A Chinese Finishing School is Helping to Narrow the Gap Between East and West

Cecilia Pidgeon

With Western brands flooding the high streets of cities throughout China, business between China and the West is at an all-time high. Every Western business wants a piece of China – and every Chinese person wants a piece of the West. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese teenagers head to English-speaking countries each summer for lessons, with reports there are even more people studying English in China than in the US. Now, a company in Beijing is trying to teach Western manners to Chinese people by opening a finishing school aimed primarily at adult females.

The Institute Sarita is the brainchild of Sara Jane Ho. Schooled at the prestigious Harvard Business School, Ho then attended Institut Villa Pierrefeu, a traditional Swiss finishing school, which served as the inspiration for bringing the concept of finishing schools to China. As Ho says on the institute’s website, ‘Everyone needs to study etiquette… etiquette should not divide culture or classes, but rather bring people together.’

While etiquette may help to bring people together and promote equality, the costs of the course are prohibitive. Classes are small and the prices range from CNY68,200–CNY857,912 (£8,000–£10,000/$99,790–$124,741) for a 10- or 12-day course. The two most popular courses are ‘hostess’ courses, which are aimed at married women, and ‘debutante’, aimed at unmarried women.

On the hostess course, students can expect to learn topics such as the behaviour and customs expected in the highest echelons of society around the world; the art of European dining; table conversation, table decoration and wine appreciation.

In addition to the longer courses on offer, Institute Sarita also hosts weekend etiquette courses where students can learn table manners, and have an introduction to French cuisine and to British afternoon tea.

The Institute Sarita offers a range of courses to help Chinese and Westerners understand each other’s formal etiquette and social norms

A two-way street

Of course, the study of other cultures is not a one-way street. Many Western entrepreneurs seeking to make inroads into China also need to master the local customs and cultures. For every Chinese debutante who has mistakenly eaten her dessert with the soup spoon, there’s a Western businessman who has lost out on the deal of a lifetime by scattering rice across the tablecloth with his errant chopstick technique. Because of this, the Institute Sarita also offer courses on Chinese etiquette to Westerners.

Invaluable topics covered include greetings; introductions and taking leave; precedence and table seating; the art of building a business network (known as ‘guanxi’ in Chinese); Chinese table manners and toasting; and Chinese psychology and non-verbal communication.

The Institute also tackles probably the most difficult aspect of understanding Chinese psychology: the concept of face. Keeping face, saving face and never, ever causing a potential business contact to lose face.

The founder, Sara Jane Ho, who herself attended a Swiss finishing school

Ladies who enterprise

The Institute Sarita is steadily growing since it first opened its doors. The school now has premises in both Beijing and Shanghai, and both Ho and its president, Rebecca Li, have had books published – Ho penned Finishing Touch: Good Manners for the Debutante and Li scribed Elegant Hostess: Good Manners for the Lady of the House.

As pioneers in their field of business, these enterprising ladies have hit on a genuine niche market – and although Institute Sarita’s current exclusivity ensures a limited appeal to the super-rich who can afford it, no one could argue that the company’s basic premise isn’t rock solid.

As the success of this venture proves, if you want to make connections in another country and culture, then you need to do a bit of study. As the ties between the West and China become evermore entwined, it would appear that this message is going to become more and more relevant.

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