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‘Bad-Mannered’ South Africans Go Back to School

  • Darren Taylor

When people find out what Courtenay Carey does for a living, their body language changes.

“They stand up straighter; they might not talk to me as much,” says the smiling, elegant blonde.

So, Carey no longer tells people she’s an “etiquette consultant.”

“I’ll rather say, ‘I help teach people the social skills to feel comfortable and confident in any environment,’” she says with an easy laugh, dressed immaculately in a black blazer, matching skirt and white lace shirt.

Carey attended one of South Africa’s elite private schools, St. Anne's Diocesan College, and has a social sciences degree in politics, philosophy and economics and a diploma in entrepreneurship from the University of Cape Town.

She’s also a graduate of both the New York School of Etiquette and the Protocol School of Washington.

Carey’s education means she’s eminently qualified to direct South Africa’s first School of Etiquette, located inside the opulent grounds of Le Chatelat in the plush Johannesburg suburb of Sandhurst.

Presidents, kings and queens and captains of international industry have resided at the French chateau-style mansion… But these days it hosts people of considerably less pomp and poise.

For Carey, this place of marble fountains bubbling from manicured emerald green lawns, crystal chandeliers gleaming from pressed ceilings, antique chairs, silver cutlery, fine food, whisky and wine, is the perfect setting for her unique enterprise.

She insists: “I’m not teaching good manners here. I’m teaching behaviors and how to best suit the situation that you’re in. So, we’re actually improving your social skills because etiquette is the fine art of getting along with people.”

Charismatic qualities

Carey opened her school just a little more than a year ago.

“I’ve had everyone from receptionists to top economists attending. I’ve had some geniuses – and yet their social skills are non-existent,” she says.

People spend many years learning technical prowess at universities, Carey says, but “to their ultimate cost” they don’t feel the need to perfect their social flair and learn how to behave confidently and comfortably.

“If you can interact confidently, you will build better relationships, stronger relationships, get better contracts and earn higher profits, essentially,” she maintains, adding: “Most of the time whether or not you get a big contract or a great job is not about your technical skills. It’s about your soft skills - your ability to be genuinely attentive to people and to make them feel important because you genuinely believe that they’re important.”

These are some of the “qualities of charisma” that Carey teaches her pupils.

“There’s things like being truly interested and focused on what people are saying, looking them in the eyes, raising your eyebrows and waiting for people to finish what they’re saying… Make the people around you feel important. Make them feel special.

“If you are charismatic, people like you. So, if someone likes you, they will support you, they will help you, they will choose you over somebody else; you will get the promotion over someone else. They’ll choose your company (for) that contract.”

Cell phone sins and the proper toast

Carey instructs clients on “polite cell phone behavior,” and says many people lose business and potential friends through careless use of the devices.

“No phones should be seen at any social occasion. They should not be on the table; they should not be in your hand. They should be put away and if you need to you can check it every 45 minutes.”

The cardinal rule Carey teaches is to “pay respect and focus” to the person in front of you.

“So if someone is phoning you, you silence that phone and you carry on with the conversation. If you are expecting an urgent call, and you’re going into a meal, or a meeting, you would say in the very beginning: ‘I’m expecting an urgent call so I will have to excuse myself.’ And you sit closest to the door.”

At the School of Etiquette, pupils learn how to deliver a good toast.

“Toasting is not an art, it’s not a science. But many people panic when they have to do a toast, so they mess it up. Others think a toast is a license to drone on for an hour. Some people ramble and lose focus. What we do here is we give people an equation to work with when giving a toast,” says Carey, explaining: “Begin, be brief and bow out. Begin – say why you are toasting. Be brief – so, we’re paying homage to somebody here and what they’ve done really well in their lives and (bow out): here’s to (the person).”

Let the man be chivalrous

One of Carey’s courses is titled ‘How to be a Gentleman.’ Another instructs women on ‘How to be more Feminine.’

She explains it this way. “A lot of women now believe that because we are emancipated and we can be independent and run our own businesses and lives, that we don’t need a man to open a door for us or carry a box for us or stand back for us when we walk through a door.

“But my belief is: physically, we are not equal; men are stronger than women. So, we need to play to that: let the man be chivalrous and hold the door open for you and be well-mannered; let him carry the heavy box for you…

“I’ve had women tell me they think chivalry is dead. But yet when a man opens a door for her, she doesn’t think it’s necessary to say thank you. To her, chivalry is dead because it’s dead in her mind. What I do teach women is that if a man does open the door or do a chivalrous act, you thank him and you look him in the eye.”

‘Terrible’ dining habits

‘The Art of Dining’ is a course that gives Carey an opportunity to identify the “endless” mistakes we make when eating a meal.

“This is terrible – people leaving spoons in their cups when they’re drinking coffee… Not putting your knife and fork together. Swapping hands with the cutlery and shoveling the food (into your mouth).”

She teaches that dining follows a “logistical pattern.”

“Everything is done for a reason. You eat from the outside in, so that you clear your cutlery from the outside in, so that it’s not in the way. You tip the soup bowl and spoon away from you so that it doesn’t drop onto you.”

Carey is adamant: “We’re not teaching people how to be snobby diners; we teach people how to dine easier, cleaner and safer.”

Running in a field of lions

Just before the course ends on this recent crisp winter’s evening, Carey plays a motivational DVD to the participants.

Various inspirational scenarios - such as a sprinter in a race - appear onscreen, tension heightened by dramatic music and the forceful, gruff voice of an American narrator. He exhorts, “You’re a lion in a field of lions, all hunting the same elusive prey with a desperate starvation that says victory is the only thing that keeps you alive! So, believe that voice that says you can run a little faster and you can throw a little harder, that - for you - the laws of physics are merely a suggestion!”

After the video, the question arose: Do these students of etiquette feel like lions?

Dudu Tsotetsi and another classmate, Maureen Daniels, laughed heartily.

Tsotetsi says the School of Etiquette course has “most definitely” taught her skills that will make her “much more confident” in business.

“I’ve learned a lot about making the correct eye contact and body language with people, things that people see before you even start talking,” she explains.

Daniels acknowledges she was initially “very negative” when the course began.

“I thought: ‘Oh, it’s another training; another whole day in a session where we’re just going to listen and listen and listen.’ I was wrong.”

Daniels believes the “expertise” she’s learned from Carey will help her professionally and personally.

“We’re coming out with a totally different mindset. We are taught how to be dealing with people, and people that we spend most of our times with, being our colleagues and the people at home, being my husband and my kids.”

For Carey, Tsotetsi and Daniels represent “tiny but successful steps” in her mission to improve etiquette in South Africa… But she laughingly insists she can be as “uncouth” as the next person.

“There’s got to be a little bit of excitement in life I suppose!” she exclaims. “I slouch sometimes when I’m tired. I get annoyed when my boyfriend talks to me too much…”

But looking at her seated graciously in an antique chair in Le Chatelat’s ornate cigar lounge, luminescent light from a chandelier shining off her golden hair and pearly teeth, it’s hard to be convinced of Carey’s ability to be bad mannered - an image that no doubt satisfies her steadily growing stream of pupils.