Making an Impression
By Moeena Halim
Mumbai Mirror | Updated: Apr 13, 2018, 12.00 AM IST
Etiquette expert Sabira Merchant on acquiring the skills that will set teenagers apart as adults.
For over a decade, theatre and film personality Sabira Merchant has been the guru of grooming and etiquette. She recently began working with young adults and teenagers to teach them the skills to transform them into “savvy personalities”. When parents attending her communication, grooming and etiquette workshop suggested she conduct the sessions with children, Merchant thought it was a wonderful idea. “It made far more sense for me to teach them the skills when they were younger,” she says.
In today’s corporate environment, a good academic education is no longer enough and “teaching manners to teenagers gives them the tools to function and succeed as adults”. Certain key skills — be it holding a conversation, knowing the art of responding to a question or even being confident in one’s skin — can be crucial in setting one apart from the rest. In her workshop, Merchant provides written, individual feedback to each participant with advice on where one can improve. “I give very specific feedback telling them what they’re doing wrong. In some cases, it might be their accent, or speed of delivery, or a hesitation while responding. I offer tips on how they can improve,” she says. The idea is to enable the teenagers to become finer, more well-rounded human beings, and help them polish and strengthen their relationships.
How one interacts with another has taken a radical turn, thanks to technology, and everything from an invitation to a party, to condolence messages, is sent via text messages. She begins her day-long session with a presentation on the important points to consider while communicating effectively in person, such as ensuring clarity of speech and thought, focussing on your body language, being well aware of current affairs (via news channels) and not just the latest gossip from peers. She then encourages the youngsters to address the crowd and introduce themselves keeping those points in mind. “They’re to deliver a speech about themselves, in which they must cover likes, dislikes, their ambitions and goals,” she explains. Merchant also attends to special needs such as a problem with stuttering or a speech defect so she can focus on helping them improve.
Merchant has noticed that teenagers today are extremely nervous and shy and sometimes find it hard to come out of their shell. In such cases, introducing themselves at a party and breaking the ice with a group of strangers becomes a crucial skill to impart. “When entering a room full of strangers, it is important that they don’t wait for people to approach them. They must be bold and willing to put themselves out there,” she says. The trick to this is simple — break into a group politely and just say hello. “You could say, ‘Hello, mind if I interrupt you?’, introduce yourself and offer to shake their hand. Remember, the handshake must not be a limp one,” she adds.
Often, words such as ‘oven’ or ‘cabin’ — that crop up in everyday life — are mispronounced as ‘ohven’ or ‘kay-bin’. It’s a pet peeve for Merchant, who believes a good grounding in conversational English is absolutely essential. “Verbal exercises that help to improve basic language skills are also part of the workshop,” says Merchant, who throws in a list of luxury labels. Mispronouncing high-fashion labels such as Louis Vuitton or Yves Saint Laurent could be quite a faux pas, and avoiding these mistakes is as important as getting the fine-dining experience right. “I expect even the teens to know about wines, cocktails, how to serve yourself food and use cutlery and glasses,” she says.
Being polite and minding your manners in school is just as important as it is in a social environment, believes Merchant. “It is important for school-going children to learn how to show deference to teachers while interacting with them, even if it is merely saying ‘good morning’ or ‘thank you’. I’ve found that if they don’t know how to do this while in school, they suffer in college. They find themselves struggling to cope, while teaching themselves these basic skills by observing others,” she notes.
“It’s very important not to be overdependent on your computer, tablet, mobile phone or any other device. When your friend is two rooms away from you and you’d rather communicate via a screen, you’re leaving humanity behind and turning into robots,” says Merchant. Not completely averse to technology, Merchant does realise the importance of communication etiquette when it comes to using electronic devices too, especially writing emails, or conversing on WhatsApp or even while holding a telephone conversation. “Most teenagers don’t speak anymore, they just send WhatsApp messages. I lay emphasis on the fact that written communication must not involve shortening the language, especially in an email. I’ve noticed that even courtships are held over text messages. A one-on-one exchange is very important. During family time or at social gatherings if you must answer a phone call or respond to a message, always excuse yourself before you do it,” says Merchant. Finally, when it comes to social media, her number one concern is making a public spectacle. “Remember that it is a public platform. Do not reveal where you are and who you’re with at any time,” she says.