How much do you really know about addressing people in high office?
You received the invitation and you realise this is as formal as it can get. The envelope, card stock, gold gilded edges, font and dress code all indicate the level of formality and your preparations start.
This is a sit-down formal dinner.
As a start, it is important to recognise the difference between the definition of etiquette and protocol.
Etiquette is the term referring to the customary code of social behaviour or a system of accepted rules that are considered correct depending on the culture, traditions and history of a country. On the other hand, protocol is the code of conduct and behaviour that governs diplomacy and therefore it is a set of rules and procedures that are followed by diplomatic and government officials at ceremonies and state events. This will help you understand that certain behaviour manifested by those in high office is not due to them being impersonal, as they may come across, but most likely due to protocol they have to follow. As a guest, you are not expected to know the details of protocol but you are expected to know the following basics:
The first responsibility as a guest is to make sure you RSVP in a timely manner. This does not only apply if the event is formal but even an informal event requires you to confirm attendance or not. Should you have RO (Regrets Only) instead, then you will only need to advise the host if you are not attending. There is nothing more annoying than having to chase guests for their confirmation to continue with the preparations. A formal dinner requires more preparation than a stand-up reception. Organisers need to see to food allergies, seating plans, order of precedence and making sure that there are no empty place settings at the tables.
The second is the dress code. Depending on the type of dress code outlined on the invitation, whether it’s Lounge, Black Tie, Evening, or Cocktail, you will find enough reliable reference to follow if you are in doubt. It’s best to be slightly overdressed than underdressed and there are various subtle ways to choose an outfit that would be considered safe for you to feel that you got it right. The trick is to research well.
Third is punctuality. This will depend on the type of event you are being invited to and what the invitation states. When punctuality is important for the smooth running of an event particularly one with activities starting on time, you will see the word ‘sharp’ written after the given time. On the other hand, when you only have the time written on the invitation, it is considered acceptable to arrive around 5 to 10 minutes after the stipulated time as long as you don’t overdo it as you wouldn’t want to be tip-toeing your way to the table in the middle of a speech.
At the venue
On arrival you may be greeted with welcome drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Before indulging in taking both (you’ll be using both hands), have a look around and if you see a receiving line close by, keep your right hand free. You’re going to need it to shake hands with dignitaries, the guest of honour and host and giving a moist handshake if you held your cold wine glass in your right hand is not the best first impression you can give. At this point, it is important to keep in mind that receiving lines are an efficient way to ensure that the host and guest of honour get a chance to meet all the guests so this is no time for long conversation. This is what is expected of you.
So it’s your turn to shake hands and all of a sudden you realise that the guest of honour is none other than an Ambassador. If you are not sure who the guest of honour is as there are more than two people in the receiving line, always check who the person on the right hand side of the host is. The guest of honour is always on the right of the host – even at table. So, how do you address an ambassador or other person holding high office for that matter?
An ambassador is the formal representative of the Head of State of the country s/he represents. For this reason, he/she is addressed like the President, hence Your Excellency.
The correct greeting would therefore be “Good evening Your Excellency” while extending your hand to shake hands and keeping good eye contact. Should the ambassador speak to you briefly or ask you a question simply reply in a concise manner before moving on. This same greeting will be given to The President but not to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is addressed as Honourable or Prime Minister whereas a Minister is addressed as Honourable. The spouse of the Prime Minister would be addressed as Mrs and her surname. If the Archbishop is present, he would be greeted with Your Excellency too. If you happen to meet Prince William, The Duke of Cambridge then you would address him as Your Royal Highness first and subsequently Sir. Likewise the Duchess of Cambridge would be addressed as Your Royal Highness first and subsequently Ma’am. The correct formal address for The Queen of England is Your Majesty and subsequently Ma’am.
One of the most awkward moments people experience is when they are stuck and have no clue how to address a dignitary correctly. If this happens, try to listen to those in line before you and if this is not possible, opt for good evening and a warm smile.
Formal dining etiquette requires another dedicated post to cover all the dos and don’ts of formal dining however a special mention must go to the topics that are best avoided at table. Steer away from discussing religion, sexual orientation, war, money or politics and initiate pleasant conversation instead. The key to a good conversation starter is to ask appropriate open ended questions on topics that are unlikely to develop into heated arguments.
After the event
As with any event, if you’d like to leave a lasting impression take some time to send a note to the host to say what a lovely evening it was and to thank him/her once again for inviting you.
Remember that no matter who you are or what you are doing, your manners will have a direct impact on your professional and social success.
Ramona Galea is an International Etiquette Consultant and the Founder of First Class Etiquette which provides customised training programmes, including Corporate Etiquette programmes, delivered under licence from The International Etiquette and Protocol Academy of London.
For more information, drop her a line here [http://www.firstclassetiquette.net/contact-us/]