Haha, I didn’t read the dress code on the invite and feel totally out of place, plus I can’t remember your name even though we were just introduced, so I’m going to be gregarious and call you something else but pretend it’s a nickname and, oh, there goes the server with more champagne, be right back!” is neither charming nor attractive.

Attending a weeklong etiquette course may seem an extreme course of action, considering you can enter any major bookstore and find shelves teeming with manuals on manners. (Emily Post’s Etiquette alone is on its 18th edition.) But like learning anything new—how to drive, speak French, play tennis—immersion helps things stick. The course, I hoped, would be a fast track to finesse, upon which social faux pas would be handled with grace, if they needed to be handled at all. And while I did learn how to shake someone’s hand (neither too firm nor too soft, with the “webs” of our palms fully touching) and what to do if I do forget a name (“It’s so nice to see you again, can you please remind me of your name?”), the biggest lesson was one I never expected: that a command of etiquette and a comfort with protocol breeds killer self-confidence.

For the first half of the 20th century, Switzerland was the destination for finishing. Both Princess Diana and Camilla Parker-Bowles attended schools there, as did thousands of young women of means who needed to learn social graces before marriage. Today, only one—Institut Villa Pierrefeu— remains, and it recently began permitting men in an attempt to drum up business. By contrast, the Institute Sarita, a “boutique, Swiss-style finishing school,” opened with much fanfare in Beijing earlier this year, with The New York Times declaring that emerging countries could save the finishing school from extinction. (Indeed, in my course, at London’s Minding Manners, there were attendees from China and India.)

I chose Minding Manners because it offered an extensive weeklong course that would allow me “the exclusive pleasure of experiencing etiquette in its birthplace.” (It was also, at $1,350 for one week, one of the less expensive options.) The program ran Monday through Friday, with morning and afternoon sessions covering everything from table manners to elegant posture. Not included in the curriculum? Anything related to our online lives. (For this specific program, founder Tamiko Zablith wanted to honour the historical roots of etiquette.)

I joked with friends before my first day that I was concerned about being a finishing-school failure, but there was some truth in it: I’ve never considered myself impolite, but it wasn’t so long ago that I learned cutlery should be used from the outside in, and I don’t know the first thing about making a formal introduction. (I have since learned that you should introduce the person of lesser social standing to the person of greater social standing.)

Wearing the most wrinkle-proof business-casual outfit I could pack—white blazer, black pants, red scarf—I entered the main floor of a towering London row house and began a process of refinement. Well-lit, with minimalist decor (the living room turned classroom had only a small pile of etiquette books on the mantle and some vases on the bookshelf ), I tried to make my first steps into the space as light as the atmosphere. I joined three women, ranging in age from their mid-20s to mid-50s, on a couch. Manuals, notepaper and pens were neatly laid out before us. The women were sitting up straight with legs crossed at their ankles. I followed suit.

Zablith entered the room wearing a big smile and greeted us with an enthusiastic “good morning,” which is when I realized she was … American. But an American who was presented as a debutante in 1987 and studied etiquette protocol in Paris, Geneva, London, Brussels, Washington, D.C., and Shanghai. Her school, established in 2003, runs programs for children as young as five, but her clientele are increasingly corporate. Those who enroll are coming “because they want to,” she says, “which I think tells the story that civility is not dead.” (Approximately 500 students cycle through the school’s various programs annually, with courses for youth showing the strongest growth.)

Indeed, the theme throughout the week was civility and respect. Zablith’s brown hair was perfectly coiffed, her navy pant suit perfectly pressed, but at no time was she intimidating—not even when I scored an admittedly weak 50 percent on the first-day etiquette knowledge test. She walked us through ostensibly simple things like how to make an entrance at a party (walk into the room and step to the right; pause for five to 10 seconds to identify the host and any other key people, and then make your first move) and how to stand in a confident, relaxed pose (chin parallel to the floor, feet slightly turned at an angle, with the heel of one foot touching the arch of the other). And she gave us hands-on tutorials on intricate things, such as setting a dinner table for a six-course meal and how to peel a banana using a knife and fork. This was really just an exercise to help us master using cutlery (fork in left hand, knife in right), but obviously it has become my new party trick.

