With no thanks to Emily in Paris, the French have carved out a reputation for a certain elegance and sophistication over the centuries. Now, wealthy (and French-speaking) foreigners are willing to pay to master the art of French manners and l’art de la table – a useful term that encompasses everything from how to set a table to table manners and conversation.
It can be a lot to take in for Americans and the Chinese – the two cultures particularly fond of these lessons. I sat down with Catherine Duguet, founder of the École de Savoir-Vivre (“the school of good manners” in French) in Loir-et-Cher in central France, to talk about how you teach people to be classy – or snooty, depending on who you ask.
VICE: Hi Catherine, what does your job consist of?
Catherine Duguet: I help people learn the rules of politeness. They might come to me for any number of reasons. Sometimes they want to ease their transition into a new social or professional environment, or start their own business. Maybe they just want to enrich their own personal lives by learning the art of living à la française.
It’s not about being stuffy or stilted, despite what some people think. Those who master the true art of savoir-vivre (good manners) learn to be attentive and caring.
What do you think makes the French art of living so popular?
France is the birthplace of courtesy, refinement and elegance. Then you have our gastronomy, our fine wine, haute couture, luxury brands, excellent know-how, l’art de la table and the art of entertaining. Basically, our cultural heritage makes France a first-rate model for the art of living.
What do students learn in French manners class?
Mainly how to be socially and professionally savvy. One of the more complex things we cover is greetings – who introduces themselves first? How, and why?
We also work on behaviour and gestures, posture, how to dress and how to avoid errors of taste. As for table manners and the art of entertaining, you learn how to set the table and the correct usage of cutlery, glasses and napkins. Conversation is also an area of focus. We study verbal tics and social connections, and what you should and shouldn’t say. For example, [in France] you never say: enchanté or bon appétit.
You have a lot of foreign clients, particularly Americans. Why?
Often, they want me to help them reach their professional goals, or they’re passionate about l’art de la table. For them, it’s about helping them feel poised and at ease in social situations, and avoiding faux pas during a meal with clients or on occasions when they themselves are guests. In addition to table manners and entertaining, we also focus on behaviour to model, what to wear and how to express thanks.
How do Americans go with the French rules?
Americans aren’t tactile people the way we are; they’re not going to kiss each other on the cheek. That said, they’re also much warmer than we are. They’re particularly surprised by our “15 minutes of courtesy” rule – that is, if someone invites you over, you arrive 15 minutes late. It’s a gesture of respect – the host isn’t necessarily going to be ready on time. But Americans are used to always arriving on time.
Also, if you want to bring flowers as a gift, send them the morning or day after. Don’t take them the night of the event. That way, the host won’t have to scurry around getting vases and finding good spots for bouquets right as she’s also entertaining a bunch of guests. Americans also have trouble with our “wrists on the table” rule – and no hands on your knees! But they do love learning l’art de la table.
You also have French clients – where do they come from?
All over, really. I get people of all ages and social backgrounds. They come from big companies, from all sorts of professions. I also get domestic workers and people working in the tourist industry.
What do you think these rules can bring to everyday life?
At first, French manners can seem like a barrier, but they’re actually a gateway. At all stages of life, we’re judged by our behaviour. It’s the foundation of our reputation and credibility. The rules of how to be polite can help you expand your network, stand out from competitors, flourish personally and increase your self-esteem.
What led you to this career?
I managed large properties for many years; I was in charge of event planning and receptions for government officials. I trained and managed the house staff who were in charge of the dressing of suites and tables. My job was to teach them l’art de la table and manners, what gestures and words were appropriate for what situations.
What are some other basics of French table etiquette?
If you’re a guest, wait for the hostess to sit before you do. Make sure you lift your chair so you don’t make any horrid noises. Don’t start eating until all the guests have been served. Be attentive to others, and make conversation even-handedly with the charming person on your right and the annoying one on your left. Most importantly, avoid touchy topics of conversation like money, religion and politics – and turn off your phone!