How to eat a banana, and other life lessons from finishing school – RN
Do you know how to eat a banana with correct etiquette? The answer may surprise you. (Getty: Picture Alliance)
How to eat a banana with a knife and fork. Toasting without clinking glasses. Enunciation. Perfect poise.
You’ll cover all this at a modern Australian finishing school — but it’s not for these lessons that 20-year-old Jai has signed up.
He has, somewhat nervously, arrived at finishing school one Saturday morning for the same reason as several others I meet.
Confidence — and the pursuit of a little more of it.
Finishing schools, such as this one from 1959, still exist, and say their clientele is growing. (Getty: John Franks)
Suzan Johnston is a nearly 60-year-old finishing school tucked between two shops on one of the busiest streets of Melbourne’s CBD.
The building’s foyer is painted too loudly for the early start, but up on level six the entrance is all warm lighting and smiling receptionists.
Students of this Melbourne finishing school are learning skills taught in the past, but new ones too. (ABC RN: Anna Kelsey-Sugg)
Jai and I chat in his course classroom; 360-degree mirrors and dressing room lights wrap the walls.
We sit in vinyl ’80s office chairs. He shifts position on his several times. Reaches for a water bottle. Changes his mind.
“I guess everyone wishes they were a bit more confident,” he says, with a warm smile.
Jai believes communicating more confidently will help him find a job. (ABC RN: Anna Kelsey-Sugg)
A story without words
Jai is doing a two-day male image development course, covering everything from table etiquette and conversation skills to confidence, resilience and self-acceptance.
His trainer, Megan Love, begins with a lesson on body language.
People make a purely visual judgement about others within three seconds, she says.
Ms Love asks her students what story they want to tell with their body language. Slouching, for example, could indicate disinterest or lack of confidence.
Trainer Megan Love demonstrates the importance of body language to students Jai and Rhien. (ABC RN: Anna Kelsey-Sugg )
Jai and his classmate Rhien, also in his 20s, listen quietly, their faces serious.
At points in the class, they face the mirrors to examine their reflections, as Ms Love talks them through perfecting their stance.
“You don’t get a second chance at first impressions,” she tells them.
Ms Love offers lots of little tips — “hold your drink in your left hand so you’re free to shake with your right”.
But she gives broader advice, too. Utilise your voice in a powerful way. Believe in yourself. Don’t be disturbed by someone else’s reaction to you. Listen with the view of learning something.
Jai says he thinks the course will put him “one step ahead of everyone else” when it comes to “fighting for jobs and certain positions”.
He doesn’t want to settle for “just another ordinary job” when he graduates from his criminology degree.
He wants to “aim high”.
Edgy, ladylike or bohemian?
I slip into the classroom next door, and find a vocal mix of teenage girls and women at least a generation older.
In the room is a catwalk, wall-sized mirror, a series of posters celebrating past students and material colour charts, used to determine which shades suit which complexions.
Fabric colour charts are used in make-over sessions to determine which shades suit particular complexions. (ABC RN: Anna Kelsey-Sugg)
There’s a sense of comfortable camaraderie as the students discuss makeup, makeovers and whether a person’s style is ‘edgy’, ‘ladylike’ or ‘bohemian’.
They talk about online shopping — some of the older women are sceptical — and then move to the large mirror, where they are asked to identify their body shape.
Rectangle, triangle, inverted triangle, hourglass, round.
Students are asked to identify if their body shape is, for example, rectangular, hourglass or round. (ABC RN: Anna Kelsey-Sugg)
The discussion is prefaced with the message that there is no right or wrong body shape.
That’s not reinforced by the class hand-outs; all the examples of 10 fashion categories are of very slim models and celebrities.
But trainer Catherine Ayad emphasises the importance of self-love and self-care.
“Remember, you’re hard on yourself,” she says. “Be a bit nicer to yourself.”
A little book of life hacks
When the subject of job interviews comes up, the older generation offers advice.
