Elbows Off the Table

  • [Tuesday] 28th Oct,2014
  • in ericlin
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What's behind the growing popularity of British etiquette training in China?

by Jessica Levine

While her friends were enjoying themselves at area summer camps or vacationing with family, 12-year-old Isabella Gruber was busy learning how to eat, dress and speak like a lady. Gruber, a seventh-grader at Yew Chung International School (YCIS), participated in the August 2014 Young Achiever Training Programme hosted by leading British luxury lifestyle brand Debrett’s, which arrived in China last March.

According to Diane van Zwanenberg, Debrett’s Managing Director for Asia, the program teaches etiquette, style, and social skills that will help train students “make a positive impression, giving them a vital edge at school for interviews and in securing internships and future careers.”

Lady in training

The initial draw for Gruber was the opportunity to travel to London for a week of classes and cultural activities. “I personally like London very much, and I wanted to know the history,” says Gruber.

Gruber’s mother, Lucy Hu, grew up in China and felt that it was important for her daughter to gain the cultural exposure that the program offered. “In China, we have a lot of hard knowledge that is delivered in school, but the soft knowledge – the culture, etiquette – developed in London,” she says. Though the family had traveled to Europe before – Gruber’s father is German – it was always for more casual, vacation purposes, whereas Debrett’s provided “a learning program at an international level,” says Hu.

The program was divided into two groups by age; Gruber was on the younger end of the spectrum and one of four students from Shanghai. The program attendees spent the week living with professional British etiquette and business advisors and taking classes on dining etiquette, interview techniques and networking. The courses were interspersed with outings to cultural landmarks like the Houses of Parliament, Windsor Castle and BBC studios, as well as activities like horseback riding and shooting.

Of the lessons, Gruber particularly enjoyed learning about formal British dress. “It was different than I expected,” she recalls. “In the UK, the dress code is very different from in the US or elsewhere; in the morning you have to wear one thing, in the evening you have to wear something different and for afternoon tea you have to wear something else. They told us that how you dress can show your personality.”

The class on giving an “elevator pitch” was also among the most memorable. “We did an elevator pitch to a boss – you introduce yourself, tell them something you’ve achieved,” Gruber says. “They filmed it, and next year they’ll show the students and ask ‘which one would you choose?’ Obviously, you would choose the one with the most confidence.”

Van Zwanenberg views growth of confidence as one of the standout achievements of this year’s program participants. “We always see improvements when it comes to things like video CVs and interview techniques, but what was particularly pleasing this year was the extent to which their social skills and confidence improved throughout the week,” she says.

For the large number of non-native English speakers in the program, van Zwanenberg attributes initial lack of confidence to language and cultural barriers. “For a lot of the students, English isn’t their first language, so immediately their confidence takes a knock,” she says. “We find that when they arrive, a lot of the students are lacking in self-belief and, as a result, they struggle to make good first impressions. It’s extremely rewarding to watch them grow as they start to believe more and more in their own abilities.”

Even for a fluent English-speaker like Gruber, the program proved a valuable source of social poise. “I was confident from the beginning, but I was still a little shy about making new friends and speaking to the tutors,” Gruber recalls. “However, everyone was really nice, like a big family. The tutors gave you the feeling that we’re all together, not ‘I’m the tutor and you’re the student, so there’s distance.’ And the tutors and students never left anyone out; if they saw anyone alone, they would make sure to include them.”

Gruber finds herself using her newfound confidence in her daily school life. “We have different teachers and new students each year, so it’s important to be confident in meeting new people,” she says.

The China market

The arrival of lifestyle giant Debrett’s in China signifies a growing interest in Western etiquette among a certain sector of the Chinese population. Debrett’s has joined an emerging market of lifestyle-course providers vying for the attention of the wealthy Chinese middle class, mostly “in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where people have a lot of money,” asserts Hu.

In Beijing, perhaps best known is Institute Sarita, founded in 2013 by Hong Kong-native Sara Jane Ho as “China’s first high-end boutique finishing school.” Ho has been making waves since she established the company and was named toForbes’ 2013 list of “Future Women in the Mix in Asia: 12 to Watch.”

Debrett’s has also seen a growing presence in the city; along with recruitment of Chinese students for its UK programs, the company will begin its first partnership with an area school when it brings courses on personal brand, interview techniques, and etiquette to Dulwich College Beijingbeginning this month, available to both Dulwich students and those at other schools in China.

“In an increasingly competitive global setting, strong networks and polished social skills can really make a difference and help students stand out from their peers,” says Debrett’s Director of Training Louise Ruell.

