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Discovering the stories behind old customs
By Yao Min-G


IN four weeks, Jessie Zhao will be hosting a New Year’s party on behalf of her parents, treating their friends and business partners, many among whom are expatriates or have lived and studied in the West.

“It’s my debut in front of all these important people, and I’m so afraid that something will go wrong,” the 25-year-old Shanghai native says.

For the past three years, Zhao has studied in Sydney and London, returning to Shanghai this summer with a master’s degree in marketing and communications. But she is still nervous about losing face in her parents’ social circle.

“Everything has to be perfect,” she says.

To help make the party perfect, Zhao confesses she started preparing months ago, screening suppliers, ordering tailor-made dresses, trying out dishes that would be served, and getting private lessons from an etiquette specialist who charges nearly US$1,000 per day.

Economic development leads and culture follows, as some say. In China, culture is catching up, as etiquette classes, both one-on-one sessions and group events, are starting to gain popularity within specific circles.

Through her tutor, Zhao has learned how to behave as a proper hostess, to meet and greet and make everyone feel cared for, dress appropriately, match her dresses with the right jewelry, and to smile naturally for four hours, among many other manners.

One day, she says her tutor played 15 different characters so she could learn how to introduce people properly in different scenarios. This includes introducing people in the middle of a conversation, when getting drinks, or when the person’s last name or profession are not known.

Several classes are available, both in Shanghai and Beijing. They usually cost around 100,000 yuan (US$16,250) for a course of eight to 12 weeks.

“In the past, Chinese people bought the best brands to show their social status, now they want to learn culture and knowledge. It is a remarkable transition from showing your brand to showing your knowledge,” says James Hebbert, founder and managing director of Seatton, a Shanghai-based British culture, style and etiquette company.

“I can see the growing opportunity for China’s middle-class market. They are traveling more often and are interested to learn about the culture beforehand, which will help them to enjoy the trip better.”

Hebbert travels frequently around the country to give tailor-made etiquette courses to businessmen between 25 to 40 years old or middle-aged ladies and housewives — his main client groups. He has also given sessions on business etiquette to government officials before they take business trips to Europe.

Most of his clients are based in economically developed cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu, the financial center of southwestern China.


Some of Hebbert’s most popular courses include afternoon tea sessions, mainly with women, and business etiquette, mainly with men. He teaches women the origin of British afternoon tea traditions including the right order to eat food and old customs.

For example, one is not supposed to have the finger pass through the handle of a coffee cup, otherwise it is perceived as very rude.

“Well, British people don’t follow that today either, but it’s fun to know,” Hebbert explains. “In the old times, if you invited your boyfriend to afternoon tea with all your girlfriends, the girls will observe how the guy behaves. And if his finger passed through the handle, they would tell the girl not to marry him!

“It is all about learning the stories and reasons behind it, to put it in cultural and historical context, and to make it a fun experience.”

The business etiquette sessions are more serious, from how to tie a tie, to a confident handshake and proper eye contact. Hebbert says many Chinese give limp handshakes and don’t make eye contact when greeting someone, which is often considered disrespectful by Westerners.

To make the sessions more interesting, he often asks his clients to role play in different scenarios. He also alerts them about the cultural difference in exchanging name cards.

“Chinese and Japanese take this very seriously, with both hands, like a ritual, while it is very casual for Westerners,” he says. “I actually like and respect the Asian way a lot.”

Globalization is an irreversible trend and commercial and cultural interactions are growing rapidly both on government to government and individual to individual levels. Thus more people on both sides are willing to learn about each other to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings.

Stephanie Zhou, a 35-year-old designer who also serves as a personal stylist and etiquette specialist, mainly serves Chinese who have recently become wealthy.


“When talking about etiquette, it sounds very concrete and cliché, like how to use a fork and knife, how to straighten your back or how to dress properly for different occasions. But many times, it is about something more intangible or even abstract like different mindsets or social skills,” she says.

Zhou is paid to shop overseas for the latest luxury brands and design the wardrobe of her clients, mainly businessmen and women in their middle ages, both from cities and from rural areas.

“They used to come for me for clothing suggestions, like ‘what do I wear at this conference and that party,’ but they have come increasingly for more intriguing questions in recent years, like this foreign client said that to me and acted like that, what did he actually mean?”

Early in the year, a client from Hunan Province was scheduled to meet an American investment company. The client in retail business hopes to step up and expand outside of China through a partnership with foreign companies.

He asked Zhou to give an intense 2-hour introduction on the basics to his executives, on how to present themselves and the company well in front of foreign partners. “I think it’s a good trend that increasingly more Chinese are paying attention to these Western soft skills, which will definitely help them forge international partnerships,” Zhou concludes.

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