We had field trips to the Victoria & Albert Museum to learn about the rise of polite society in the U.K. (etiquette gained popularity as the middle classes aped royalty), and to Kensington Palace to learn how the royals entertained. We spent a morning at a dance studio learning the waltz—evolving from robots to average-skilled dancers—and high-fived our success, though I’m fairly sure that’s not proper protocol.

There were some things I found I knew instinctively, such as that one should reply to an invitation in the same tone and method in which it was received (a formally worded invitation on paper requires a formally worded reply on the same). But I also discovered that I’d unknowingly been committing crimes against civility for ages—asking someone what they do for a living, for instance. That question is my go-to icebreaker, but I’ve learned it’s a social minefield. By asking it, I’m putting the receiver on the spot and running the risk of, say, a stay-at-home mother assuming I don’t think she has a real job. And that was far from my only finishing-school faux pas. The most memorable was during a session on the art of afternoon tea, when I poured a classmate a cup, forgetting to use a strainer, and then dropped her sugar cube in with such a dramatic plop that tea splashed onto the saucer and table. (I now know that were this to happen in the real world, I would swiftly and succinctly apologize and prepare her a new cup.)

The lesson that stuck with me the most, however, wasn’t part of the curriculum. Sure, I’ve learned how to gracefully enter and exit a car—alert Britney Spears, it can be done—decant red wine and dress for a black-tie event (an elegant knee- to floor-length dress in a luxe fabric paired with a dainty bag and shoes, though we were told to “never be afraid to ask more questions” about dress codes). But what resonated was the importance of pride—in myself, my possessions, my social interactions.

The realization crept up on me during a session on the art of entertaining, as I solved the puzzle of the six-course table setting. I barely have the culinary skills to make two courses, so the likelihood of finding myself planning such an extensive menu is slim to none, but I stood at the table taking great care to get the setting right. When I was done, I stepped back and evaluated my work; it looked classy and elegant. It suddenly struck me that I could—and should—be taking the same care at home. This is not to say I live in a hovel. But up to that point I had been using casual—in atmosphere and accessories—as a crutch. Treating my personal space with high regard, and being proud enough to want to show it off to others, would also communicate that I held myself in high regard.

Throughout the week, Zablith reminded us that the skills we were picking up would enable us to present our “best possible” selves. An obvious concept, but obviously one I needed reminding of.

I wasn’t alone in feeling this. Every day, I ate lunch with my fellow students. Our first meal was filled with polite, inane chatter—where we were from, thoughts on London—but as the week went on, discussion became more thoughtful. We talked about the value of the curriculum for both women and men (etiquette is universal, though only one of my classmates was male), about the state of chivalry today (it’s not dead, but perhaps in a coma) and about the effects of finishing school.

Priya Aiyar, a 37-year-old image consultant originally from Bombay but now living in London, describes the week-long program as “an over- all metamorphosis of a woman.” For another classmate, Tosin Nzeribe, 33, this was her second go-round at finishing school; she’d completed a month-long course at Institut Villa Pierrefeu in 2008. “The whole etiquette thing … I don’t consider it to be a burden,” she says. “It’s fun for me.”

Attending finishing school didn’t make me feel inadequate, as I had feared. Instead, it inspired me to expect more of myself. Etiquette can be thought of as confining, oppressive even—a set of rules made by the upper classes and imposed on everyone else. But instead of feeling insecure as I learned the rules, I felt empowered.

A few weeks after the course ended, I unexpectedly found myself dining alone again, this time in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Normally I’d be intimidated in such a starched environment, eat as fast as I could and beat a hasty retreat. But now, finished as I was, I relaxed. I knew what to expect from the menu, which cutlery to use and how to indicate I was finished with each course. Perhaps the best indicator that I had changed? At no point during the meal was any food airborne.

This story ran in Flare magazine (September 2013).