The Shanghai etiquette scene is still relatively unsolidified, though independent providers are beginning to make their mark, particularly among businessmen eager to learn Western business etiquette to be competitive on an international level.

One such brand is Seatton (scan WeChat code here), whose founder and managing director James Hebbert describes the company as “a platform in China to teach British culture and etiquette to clients.”

“We cater to the middle market in China,” Hebbert explains. “They travel abroad more, they’re embracing Western brands – and not just brands – Western culture.”

Seatton provides one-on-one and group etiquette classes to businessmen and their families, as well as high-end British menswear. Hebbert, who comes from a British military family, believes he is one of few providers in the “niche” market who is actually based in China. “I’ve been told I’m the only resident British etiquette trainer,” he says.

Cultural context

The “authenticity” of courses taught by British trainers who were raised in that cultural milieu is important to people like Hu. “When it comes to etiquette, from a language perspective and a cultural and historical perspective, the UK is known and respected – everyone wants to be a ‘gentleman’ or a ‘lady,’” she explains.

Of course, China has its own tradition of social strictures, and Hu feels that those who appreciate this domestic culture are the ones most interested in foreign lifestyle brands. “The root is the same [as in the UK], but there are different behavioral customs,” Hu says. “I believe there’s a certain circle of people who want to keep that tradition.”

Similarly, Hebbert doesn’t see Chinese and British etiquette as incompatible. “It’s all about context,” he explains. “For example, if you slurp your soup in a restaurant here, it means you enjoy the food. If you slurp your soup at a posh restaurant in London, that’s considered rude. If your behavior is taken out of context, it could embarrass your host.”

"It’s all about context." - James Hebbert (Seatton)

Hebbert sees the etiquette courses as cultural enrichment rather than as a means of learning “right” and “wrong” ways to behave.

“The UK, because of our heritage and tradition, has that association with doing things properly – but it’s interesting to use the word ‘proper’ referring only to the Western tradition,” he says. “China has its own tradition, so to learn Western etiquette is more about cultural understanding; it’s interesting to know about another culture.”

Van Zwanenberg agrees. “The fluidity with which one can travel means that opportunities for meeting new people from new cultures is increasing, which in turn creates a greater need for knowledge in soft skills, and a deeper understanding of those different cultures.”

Opening doors to the future

While etiquette training can serve as a fun cultural experience and travel opportunity, there’s no doubt that it can also develop practical skills valuable for business and educational pursuits. For young people in China, youth etiquette programs like the ones offered by Debrett’s are particularly attractive for their academic advantages.

Former YCIS student Cherry Tam, 16, is among the many students who enrolled in etiquette and lifestyle training to prepare to study abroad. Tam, who participated in the Debrett’s Young Achiever Training Programme and now studies at Roedean in the UK, participated in the program “to meet some new friends, improve my social skills, and learn about English culture before I went to study in the UK”.

Tam found the social skills she took away from the program particularly useful. “In addition to learning important stuff about dressing and dining, I also learned how to start a conversation with a stranger naturally,” she recalls. “It made me feel more comfortable studying in the UK, since I’m pretty used to it after the program.”

Gruber also hopes to enroll in a UK school to pursue higher education in the future. “Starting when I visited to Oxford with a family friend, I decided I wanted to go there to study,” she recalls.

Hu thinks her daughter might be ready for boarding school in the UK as early as a year or two from now. She hopes that the “international overview” and social training her daughter has gained from the Debrett’s program will help her succeed. “I think she’s more confident after the program, and more mature,” observes Hu.

According to van Zwanenberg, developing these abilities is just as important as academic learning for young people. “You can be the smartest child in your class, but if you don’t have the right social skills or emotional intelligence, you’ll only go so far.”

“In an increasingly competitive global setting, strong networks and polished social skills can really make a difference and help students stand out from their peers."

Tips for Tip Top Behavior

1. At formal dinners, be prepared for speeches and toasts. Don’t finish everything in your glass and find yourself with nothing to raise a toast with.

2. When shaking hands, always use your right hand, and “pump” the hand two or three times before you let it go. Ensure that your fingers grip the other person’s palm, otherwise you will crush their fingers.

3. In a group setting, if you are the link between people who have never met, it is up to you to make the introductions. Introduce individuals to the group first, and then the group to the individual.

4. When drinking tea, hold the handle of the teacup between your thumb and forefinger. Don’t hold your little finger in the air.

5. When using silverware, the knife should be held firmly in your right hand, with the handle tucked into your palm, your thumb down one side of the handle and your index finger along the top. A fork should be held in the right hand, with the prongs facing upwards. A spoon is held in the right 
hand, resting on the fingers and secured with the 
thumb and index finger.