If you’re asked for a personal weakness, one woman says, don’t offer one that’s obviously a strength, like, ‘I just work too hard’.
Yes, agrees Ms Ayad. Don’t be obviously disingenuous — and make sure your weakness isn’t something that suggests you can’t do the job.
Heads are nodding. Hands are taking notes.
Finishing school is a kind of rule book — with hacks scribbled in its margins.
Tara, 14, is here because she wants to be a model. She’s keen to learn about make-up and posture, but like Jai, she also wants to walk away with more confidence.
14-year-old Tara wanted some extra confidence to start looking for her first job. (ABC RN: Anna Kelsey-Sugg)
“I’m going to get a job soon,” she says, telling me she had “no idea” what to do in a job interview before coming to the course.
A few chairs along is Elyse. She’s not thinking to the future; she’s job-seeking now.
Job-seeker Elyse is gaining confidence and self-esteem from her finishing course. (ABC RN: Anna Kelsey-Sugg)
After leaving school early, she tried a range of different jobs and courses, but nothing felt quite right.
She was “really scared of confrontation” when she was younger, and is now gaining confidence and self-esteem.
“[It’s] having people motivate you that you’re good enough,” she says.
“Everyone just keeps up the professional morale and it just makes you feel really nice.”
A symbol of status
There are a handful of other finishing schools in Melbourne, and those I speak with tell me their clientele is growing.
The wealthy suburb of Malvern, east of the city, is home to Dash Finishing School.
Its founder, Devyani Joon, tells me that, despite the Mercs lining the street, her school is different from its predecessors.
Finishing school founder Devyani Joon teaches a class in international dining etiquette (ABC RN: Anna Kelsey-Sugg)
Back in the 1950s, Ms Joon explains, finishing schools were “reserved for the uber wealthy”, and synonymous with prestige and status.
They were populated by young girls, sent by their families for “social polishing” and to help them acquire husbands.
But “we don’t live in that era any longer”, Ms Joon says.
She sits with such a straight back that I find myself surreptitiously correcting my own posture.
When dining with the Queen, beware the ‘boat oars’
Ms Joon — who has travelled to around 60 countries — tells me about some of the tips students cover in her school’s international dining etiquette course.
The rules would apply at an event at the White House, or at a dinner with the Queen. (Should you ever meet the Queen, according to regal protocol: curtsey or bow, and address her as Your Majesty and subsequently Ma’am, pronounced like jam.)
Dining with the Queen? Mind you don’t clink glasses and expect to eat your fruit with cutlery. (Getty: WPA Pool)
Ms Joon’s first tip: eat fruit with a knife and fork — even bananas. Her students practise doing just that.
Don’t excuse yourself from the table — even if you’ve spilt soup all over yourself. That’s considered highly disrespectful in a formal setting, Ms Joon says.
If you’ve spilt your soup over the person next to you, don’t hand over your napkin (ask the waitstaff for one) and definitely don’t dab the other person’s clothes for them, Ms Joon says.
Apologise, but don’t over-apologise.
Even if the event is less formal, beware of your flatware (cutlery).
“I see a lot of boat oars,” Ms Joon says, referring to used cutlery left leaning from the side of a plate to the table, rather than resting on the plate.
“That’s something that’s not right.”
Ms Joon also teaches about different cultural etiquette practices.
If you’re eating soup in Japan, she says, it’s common to lift your bowl to drink it.
In Korea, however, “that would be associated with a beggar”.
Then there’s slurping, which, in China, is “absolutely fine” and shows an appreciation of the food, says Ms Joon.
“But internationally it’s not considered very good.”
She shares a final tip with me, delivered as a gentle scold.
I was running a few minutes late for our meeting and emailed an hour in advance to say so.
Did my etiquette pass the test?
Calling would have been better, Ms Joon says. She’s smiling, but she’s serious too.
“It’s very short notice,” she says.
“We must provide at least 24 hours for the person to respond back to an email.”