Etiquette has become a desirable commodity for wealthy consumers in emerging markets, both for themselves and for their children.
Large emerging markets such as China and Russia are seeing wealthy consumers signing up enthusiastically for etiquette lessons, wine appreciation lessons and learning ‘elite’ pursuits such as polo and golf.
There’s a growing market serving this new trend, with service providers springing up to cater to this desire for social fluency. Run by British expats in China, a lifestyle company called Seatton markets itself as ‘an authority on etiquette for discerning men and women in the modern world’.
The company offers classes in Western-style dining etiquette, advice on dress codes and inductions to British lifestyle and culture. James Hebbert, one of the Seatton’s managerial team, explained that China’s richest had moved away from buying luxury brands to show off their status, and were choosing instead to show their knowledge as a way to differentiate themselves socially. That’s echoed by etiquette coach Sara Jane Ho, who says “My students were the ones who were buying Hermes bags 10 years ago. Now they are holding themselves to higher standards and have deeper desires.”
But it isn’t just a desire to seem sophisticated that’s behind this newfound interest in the social arts – behind this growing trend is also a desire to move more fluently between cultures. As well as learning traditional finishing-school topics such as how to peel an orange, students will typically also learn topics such as the amount of personal space that is appropriate when mingling with Western business associates, or how to shake hands and use Western cutlery.
In China, Harvard graduate Sarah Jane Ho – who herself attended a Swiss finishing school – offers 2-week etiquette courses in Beijing. For a fee of over £10,000, students learn critical life skills such as the right way to pronounce international luxury brand names. Her courses cover the different social customs of a variety of different cultures – perfect for the jet-setting superrich and those facing international business travel. Business people travel from as far away as Shanghai and Taiwan to attend.
This isn’t just about aspiring to snobbery. Newly-wealthy generations of emerging marketing have new opportunities for global travel but also face the challenges of conducting business overseas and facing other new situations. In the world’s fastest-growing economies a family can be catapulted within a short generation into a new league of social interaction, and face situations they have no previous experience of. There isn’t necessarily anyone to turn to for advice within their immediate family or circle of acquaintances – that’s where the etiquette experts come in. James Hebbert of Beijing coaching firm Seatton identifies this as part of the Chinese desire to preserve face at all times, but particularly in overseas business and holiday situations.
In some cases there’s also an awareness of how natives of that country are often perceived overseas. At the Beijing Olympics in 2007 there were official campaigns launched to improve the city’s manners and discourage habits such as queue-jumping and spitting. It’s only when behavior is brought to a new global stage that people become self-conscious about them.
Whilst it may be desirable to impress others with your sophistication, there are often very practical reasons to learn how to behave in a variety of different situation. A common desire to avoid embarrassing yourself and feel confident in unfamiliar social situations is a strong motivating factor for students signing up for etiquette classes. Even for the super-rich, their social skills could be critical to the success of a business deal, or achieving the social coup of getting your offspring into a top English public school.
One Russian expat offers her services to groom the children of the Russian super-rich to ensure they can move smoothly into Britain’s elite schools. Dina Karpova made her first fortune in property, but found a strong market for her skills advising parents on how to get their children through the competitive entry procedures of top English public schools. Her programme includes basic manners, etiquette, and deportment as well as tutoring to reach the required academic and English language standards. With overseas education becoming an increasingly desirable commodity for Russia’s richest, Karpova is particularly well-positioned to provide the necessary social skills to achieve this.
There’s also a noticeable trend of Asian parents wanting to ensure their children have the skills they will need to handle other social interactions. London-based school of etiquette Debretts runs classes in Hong Kong and Shanghai teaching school-age children skills such as dining etiquette so they don’t experience culture shock when studying overseas. At Sarah Jane Ho’s Beijing finishing school, parenting classes are on the agenda. The curriculum covers topics such as how to select the right pony for your children. Ho explains that this kind of upbringing is valuable as it may later help children be accepted into the right international boarding school or overseas university.
Why is this new interest in refined manners taking off in Russia and China in particular? One Harvard sociologist, Martin Whyte, has expressed his view that what both these societies have in common is that they lack any connection to a recent aristocratic tradition. Perhaps this explains why they turn to the outside when seeking an air of refinement. For British-run companies such as Seatton and Debretts, exporting these skills is just good business.