How to behave

Updated: 2013-02-22 07:17

By Chen Yingqun (China Daily)

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How to behave

Sara Jane Ho says she does not tell people how to live but to awaken their senses to the importance of etiquette. Provided to China Daily

Finishing schools are vanishing in the West, but Sara Jane Ho believes she has found a new market for them - among China's new rich

Traditional finishing schools are a dying breed in the West, where young women from wealthy families no longer feel the need to be instructed on how to behave in polite society. But in China, Sara Jane Ho, a former student of Switzerland's last finishing school - Institut Villa Pierrefeu - sees a new market emerging.

The 27-year-old is busy making final preparations for the launch of her Beijing-based etiquette school Institute Sarita, due to open in March, which will offer courses on international etiquette and protocol, including Western-style table manners, business etiquette, appropriate dressing and hostessing skills.

"China has seen great economic growth in the past decade, but the image of Chinese people hasn't been improved accordingly. They have a reputation around the world for misbehaving which makes me sad because I am very proud of my country," she says, citing negative reports about Chinese tourists.

"Etiquette in China is thousands of years old but as people have become busier in this age it is the first thing to be forgotten. I want to remind our people to become etiquette-aware. Hopefully they can be more confident and respectful on international occasions."

Born overseas but raised in Hong Kong, Ho entered the elite boarding school Phillips Exeter Academy in the United States when she was 14. Later, she graduated from Georgetown University and earned an MBA from Harvard Business School.

As both her parents are successful businesspeople, Ho has accompanied them on many social and business occasions since childhood.

"My mom was my first coach for etiquette, she always took me everywhere and explained how I should behave and why," she says.

Her hobbies include horse riding, skiing and entertaining. Most of all, she enjoys being a hostess: twice a week, she decorates her house with fresh floral arrangements, invites friends over and treats them to home-cooked food.

Ho says that she had always wanted to polish her etiquette skills and after graduating from Harvard, attended a two-month intensive course at Institut Villa Pierrefeu. Before going she assumed the school would teach strict etiquette rules, but she found it advocated a flexible approach that was more about the essence of good manners.

"Displaying manners shows people around you that you respect them, that your individual needs and convenience can be subordinated to put other people first in a very selfless way. And that is an important attribute for any society, Eastern or Western," she says.

In Switzerland, Ho noticed that most of her 30 classmates were from economically emerging countries, including India and Africa, while a few were from Europe.

"Well-traveled and well-educated families from emerging countries recognize the need to study international etiquette, which inspired me to start a high-end etiquette school," she says.

The idea was warmly welcomed by friends, some of who have participated in her courses during preparation for the school's launch. Lucy Qian, president of Beijing-based Essence Communications & Consulting Corporation, worked in French and US companies before opening her own business. Qian says she received some etiquette training, but never as systematically as that offered by Ho.

"Learning international etiquette and protocol is very useful for me, because my customers are mainly multinational companies now," she says.

"Sara's courses are very interesting and professional. I am used to using my knife and fork as the French do and she could tell it's a French style in a second."

Ho's school will only take female students. So far, she has been surprised at the interest that has come from a wide spectrum of clientele including second-generation wealthy families, successful executives, and managers in state-owned enterprises who are increasingly called on to travel abroad. "My clients are very keen to learn how to engage with foreigners and to learn an established set of rules of courteousness that are to be respected in society across cultures," she says.

"They are very sophisticated, thoughtful and successful individuals and I learn a lot from them too. They see themselves as inheriting a 5,000- year-old civilisation and representing it and preserving it for the next generation."

Ho has designed four courses, including a weekend course on dining etiquette that costs about 20,000 yuan, a one-month course on dining and dressing that costs 38,000 yuan and a three-month debutante course for unmarried women, which teaches them about self-cultivation in all aspects. There is also a course for married women on how to be a good hostess, which includes instruction on how to behave during business functions. Compared with the Swiss school she attended, Ho has completely overhauled the curriculum to tailor to Chinese clients and is also bringing in experts in lifestyle, dining and culture to provide a richer experience.

Ho says students will learn through real-life practice and constant rehearsal in the elegant environments of five-star hotels in Beijing.

"My students will also have access to my personal network. Many of my friends around the world - including European aristocracy - have offered to host my students in their home countries, participate in their daily activities and truly experience their culture," she says.

According to Ho the most difficult aspect of launching the school has been finding qualified teachers. She insists they should have international backgrounds and a passion and awareness of the philosophy of etiquette, which she will strengthen with a tailored training course in Switzerland.

Viviane Neri, principal of Institut Villa Pierrefeu, believes Ho is taking on a major challenge, as running a finishing school over the long term requires "heavy investment and very well trained and experienced teachers who constantly continue developing their knowledge".

Ho says her intention is not to tell people how to live but to awaken their senses to the importance of etiquette. "Everyone needs to study etiquette, no matter who you are. Etiquette should not divide cultures or classes but rather bring people together. It should allow you to be a better version of yourself.

Whether or not you behave accordingly is up to you, but as a first step you must understand the philosophy behind the mechanics. I myself am studying every day how to be a better person, and this is a very Confucian value," she says.

(China Daily 02/22/2013 page21)