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Book review: The art of refinement

By Adesuwa Onyenekwe

I FIRST met Mavi Isibor  some sixteen years ago, in the early days of Poise, when she was starting a camp for teenagers and she and her then partner came as guests on my TV show, today’s woman to talk about etiquette, the camp and more…

Seven years later when I went into publishing today’s woman/TW, I wanted a wholesome magazine that dealt with body, mind and soul, even as it sought to tell great stories and share fashion ideas. Obviously, having a segment dealing with the ‘art of refinement’ was inevitable and so we developed an etiquette column. I reached out Mrs. Isibor and she accepted. For the next two years she churned out a piece monthly and I can’t remember why we stopped. Eventually, the column was rested but we stayed friends.

Title: The Art Of Refinement.
Author: Mavi Isibor
Reviewer: Adesuwa Onyenekwe
Pages: 272

Fast-forward to three weeks ago and a late evening call from Mavi ended with me saying yes to reviewing a book on etiquette and I really couldn’t refuse. As I read through and met themes like the ‘ko mean’ syndrome, it took me back to those days when we hoped we could contribute to the refinement of our readers and as I read through the book that old despair was promptly replaced by a feeling of …AT LAST!


‘Art of Refinement’ is a 272 page book of pure grace. First, because it could only have been the grace of God that caused Mavi to be born of a woman with an eye for detail. So, at any time, in any time, for every time, there is a go to resource that can sort any one out when it comes to the art of refinement. Better for us Nigerians who can identify with all the examples the book is replete with.

Cultured elegance

Again, when language is clear, fluid and succinct, reading through becomes a graceful breeze. It’s not like work at all!!!

The six-part book begins with an introduction by the author justifying the need for everyone to learn the art of refinement. We are told that refinement is summed up in four words:  DECORUM.  FINESSE.  CLASS.  POISE.

With globalization no one can run away from acquiring this art. Which is no more than “possessing a cultured elegance in behavior and manner”, and which the author concludes, is grossly lacking in our world today.  However life, experience and research prove that it can be learned, just keep an open mind seek the resources,  acquire  it and  practice  it… NO need for Silver spoons with the art of refinement.

  PART 1

  This part deals with understanding refinement, revealing that it is a necessity, and certainly not the preserve of a few privileged ones.  It is the author’s belief that because personality is acquired, it can be learned and unlearned. “So we can be more refined if only we tried”. To quote from her book,

“The possession and  display  of refinement, class, finesse and character… it is a choice…It is not acquired with age,  status, position, wealth or experience. It is a deliberate  decision  to live a decent and dignified life.

Man  has two creators God and Himself…

Mastery of any and everything is achieved only through  discipline  and self-control, there is no shortcut”

The author goes on to decry the situation Nigeria has found herself in, where morals and standards have continuously witnessed a downward trend. With graphic examples, she paints a picture of a society populated by people who willfully litter and pee on the road, speak in loud tones in public, and jump queues as a matter of course!

Listing these as just some, amongst the several uncouth characteristics we exhibit today; most of which we are willfully passing along to our young without regard. What we have today are children who talk back at adults because they have no respect for age. It is her belief that we are where we are because we settle. Encapsulated in the ‘Ko mean syndrome’ coined by late elder statesman, Gamaliel Onosode, and adopted by Mavi to drive home this point

The secret of  excellence  lies in  your  ability to banish the  “ko-mean syndrome”.  We  are the architects of our  own destinies. Because if we ignore the little things saying they do not matter, they fast become monsters and major weaknesses and so believes that we need to begin with ourselves, the man in the mirror.”

“If  each person creates their own oasis of sanity,  in  a short while Nigeria will be a river of sanity, then an  Ocean  of sanity, and then a sea of sanity, and when this  extends  beyond the shores of Nigeria, we will have a sane  continent.”

With the art of refinement, the author is seeking to create  that oasis of sanity. And the rest of the book goes to achieve this, by giving readers the tools to do so.


