To marks its collaboration with The Lanesborough and new 2017 wedding guide, Debrett's academy director, Rupert Wesson, discusses manners, nobility and the future of etiquette
English writer Mary Wollstonecraft once said: “Men and women must be educated, in a great degree, by the opinions and manners of the society they live in.” For almost 250 years, since the first edition of Peerage & Baronetage was published in 1769, English society has looked to Debrett’s as the go-to comprehensive guide for the finer points of British etiquette and, for youthful debutantes, a refined directory of the most eligible bachelors in the country.
But Debrett’s has long since moved on from the days when a person’s social standing was decided by their birth. Now with its feet firmly planted in the 21st century, the brand has evolved and while the famous Peerage & Baronetage is still published every four years, more influential these days are the People of Today and Debrett’s 500, both of which celebrate inspiring people from all walks of life living and working in the UK today.
In recognition of the changing times – but also as a nod to Debrett’s history as an essential tool for socially aware Brits – the organisation has teamed up with The Lanesborough hotel to offer an exciting package for those who wish to understand in more depth the niceties of British culture and their enduring importance in the modern day.
The Guide to Social Etiquette & The Season offers a full-day tutorial exploring contemporary British attitudes to dining, etiquette, hosting and seasonal dress codes, with an overnight stay and lunch included at the hotel’s newly opened Michelin-starred Céleste restaurant. Debrett’s academy director Rupert Wesson, an ex-British Army officer and learning and development coach, believes the course has great relevance to modern Britain.
“We like to think of the early editions of Peerage as the original social network,” he explains, as we discuss the origins of Debrett’s. “Contemporary references such as Vanity Fair reveal that an entry in Debrett’s was a sign of social standing, so ambitious parents like Jane Austen’s Mrs Bennet might have scrutinised its pages for prospective sons-in-law. In the past century, though, Debrett’s has expanded its catalogue from specialist biography to more general guides on etiquette.”
The Debrett’s Training Academy was established in 2014 as a natural extension of the brand’s expertise in social and interpersonal skills, and has since delivered coaching in networking, personal impact, interview techniques and public speaking to companies and individuals around the world.
"Contemporary references such as Vanity Fair reveal that an entry in Debrett’s was a sign of social standing, so ambitious parents like Jane Austen’s Mrs Bennet might have scrutinised its pages for prospective sons-in-law"
“The skills Debrett’s teaches through its academy are more relevant than ever,” Wesson claims. “A 2015 report found that these ‘soft’ skills – which include communication, professionalism, leadership and good manners – are worth £88bn to the UK economy each year.”
So it would seem that adopting a good dose of traditional British politeness goes a long way when it comes to business today – and increasingly, Debrett’s is being approached by international companies seeking new commercial opportunities in the UK. But for those of us without the weight of industry on our shoulders – what will the new course at The Lanesborough have in store for us?
“Most of what we teach is about how to portray confidence and put others at ease in every situation,” Wesson tells me. “This is as relevant for social situations as it is for business. We look at formal and informal dinners, parties, sporting events and other social occasions. In order to help people increase their confidence, we show them what they can expect, as well as how to dress and act. Ultimately, we want people to enjoy these events and to leave a positive and lasting impression on everyone they meet.”
With social influencers like Kit Harington, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Cara Delevingne on its books, it’s clear that Debrett’s is keeping abreast of the times. But with the modern attitude to manners evolving as rapidly as our social-media obsessions, how relevant are these skills to the next generation? “Many of our courses for young people also cover social networks and the importance of managing profiles online and monitoring privacy settings,” Wesson explains. “As young people find more competition than ever for jobs and universities, we teach interview skills and networking.”
"If the older generation doesn’t like the way the younger generation acts, they have only one place to look. Manners are contagious and this applies equally to good and bad ones”
In 2014, Debrett’s published its contemporary handbook on good manners. Highlighting how the publisher continues to move with the times, the book tackled such modern-day issues such as the use of mobile phones and when and where it is rude (during meal times, at the shops, in the cinema or indeed anywhere where another person is present, in case you were wondering), the subject of blind copying or Bcc emails and eating on public transport.
“Nothing stands still, and that includes the way we treat each other,” Wesson says. “Society in Britain has become less deferential – some people confuse this with bad manners, but we are, in my view, better for it. The younger generation is more open-minded and more tolerant. If the older generation doesn’t like the way the younger generation acts, they have only one place to look. Manners are contagious and this applies equally to good and bad ones.”
To further highlight the relevance of Debrett’s in the 21st century, the publisher launched its own wedding planner app for modern couples on Valentine’s Day 2017. Sharing 250 years worth of expertise, features include a schedule so you can build a customised checklist of things to do before the big day; a wedding-day countdown; frequent notifications sending reminders of looming deadlines; budget tracking; and an ‘Inspiration’ section whereby you can consult the Debrett’s official guide on topics such as invitations, the guest list, seating plans and dress code.
Debrett’s is teaching future generations of world leaders about respect, confidence and social skills, and that is most definitely worth celebrating
If you are in need of further advice on how to plan your wedding day, last year Debrett’s launched its Wedding Essentials consultancy services, whereby etiquette experts are personally on hand to offer the bride and groom answers to any remaining questions they might have. As of this year, Debrett’s has also partnered with The Wedding Shop to assist couples in choosing wedding presents they will treasure forever.
Finally, a new edition of the Debrett’s Wedding Guide was unveiled this March to mark the 10-year anniversary of the first edition. The text largely stays true to the original, but has been modernised and updated to acknowledge changes in wedding culture over the past decade.
Judging by the wide array of social backgrounds and nationalities now benefiting from its instruction, the days of Debrett’s as a social handbook relevant only for the upper echelons are long gone. It might still cover the order in which you’re supposed to use the relevant cutlery at dinner – but Debrett’s is also teaching future generations of world leaders about respect, confidence and social skills, and that is most definitely worth celebrating.