GENEVA The times they are a changin’. Switzerland’s last traditional finishing school, the Institut Villa Pierrefeu in Glion above Montreux, has decided that the 21st Century may no longer merit young women being ‘finished’ in preparation for a good marriage. There is growing awareness that good manners can be good for business.
With that in mind, the Institute has now gone co-ed. Applicants, both young and older, from as far as China, India and Japan, are seeking to take part in two or six-week courses referred to as the “European Art of Dining” – or international etiquette and protocol. Last January the Institute accepted five men from Lebanon, Mexico, France, Britain and Germany, plus five women from China, India, the US, Bermuda and Japan. So far, four men have been accepted for an intensive one-week course in January 2014.
Viviane Néri, the Institute’s principal for 40 years, said it is important to have a mix. “For example, after dinner, women traditionally serve coffee but it is men who ask ‘what about spirits and cigars?’” Conversely, she said, men need to understand the former hostess role of ensuring that conversations flow without being dominated by a few or leaving anyone out.
“What we offer is a Swiss sense, as versus a British sense, of etiquette with greater international attention given to the manners and customs of different cultures.” Offering a Swiss Army knife to someone from Japan, for example, can be taken as a symbol for cutting ties. Plunging immediately into shoptalk without polite preamble is viewed askance by many nationalities.
“We have dropped cooking and French (language) courses because people told us they could get those elsewhere.” What they wanted, according to Néri, was les bonnes manières. “Businessmen realise we are also judged by our manners,” she said.
The heyday of European aristocrats sending their daughters to finishing or “deep freeze” schools in Switzerland may be gone. For the Institut Villa Pierrefeu, however, there is growing awareness in business, politics and ordinary life that manners have slipped and need to be renewed.
Néri said the Institute still receives its share of royals. “But they are incognito and to integrate them into the group, they are introduced only by a first name. There has only been a problem once when we accepted two women from the same country and the royal one was immediately recognized by the other.” The situation was defused when the princess calmly reached over and said, ‘Madame would you like some water?’ In this way she showed that she was to be treated just like all the others. But we will try not to repeat that,” said Néri with a laugh.