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April 19, 2024updated 22 Apr 2024 5:02pm

Mind your manners: the rules of modern etiquette

Etiquette coaching is a small, niche market but business is booming. Caroline Phillips meets two leaders in the field

By Caroline Phillips

Two women are sparring on television over the placing of a luncheon napkin: lay it out flat on the lap or fold it in half? They’re Gwyneth Paltrow and Myka Meier, etiquette coach. I’d bet the £2,500 that Meier charges for a private lesson that she’s correct. This ‘mixed-race millennial CEO’ is known for more than just her snappy names for the Duchess of Cambridge’s seated-leg positions which went viral (from the ‘Duchess Slant’ to the ‘Cambridge Cross’).

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Meier learned etiquette globally, has been offering classes since 2009 and boasts 637,000 Instagram followers. The American-English founder of Beaumont Etiquette, who also runs New York’s Plaza Hotel Finishing Program, clearly knows her stuff.

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As authoritative as she is, Meier doesn’t have a monopoly. Other genres of etiquette coach are available. In the other camp, we have former British army officer Rupert Wesson, director of Debrett’s Academy – born of the go-to, pukka almanac for protocol and manners since 1769.

‘Knowing how to hold a fish fork isn’t as important as getting the deal,’ he asserts when I meet him, wearing shoes so polished that spit must be involved. ‘Etiquette was once for social advancement. Now it’s about building trust and confidence for business.’

Meier’s clients may want to revamp themselves, enter new social circles or have their service staff trained. But modern etiquette, she reveals, is less about Swiss finishing school (although she attended one) than about feeling comfortable and putting others at ease with kindness and grace. ‘I feel zero fear about going into any situation,’ she adds.

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Meanwhile Wesson’s participants seek tips on ‘netiquette’ (such as ‘is it OK to follow my boss on Instagram?’), office manners and corporate dining. ‘People come to me because they want confidence, to make an impact in the workplace, to learn public speaking – all under the etiquette umbrella,’ he says.

It’s a small, niche market. Both William Hanson (of training institute the English Manner) and erstwhile royal butler Grant Harrold claim to be ‘leading experts’. (The latter demands money to speak to me – but maybe that’s modern etiquette.) And, according to Professor Google, there are barely 50 others. ‘If there’s anyone operating discreetly, they’re so discreet I don’t know who they are,’ says Wesson.

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Business is, apparently, booming. Last year Meier taught 2,000 people in person. (Her 11 staff also run courses: ‘One of my juniors will teach your child manners for £250 an hour.’) High-level businessmen, celebrities and their families are her focus.

Wesson tends to work with foreign dignitaries and luxury brands, from Coutts to Cartier, and can often be found tutoring in China, Singapore and the Middle East. ‘I’m teaching business etiquette probably four days a week, from webinars with hundreds of people to one-to-ones,’ he says.

Etiquette 101

Queen Elizabeth II
One should aim to ‘dab lipstick in the inside corner, the way the Queen did’ / Image: Shutterstock

Let’s wind back to the beginning. I meet Meier in Bacchanalia, Richard Caring’s theatrical Mayfair eatery, for some coaching. Stylish in blazer, red lippie and ponytail, she’s dressed for the occasion but also to mirror my look. ‘Always research on socials anyone you’re meeting. It’s not about being a chameleon,’ she asserts, also copying my body language and fast talking. ‘It’s to make someone feel comfortable.’ Etiquette, she continues, is really about connecting with people. She compliments me on my lipstick colour. (Never, she counsels, mention jewellery. ‘If you comment on someone’s big diamond ring, they might feel embarrassed.’) She reckons my ‘personal brand’ is strong: my big glasses, grey hair and bright lipstick. Otherwise, she’d work with me on it.

So now to dining etiquette. ‘Do you want this straight?’ Yes, I reply, nervously dropping my olive pip on to my lap. She launches into ‘olive etiquette’ (who knew?). ‘The pip comes out the same way it goes in – with your fingers. But if you’re eating with a fork, it goes in the “discard” section of the plate at 11 o’clock.’

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As she’s explaining appropriate use of other parts of my plate, her eyes alight on my napkin. ‘It should be folded in half, with the crease facing the belly button so that you can dab lipstick in the inside corner, the way the Queen did.’ We discuss posture and grooming at the table (nooooo); whether it’s infra dig to drink coffee with a meal (a no-no in Italy); texting in the street (inconsiderate); my resting face (too severe, I need to open my eyes less studiously to appear engaging) to her WWHC – ‘what, why, how, compliment’ – approach to conversation and the ‘back pocket 3’ (prepared conversational topics). ‘No religion, no politics, no sex, no illness. Don’t say you had stomach flu last week,’ she asserts. ‘No diets, or your guest will feel weird ordering fudge sundae. No weather unless it’s extreme – say, a monsoon.’

Channel an Oscar winner for an inviting ‘resting face’, advises Meier / Image: Shutterstock

The biggest question of modern etiquette, however, is pronouns, diversity and inclusion. ‘Gender is number one in next-generation etiquette. It’s no longer about ladies first,’ she concludes. ‘The VIP orders first; you open the door for a client – gender doesn’t matter.’

I walk into my next appointment wearing my new, friendly ‘resting face’, pretending that I’m winning an Oscar, as per Meier’s instructions. I’ve got fewer than seven seconds to create a good first impression on Debrett’s Wesson in the Cavalry & Guards Club. The archetypal English country gent in town, he’s besuited, with a pocket square. He focuses on the etiquette
that helps organisations grow by developing their leadership capability, changing their culture and improving performance, employing approaches such as neuro-linguistic programming and psychometrics. ‘You’ll have difficulty connecting with people who are least like you,’ he explains. ‘So these help you consciously adapt to change your way of communicating.’

I need top lines, business etiquette for dummies – starting with a crash course in confidence. ‘Eye contact, smiling,’ he replies, oozing self-assurance. ‘Knowing whether you’re bowing, handshaking or kissing. Longer term, reflecting on what you did well rather than what went wrong.’

Advice for women doing business in the Middle East? ‘Some may feel awkward if you look them in the eye. If you go to shake hands and it’s not reciprocated, put your hand on your heart.’

Best business email sign-off for someone you don’t know? ‘Kind regards.’ Isn’t that a bit familiar? ‘I don’t think so.’

How to succeed at networking events? ‘Many people dread them. But it’s crucial to go with the idea of helping people, rather than selling yourself.’

Gender tip when you’re public speaking? ‘Ladies, gentlemen and…?’ I ask. ‘Hello everyone,’ he corrects.

I dredge up the horrific memory of running out of things to say to my dull Swiss banker neighbour at a corporate dinner. We’re trying, Wesson replies, to learn what makes the person tick, not to get a business advantage. ‘If you’ve already covered family and work, there’s no harm in companionable silence. A lot of what I do in the business arena is teaching people to become comfortable with silence. You learn a lot about people by creating space.’

‘May I ask, hmm, how much he earns?’ I enquire, mischievously. ‘You can if you’re Chinese!’ Wesson replies. ‘In China, people will ask your salary, what your house cost and how heavy you are. The social guidelines are different.’ And elegantly negotiating these differences is what it’s all about really, isn’t it?

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Visit our privacy policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
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