Yes, students walk around with actual books on their head.
Zarife Hardy stands tall and poised in front of the class. She's wearing an immaculate silk blouse and heels. “What I’m teaching you to today is really easy,” she tells the crowd of ten. “Most of you have just forgotten how to do it. People have become so casual."
Hardy is the founder of Sydney’s Australian School of Etiquette (ASOE), whose motto is "Stand tall and stand out." Her clients vary hugely, from male escorts to priests, but today's class is pretty standard. It includes a husband-and-wife team of business owners, the co-founder of a software start up, and a Governor. Half the room are millennial-age, and most are women. Everyone has a notepad and pen.
Today's class is “Social Success”, and covers pretty much every facet of etiquette: non verbal communication, conversation, voice, articulation, personal brand, and table manners. “I get a lot of people very stuck in a job or they’re just not getting the actual job,” Hardy explains. “Some people have gone into management and they want to be more polished and confident."
First on the agenda is the importance of style and wardrobe management. “Don’t underestimate the power of clothing,” says Hardy, in sync with a Powerpoint presentation. Casual dress shouldn’t be sloppy, and fashion t-shirts with big logos make you look like a “walking billboard". Our subconscious, she warns, assesses people according to how they dress; from their economic level, education, and moral character to how successful they are, and even their trustworthiness.
Isabella DiManno, 26, is here to learn how to seamlessly transition between her day job and fancier foundation events. She works as a digital marketer for a fashion house but is also on the board of the Avner Pancreatic Cancer Foundation. “In the fashion industry you can wear whatever you want,” DiManno says. “But at corporate events I have to speak in front of the CEOs of big banks, so it’s challenging to be on par with them.”
Next up: a schooling in first impressions and basic people skills. This includes the power of a good handshake, because no one trusts a limp one, stresses Hardy, who walks around the class holding out her hand to students. A good handshake is firm but never too hard, she says, and you must always look the person in the eye. “Studies have shown that the amount of rapport you get from a good handshake is the equivalent to three hours of face-to-face time,” apparently.
After a 15-minute tea break—and yes, just like in period films—students take their turn walking across the room with an actual book balanced on their head. They’re taught to cross their legs and how to butter a bread roll at the dinner table. Bread should always broken into small bite sized pieces, never cut. And the bread is never used to mop-up soup. (Hardy: “It’s about setting the intent for how you want to be perceived.")
Many students are here for work reasons. Like Alvaro Gaueri, the co-founder of a software tech company, who enrolled to brush up on his fine-dining skills. The 31-year-old says his business partner was unimpressed with his lack of them while entertaining potential clients one night. "Table manners is my greatest weakness,” Gaueri says. “My dad has come all the way from Germany to visit me for four days, but I’m here at this course because I’m improving myself. I think it’s the only way to grow.’’ Today he’s wearing rolled up chinos with socks, but admits to wearing shorts around the office.
Restaurant owners and spouses Nora and Rouvi Sidarous are here to pass on what they learn to their waitstaff. Rouvi, a former tax accountant, owns four restaurants across Sydney with his wife, Nora. “We want to make sure our staff give great service to the customers, that they are respectful, and that the language they use is appropriate,” he says.
Nora says a handy tip she's gleaned from Hardy today is the importance of sometimes slowing down her pace in busy or stressful situations. “To slow down in your walking and talking... [I've learned] that slowing down isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a reflection of being in control.”
Hardy, 45, started the ASOE in 2010 after a friend suggested it was a niche market. She now competes against a small handful of etiquette classes in Australia, but says demand for her services is increasing every year. She runs the ASOE "Social Success" classes once a month across three states when she’s not working one-on-one with private clients. She also runs classes for children.
Hardy got her start at talent agency June Dally-Watkins, where she spent six years teaching etiquette. After that she worked as an executive assistant in London before being transferred to Manhattan, where she worked with Etiquette Outreach, an etiquette school run by author Lyudmila Bloch.
"The diversity in my clientele from a corporate perspective is massive because etiquette covers every single platform,” she says. Two weeks ago, Hardy was teaching national soccer team The Matildas how to power pose. Power posing has entered the mainstream consciousness thanks to Amy Cuddy, an American social psychologist and TED talk speaker whose 2010 study found that people who were directed to stand in certain positions reported increased “feelings of power” and confidence.
Here today is Julianne Christopher, the executive officer of the NSW State Thoroughbred Breeders Association, a title that sees her organising industry functions and events. She describes her background as “very country,” and says she’s here to polish up her social skills. “I felt that I might have lacked a bit of self confidence. I wanted to make sure I was doing things correctly. I have a few boxes already ticked.”
Clients arrive wanting to feel more confident in social and professional settings, Hardy explains; they want to learn how to communicate more effectively. And there's nothing old-fashioned about that. “Two weeks ago, the NY Times reported the number one types of books being reprinted at the moment are etiquette books, [so] People are wanting that skill more. Etiquette is a secret language everyone wants to know."
This article originally appeared on VICE AU.