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

    If lunch at the Institut Villa Pierrefeu (IVP) often feels like a rehearsal, that's because it is. Under the watchful eye of Rosemary McCallum, a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and expert on table manners, 13 female students practice the skills they've studied in courses on European etiquette and table service. As the meal unfolds in a stately dining room with corniced ceilings, McCallum gently reminds the five student servers that they must pick up champagne glasses near the bottom of the stems and offer the pear-and-Roquefort tarts from the left. Back home, four of the five women serving have live-in staffs. But the program requires them to rotate through the service role anyway so they can better train and manage their employees. Vera, a 30-year-old playing the role of hostess, steers the conversation from her work with orphans back home in Lebanon to a Mexican guest's love of horseback riding. All goes well until Vera's fondness for Toblerone mousse leads her to commit a crucial error. "Your husband is still eating, and you've already finished," McCallum says. "Remember to pace yourself." Vera glares across the table at her husband, played by a female classmate from India. "Well," Vera says, "my husband should learn to eat faster."

    For nearly 60 years, IVP — Switzerland's last traditional finishing school — has taught women social graces, from floral arrangement and table decoration to the art of serving afternoon tea. Updated annually, its intensive six-week course consists of 216 hours of class and, for those working toward a diploma in international etiquette and protocol, 45 exams. Daily practice brings students up to speed on how to whip up the trendiest desserts — like mascarpone mousse and balsamic cream, a fresh alternative to tiresome tiramisu — and how to gracefully adhere to local customs in 20 countries, including Mexico (where you may shake your waiter's hand) and Japan (where you should never use chopsticks as decorations in swept-up hair). But contrary to stereotype, the motive is not marriage; it's money. "Lots of people have M.B.A.s, but few have the extra knowledge we can give them," says Viviane Néri, the school's principal. "People now realize that good manners make for good business."

    Among those who agree is P. Christopher Earley, the incoming dean at Purdue University's Krannert School of Management and a co-author of Cultural Intelligence . Before globalization became the norm, "cultural issues were of less immediacy to businesses," he says. "But that's all changed in the past several decades with the flow of goods, services and information across transparent borders as well as the increasing interdependence of firms and subsidiaries."

    It's this reality that draws midcareer executives to enroll at IVP, where they hope to gain an edge with international clients; younger students come to prepare for careers in public relations and the foreign service. Princesses and the daughters of Presidents and Prime Ministers enroll to better perform such duties as entertaining dignitaries and giving gifts while abroad. During TIME's recent visit, the school's roster listed 36 women, ranging in age from 18 to 46 and hailing from 14 countries including Syria, Thailand and the U.S. Given their high-profile backgrounds — as lawyers, consultants and captains of industry, as well as the daughters of business magnates — the students don't share their last names with teachers or with one another.

    "This isn't about staying at home and saying yes to everything my husband says or serving him," says Polly, a 39-year-old wearing pearls, a blue dress and a pink cardigan. "It's about knowledge that empowers you as a modern lady." Polly, who speaks fluent English, Mandarin and Cantonese, retired from a lucrative job as an investment banker in 2007 and now manages her family's funds from her home in Hong Kong. She plans to deploy her new knowledge — like how to peel and eat kiwis using only cutlery — at philanthropic events where she encounters Indian, Malaysian and Chinese investors. "Good manners are essential to business," she says. "If you don't have good manners, then your clients and colleagues will question your competence."

    Refinement comes at a price: a six-week course, which includes room, two daily meals and weekend excursions, costs about $20,000. Student housing consists of well-appointed rooms with bathrooms en suite and names like Rose and Violet. Married students, including a Supreme Court judge from a European country who recently studied at IVP, often elect to stay in nearby hotels with their families and nannies.

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