Deals with the  what we do  turning out to be the longest section of the book with 108 pages dedicated to it. Clearly, it is more in what we do or not do, that our refinement or the lack thereof is most reflected. So this section treats how you set about refining your actions, whether in public or in private. There are ‘how tos’ with set guidelines for refined behavior like office courtesies. She shares an anecdote of a first name ‘boo boo’ by a subordinate officer who overstepped his boundaries by calling his superior by his first name, and shared on how it is bad etiquette to give out others’ telephone numbers without their permission, or calling people before 7am or after 7pm.

The Art of Refinement shows the appropriate way to behave in all circumstances from the salon to new environments, in the aircraft, and even the etiquette of applause!!!   She writes of a little known quality of refinement that is super important, Cultural intelligence… CQ, citing the example of a major gaffe by the then Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, in 1992, when he inappropriately ‘touched’ the Queen of England during her visit to Australia.

The casual hand at the back gesture to direct her to view a painting at an exhibition, earned the Australian the title of… Lizard of Oz. This was describing him as uncivilized because he had no knowledge of the sensibilities to how the Queen of England should be treated. He was culturally ignorant.

PART THREE addresses what you say, emphasizing the power of words, the need to cultivate refined speech with the how. It shows how to be more deliberate about our communication because, choice of words will determine whether your communication is rude, inappropriate or lacks courtesy. This section equips the reader with ways to express courtesy and most readers will find that there is something new to learn. How many for example know that a simple rephrasing can take away the sting from a negative review?

Pursuit of excellence

On pg 182 for example she shares a phrase THIS PROPOSAL IS UTTERLY SENSELESS…. NEEDS SERIOUS WORKING. Directed at a subordinate, this could be crushing she observes suggesting a subtler way to pass on the same message in different words, advising thus, “words are the most powerful drugs known to mankind. Administer them well”

She goes on in PART FOUR to show that how you say what you say is also critical. This is more to do with enunciation and grammar. Pursuit of excellence never gives excuses, so one can’t get away with saying things like “it’s not our language” when we have to speak any language that’s not ours. Simple manners require that we seek to speak it to the best possible. (Anecdote of someone’s misguided pronunciation of the word owl while on a trip to the UK.) Mavi urges every reader to grow their vocabulary and she gives examples to show you how.

PART FIVE dwells on How you look,  showing more of the why and how to put your best face forward. The author emphasizes the need for decency, poise and comportment for all, male or female.

With graphic detail, she shows how one can see that your first impression counts, stating that people always come to their conclusions starting with what they see. So without seeking to be seen to be making a fashion statement, The Art Of Refinement shows how adornments and dressing add up to your poise and refinement. Dress up, with the way you want to come across being uppermost in your mind.

PART SIX … I see as a bonus really, because in dealing with the social corner, the author has very succinctly taken the art of public speaking and anchoring, and put them squarely where they belong…the front burner! Why spend so much on putting a public activity together without knowing what kind of skills whoever you hire to anchor it needs to have? She asks.

Whether corporate or social, Isibor opines that the compere can make or break an event, which is why she has taken the pain to give in detail, the steps to acquiring the qualities of a great compere, or Master of Ceremonies, as it were.

Intelligence and creativity

She identified these qualities to include great communication skills, a personable character, intelligence and creativity. The etiquette of the lectern, and Flags, which ends this section, clearly shows that you do not have to be in the profession of being a compere, to acquire the skills in this section. Lectern etiquette for example should concern any public speaker. Getting on it, the distance to maintain while standing on it to deliver your paper, exiting a lectern and what you do with your paper once done, all matter.

You finish this well written error- free book, laughing sometimes, shocked sometimes, (like when you discover the number of gaffes even you had been committing out of ignorance), and you are glad that you have in your hand, something that proves that the art of refinement is certainly not the preserve of any group, and it s a life long process. The best thing about it? With the ‘how to’ in black and white, you can always go back to it as a reference point that you can always go back to again and again, (DICTIONARY OR BIBLE) without shame, because … Quote pg 38

“We are like gold. We are not born polished, we will have the debris in our personalities, all our wrong perceived notions, ideas, beliefs and biases, melted down, purified and moulded again” and I say moulded again by…THE ART OF REFINEMENT. .

AdesuwaOnyenokwe is Publisher | Editor in chief, tw  Magazine



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