At the prompting of Pria Warrick, her class of aspiring politicians open their arms wide and press their palms together over their heads — milking the cheers of an imaginary crowd of supporters.
“This gesture conveys you want to embrace the masses as one of your own,” explained Warrick, who runs the Pria Warrick Finishing School in New Delhi.
Originally targeted at newly-weds and the wives of businessmen eager to improve their hostessing skills, the school has recently become a popular resource for politicians wanting to beef up their voter appeal.
“We’ve been having a lot of people from various political parties coming here,” Warrick said. “They don’t know how much difference a receptive body language can make, but they are keen to change.”
Warrick said very few Indian politicians employ image consultants and most rely on advice from civil servants, who are “very intelligent, but have no idea about professional etiquette.”
In their class, the students conduct role-plays to explore how they might behave in different situations on the campaign trail, whether visiting an influential supporter or an impoverished farmer.
“Some of them feel they lack the spontaneity to answer questions,” said Warrick, who learned her trade at a classic Swiss finishing school, before setting up shop in India. “We teach them how to evade an uncomfortable question, how to be firm in their replies and yet appear friendly.”
Yawning, burping and scratching the nose are three strict no-nos in Warrick’s guide book for the political class.
“You must be ultra-careful because any action will be seen as reflecting your actual thought process,” she said.
Warrick is protective of her political students, refusing to divulge any of their names and not allowing them to be questioned directly.
A series of state elections has swollen the intake for the specialist classes, but the main business of the school remains firmly based in its original, almost exclusively female, clientele looking to polish their social skills.
Rapid economic expansion, an increasingly upwardly mobile middle class and the growing number of Indians taking up overseas posts with large multinational firms have all fueled a demand for Warrick’s expertise.
“I used to be quite introvert and shy,” said Saba Khan, 26, a homemaker whose husband works for a multinational bank. “I struggled to interact with my husband’s boss or his wife in social gatherings. Now, I feel ready to host a party. Important deals are sometimes struck over lunches and dinners. It is very important to dress, dine, talk and walk properly.”
A typical class includes lectures on the power of “small talk,” as well as tips on dinner table etiquette, such as bringing the spoon to the mouth rather than the other way round.
Across town at the International School of Ethics, a similar class is underway, but this time the students are women who want their own careers and businesses.
The institute school is run by Monica Garg, who conducts workshops on personal presentation and business etiquette for business schools, management students and people working in India’s expanding hospitality and retail sectors.
“The color black is stubborn and authoritative. So wear black when you want to put across this message. Wear warm colors like red and yellow if you want to show that you are approachable,” Garg tells her class.
Garg says the students who attend her school are well-educated and professionally competent, but often feel they lack social networking skills.
“There is a lot more awareness about image and confidence building than there was about a decade back,” Garg said.
Namrata Khanna, 24, said the course covered issues that were not touched on in business school.
“I was confused if I should dress formally for a weekend meeting with a client at a five-star hotel. Also, how much make-up should I wear, whether I should wear high heels,” Khanna said. “I learned so much here, even something as basic as shaking hands. I have been told never to offer a limp fish handshake.”
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