As the etiquette bible Debrett’s launches its latest A to Z of Modern Manners and looks forward to its 250th anniversary, Sam Forsdick hears from Renée Kuo, managing director of the firm
Over its long history Debrett’s has been described as the posh bible and the handbook for the elite. In days gone by the book helped establish formal etiquette and table manners for the upper classes, while their directory of titled families provided the go-to guide for parents when making sure their children paired up with someone from the correct family. But in a day and age where an American actress can marry into the British royal family is the world of Debrett’s still relevant? Perhaps unsurprising, the answer from Renee Kuo, the American managing director of the 249-year-old firm, is emphatic: ‘Social niceties, behaviour and protocols are very much still relevant.’
The Debrett’s A to Z of Modern Manners comes out in May, the previous edition of which came out in 2008, and does away with the fusty old interpretations of etiquette in the hopes of capturing a new audience. If you have ever caught yourself asking the question, ‘can I open my prawn sandwich at my desk?’; ‘is it OK to include an emoji when messaging a colleague?’ or ‘should I bring up Brexit over dinner?’ Then the A to Z has your answers – and if you’re wondering, it’s a ‘no’ to all of the above.
Other tips include: making your food pictures as unobtrusive as possible; not allowing Google to become an impediment to curiosity; resisting the urge to take the moral high ground if you are a vegan and, if you find yourself on the receiving end of a ‘mansplanation’, feigning wide-eyed ignorance, before correcting them on a point of obscure detail. Kuo hopes that the guide can help people navigate the confusing codes of conduct of modern life.
Kuo also wants to move past that old perception of Debrett’s: ‘We do still teach people how to dress at Ascot so as not to be thrown out of the royal enclosure but that’s not our bread and butter.’ It is now a company that offers coaching classes and publishing self-help books in a bid to promote ‘confidence for all.’
In order to achieve this Debrett’s launched its Academy to offer coaching for individuals and businesses to improve confidence and interpersonal skills. These include classes in public speaking, networking, corporate dining and international etiquette. Kuo says its ‘new premise is giving people confidence in unfamiliar social situations’.
One of the most successful of these classes has been ‘professional impact for women’. Kuo was keen for the course to be introduced as she experienced many obstacles that face women in the workplace, while working in banking, she says. ‘You find that even companies with a 55 per cent female intake have less than ten per cent female representation at a senior level.’
Kuo believes a lack of female mentors, being talked over in meetings and a lack of confidence are critical issues women face and hopes that the course will help to rectify this. ‘It teaches men and women how to communicate and work together effectively,’ explains Kuo, ‘It’s about adapting your communication style to those of others. The women love it and I’d love to see the men love it too.’
With the approach of the royal wedding people are taking a new interest in some of Debrett’s centuries old expertise. The oragnisation will have a representative at Windsor to advise the media on the royal procedures. Kuo claims they have been inundated with questions on what title Meghan will receive and what she’ll be wearing. ‘I’m very glad people know us for that but there’s so much more to the company that is much more relevant to everyday life.’
Whether Debrett’s has modernised enough is up for debate. Titled families may not see the same need to buy the £450 Peerage & Baronetage tome or to invest in their finishing schools for their young. Others might though. One thing appears certain, with its academy and a new range of books, Debrett’s is showing it has the legs to go beyond its 250th anniversary. Its modern manners A to Z is already back ordered, showing that etiquette matters more than ever, even in 2018.
Sam Forsdick is a writer for Spear's