Meet the etiquette coach teaching grace and poise to Dubai residents

Manners maketh the manager as a growing number of fresh graduates and working professionals turn to TikTok teacher Ziying Zhou for guidance

Ziying Zhou, left, a graduate of a prestigious Swiss finishing school, conducts etiquette lessons in the UAE and UK. Photo: Ziying Zhou
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Whether it's teaching someone how to better engage with different nationalities, decode cutlery at an elegant dinner party or make polite yet sincere small talk, etiquette coach Ziying Zhou is winning followers online for helping to improve social conduct.

The Chinese influencer, who lives and works in Dubai and London, attracts millions of views on TikTok thanks to her videos on social grace and professional poise.

She even demonstrates, of all things, how to apply perfume “properly”. There are four crucial spray points, she says in a video that has 1.8 million views, after re-enacting the mistakes people typically commit in the act. In another clip, she shows how to drink water “elegantly”, while a third teaches viewers how to use chopsticks and eat watery xiaolongbao dumplings.

Although garnering millions of views, the short clips often receive mixed reactions, including some branding them “silly”.

However, beyond the naysayers, there are many who are entertained and, crucially for Zhou's business model, intrigued. The social rules many seek to conform to and even master form an integral part of the etiquette workshops she conducts both online and in-person, which include everything from dining protocol to always looking the part.

They start to realise: 'OK, rather than invest in an expensive handbag, shoes or holiday, what can I invest in to make myself more valuable?'
Ziying Zhou, etiquette coach

“I teach everything from how to hold a knife and a fork properly to how to sit, and even how to enter a room with presence,” she tells The National.

Zhou also covers business protocol, such as creating a first impression at work, learning cross-cultural cues in a multinational environment and initiating small talk.

Swiss finishing school alumna

Teaching people how to behave was once a huge industry, most popular among the children of ultra-high-net-worth individuals. Rich families from around the world would send their children, usually girls, to finishing schools to study strict social codes, from seating order at dinner to tea service protocol.

As social etiquette expectations eased over the years, the demand waned and many establishments shut down. But not Institut Villa Pierrefeu in Montreux, Switzerland – often described as the last finishing school in Europe – which is where Zhou studied.

Her lessons are based on what she learnt during the course and, similar to the institute's goals, Zhou says she “approaches social grace with modernity”.

Part of the reason the school still exists is its change of clientele, who now range from wealthy heiresses to average executives who want to refine their manners. Today, the school markets its curriculum as one that will prepare students for the business world and society.

If you can carry yourself like a royal, that level of confidence could take you anywhere
Ziying Zhou

Zhou, who left a career in banking to run her business, believes etiquette is far more than merely knowing how to set a dinner table.

No hard and fast rules

“Whatever you do or say, always think about how you will make others feel.”

This was the advice Zhou's father gave her when she was young, which guides the way she conducts her lessons. Although some social codes and behaviours can be "hyper-specific", Zhou believes etiquette is all about making other people feel comfortable.

“Etiquette is not about following a strict set of rules – it is about putting people around you at ease,” she says.

This straightforward rule grounds all of the other elements of social grace, she says, hopefully stripping it off of some of the elitism that people associate it with.

“Etiquette is not just for the top 1 per cent or if you're a diplomat or part of the royal family. If you can learn how to carry yourself like a royal, that level of confidence could take you anywhere you want in life,” Zhou explains.

More people are signing up to the idea. Over the past few months, the etiquette coach has staged workshops and private lessons in the UAE, where she says demand is growing. Her students are a mix of children, new graduates preparing for the workplace and established professionals who are “looking for the next step in life" and want to invest more in themselves.

Of the latter, she says: “They start to realise: 'OK, rather than invest in an expensive handbag, shoes or holiday, which I already have, what can I invest in to make myself more valuable?'.”

She cites the example of a former student, who is a senior director at an international company, meaning she deals with people from various cultures. “She was always conscious about how she would behave in high-profile events, but after working with me, she became confident about carrying herself,” says Zhou.

Etiquette, Zhou says, is also about being “mindful of the context”.

Dating, for instance, is one social activity where cultural differences come under the spotlight. A traditional finishing school would dictate that women should never pay the bill, but Zhou says dating etiquette is almost always dictated by culture. For her, whoever initiates the date should pay, but the other person should at least offer.

Zhou agrees that these nuances are often learnt naturally, but etiquette lessons can provide a nudge in the right direction, especially for those who aren't as exposed to many social situations, but would like to be in the know when they are.

Updated: July 05, 2023, 10:55 AM