Eat your way up the ladder

2014-02-09 14:00

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Mamtaz and Shajar Khan, the owners of Paper Dolls Modelling and Finishing School, speak to Thuletho Zwane

Finishing schools are no longer institutions known for preparing female students for marriage or entry into aristocratic society. They are now serving young professionals venturing into the corporate world.

Ever more South Africans are flocking to finishing schools to improve their ­image in an attempt to make themselves more attractive to potential employers, new business clients or business ­partners.

Sisters Mamtaz and Shajar Khan, co-owners of Paper Dolls Modelling and Finishing School, said the South African corporate culture was heavily influenced by British, European and American traditions and customs, and as such, South Africans have to learn to be “Western” to make a great impression on a future boss or client.

The pair saw the gap in the market and are now teaching South Africans about the importance of etiquette in the business world.

Mamtaz said many professionals who wanted to climb the corporate ladder or enter the job market were often apprehensive about not fitting in, of tarnishing their image or of losing a contract ­because they didn’t know the correct business ­etiquette.

“This could be something as simple as holding a fork at a dinner function, voice modulation or wearing a bright-red tailored suit to an interview,” said Mamtaz.

The idea to start a finishing school came after they attended a number of corporate functions where they saw young people struggle with basic things like wearing the wrong colour clothes, not communicating effectively or struggling with table etiquette.

“People would fill their plates with food or shout to get waiters’ attention. Some women would wear heavy make-up and short dresses to corporate functions. And worse, some people would even fist-bump their bosses,” said Shajar.

Mamtaz said the majority of South ­Africans came from disadvantaged homes and had never had ­access to the corporate world, so didn’t know how to behave in that environment.

“When you come from a household where you use your hands or a spoon to eat, being faced with cutlery for a seven-course dinner and a number of wine glasses can be overwhelming for anyone,” said Shajar.

In addition, Shajar said most young professionals lacked boundaries when it came to conversing with their colleagues. They shared gossip and befriended each other on social ­media.

“This is completely unacceptable,” she said.

Mamtaz and Shajar both studied psychology at the University of Johannesburg, and agreed that fear and a lack of self­-esteem were problems most South Africans faced. They said the lack of confidence was embedded in our struggle history.

For example, someone who grew up in a shack and managed to attend a higher education institution now works and lives in Sandton.

This person’s academic background was nurtured, but there was no effort on the part of the higher education institutions to socially prepare them for the working world.

“That is why most people are not comfortable living and working in the corporate environment,” said Mamtaz. The finishing school is trying to bridge the gap between poor South Africa and the corporate world. Mamtaz said companies would rather employ people who needed less social coaching. “This is where we come in.”

The pair teach young women business etiquette, ­social etiquette and the art of fine dining.

The dos and don’ts

Napkin on the knees

Legs crossed at the ankles

Cutlery: eat from the outside in

While eating: cutlery should face down

After eating: cutlery should face up

Cut bread roll into small pieces

Hold the wine glass at the stem

Be aware of volume and tone of voice

On a table, if you aren’t certain which glasses are yours, go to the right


Use napkin to wipe your mouth, use serviette

Cross legs at the knees

Fill your plate with food

Start eating before your host eats or the whole table has food

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