Mind Your Manners: The Secrets of Switzerland's Last Traditional Finishing School

  • Monika Fischer and Mathias Braschler for TIME

    Practice makes perfect Students learn dining, serving and other customs at Switzerland's Institut Villa Pierrefeu, which costs about $20,000 for a six-week course

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    Dropping Courses like Sewing
    Perched on the hills overlooking Lake Geneva, Néri's school is set in and around the former home of a Dutch baroness, built in 1911 as the Belle Epoque drew to a close. Néri's mother acquired the property and established the school in 1954. "She wanted a house that would correspond to the type of house the students would have and entertain in," she says. "The kitchen is downstairs because it assumes you have servants." The ground-floor layout assumes students also have six chandeliers, 16 paintings and a marble staircase.

    By the time Néri took the helm in 1972, many of her traditional rivals — the more than 60 finishing schools established around Lake Geneva before World War I — had shut down or fallen into decline. In some instances, it was an issue of succession: the founders' emancipated daughters simply didn't want to take the reins. In other cases, schools sitting on prime real estate were sold to the highest bidder. Subsequent decades saw the closure of iconic schools like Mon Fertile, which refined Camilla Parker Bowles, and the Institut Alpin Videmanette, which counted Princess Diana among its alumni. Le Manoir now serves as the headquarters of Tetra-Pak, a food-processing company, and Le Matin Calme was transformed into a private residence that has passed through several owners, including Shania Twain.

    But IVP has managed not only to stay open but also to keep filling up months in advance. Néri and her staff members — who frequently visit the Middle East to tutor royalty in the comfort of their palaces — may be as good at strategic planning as they are at party planning. As early as the 1970s, Néri began courting students from Latin America and Asia who slowly replaced gap-year students from Britain and Germany. Néri dropped courses like sewing and expanded the curriculum to reflect the changing demographics of global influence and power. She started teaching classes in English instead of French and eventually broadened courses to cover the customs of each of the BRICs — Brazil, Russia, India and China — the emerging markets where women are increasingly likely to conduct business. "This was never the kind of school where you just walked around with books on your head," she says. "We've always targeted the career woman."

    Néri believes there is more pressure on women in the business world. "Generally their mistakes are less easily forgiven than those of men," she says. To help more of her students obtain C-level suites (CEO, COO, CFO, etc.), Néri serves as an encyclopedia of cultural taboos and international savoir faire: Don't ask a Spanish businessman about his family. (He'll consider it invasive.) It's not acceptable to talk about money in Europe (unless you're in Russia). And never correspond with Buddhists in red ink. (They use that color only to write the names of the dead on coffins.) "We're actually antisnob," Néri says. "The snobs are the ones who operate by secret codes and don't explain them to you."

    Dissecting etiquette in a formal setting also gives women the opportunity to learn some unpleasant truths. "If a student's outfit is in bad taste, then we tell her it doesn't work," Néri says. "She comes to get the feedback she won't get from her friends or colleagues." Teachers are equally quick to tell students if their table settings look rushed or violate the rule of keeping plates at least 55 cm apart. Anna, a 40-something financial controller at an international company in the construction industry, rolled her eyes when teachers brought out irons during a class on folding napkins. But an hour later, she was hooked. "You see the exactness and the symmetry, and it gives a completely different atmosphere," she says. "If your table is slightly sloppy, your deal could fall through. The client might think, If the table is set like that, how will she treat my contract and our relationship?"

    Back in the dining room, the five student servers — stomachs grumbling — have more pressing concerns. Their hostess's husband continues to spoon his Toblerone mousse. "Take your time," says Nouf, a 19-year-old business student from Oman who makes no effort to hide her sarcasm. "We don't want to eat lunch or anything." When the man of the house finally finishes, they clear the table and escort the guests to the drawing room for coffee. The waitresses return to the dining room, take off their gloves, wipe their foreheads and let out a massive sigh of relief. "I've been thinking about my servants all the time," says Nouf. "It's really hard work. I definitely have more respect for them." For a true lady, that unexpected lesson may prove the most lasting.

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