If you are ever fortunate or indeed unfortunate enough to meet The Queen then there are certain protocols that are expected. Indeed when meeting any royal, there are rules about who can speak first, where to look, what to call them, how you should stand and when you should sit. It is a mysterious business to the uninitiated.
Happily as an eleven-year-old, when I met The Queen at Commonwealth Day in 1984, I managed to avoid any of the faux-pas that some people who really should know better.
It all stems from a time when monarchs were accorded an almost divine status and had to be treated accordingly. From medieval times, monarchs were divinely appointed to rule by God, so they were kind of seen as gods, so they demanded to be treated as gods.
They are treated as people set apart from the rest of us, so primarily what it is creating is distance and grandeur.
Canada’s Governor General has been forced to defend his actions after a “slippy” carpet led to a breach of royal etiquette with the Queen. But how do you avoid a protocol slip-up?
David Johnston raised eyebrows on Wednesday as he was seen to be lightly touching Her Majesty’s elbow as she descended some steps, at an event in London.
Mr. Johnston said he was simply concerned about the Queen’s safety and made the judgement that a breach of protocol was appropriate “to be sure that there was no stumble”.
Governor General Johnston was far from the first to draw winces from traditionalists for getting touchy-feely with the Queen. When Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating was snapped putting his arm around the monarch during her 1992 royal tour of the country, the aghast press dubbed him the “Lizard of Oz”.
If you ever find yourself in the the rarefied position of making a toast in Her Majesty’s presence, remember that “to the Queen” is the cue for respectful silence as the royal band strikes up the national anthem. President Barack Obama forgot this rule at a state dinner in 2011, resulting in an awkward moment as the band drowned out the rest of his remarks, Oscar-night style.
There is a tendency for the Royals to be a little more informal and ‘of the people’ these days, a trend that started with Princess Diana. I’m not really sure I like that sort of thing as surely one of the key points of a monarchy is the differentiation between them and us. If you can just give the Queen a big bear hug and lift her off her feet then why bother having a monarchy at all? It’s not just for The Queen, nothing made me more suspicious than when I worked in some organisation and the manager or director pretended they were friendly or vaguely interested in you. I didn’t want my manager to be my friend, I just wanted them to do their job properly! Similarly I wasn’t that enamoured with Tony Blair being in comedy sketches. I’m just a stick in the mud, I know.
Surely though it is incumbent for people to learn what is expected of them. I’m not Catholic and I have no real knowledge of how to behave when meeting The Pope beyond being deferential but I would take the time to do a little research beforehand and that would go for the Dalai Lama, the Ayatollah, the American President or anyone else of supposed importance. You would think that out of the hundreds or even thousands of people on President Obama’s team who worked on the visit, someone might have learned the basics and informed their boss!
Still, at least he fared better than previous guests as it is customary for The Queen to be served her food first, followed by her guests. Bearing in mind that sometimes there might be several hundred people to then be subsequently served their meal that this might quite some time. Sadly for those at the far end, as soon as the Monarch has finished eating then her plates are taken away, as is everyone else’s.
To avoid any future mishaps, however, here is a reminder of the traditional dos and don’ts.
- Curtsey or bow (the head only) – although you can also shake hands or do a combination of the two.
- Use the right greetings. On presentation to the Queen, the correct address is Your Majesty and subsequently Ma’am, pronounced like jam.
- Be early. Guests should arrive before a royal.
- Take the Queen’s lead. Don’t talk unless spoken to, sit until she sits or begin eating until she does.
- Form semi-circles. If you are presented to Her Majesty at a Royal event it is likely you will be marshalled into position in a series of semi-circles rather than straight lines. Guests should try to be empty-handed, Debrett’s adds.
- Touch Her Majesty. Only shake her hand if she offers it. In 2000, John Howard appeared to have put his arm around the Queen, as did US First Lady Michelle Obama in 2009.
- Expect the Queen to start the conversation with you if you are sitting on her left during a meal. As etiquette experts Debrett’s states, it is customary for the guest of honour to sit to the right of the Queen and the convention is that she speaks to this person during the first course of the dinner, then switches attention to the person on her left for the following course. Formula 1 star Lewis Hamilton, who was sat to her left at one function, didn’t know this and tried to speak to Her Majesty but was politely told: “No, you speak that way first and I’ll speak this way and then I’ll come back to you.”
- Leave before the Queen. Debrett’s states guests should never leave an event before the royal personage unless permission has been granted through a private secretary.
- Turn your back on Her Majesty – it is considered rude.
- Take pictures when you are visiting her at home. She may be one of the most photographed women in the world, but unofficial photography is not permitted in royal palaces and that most definitely includes Selfies.
- Ask personal questions. Small-talk should be as far as you go.
- Get carried away. You may be nervous, but alcohol is not your friend as Debrett’s reminds guests in times of “over-excitement or nervousness”.
These rules aren’t steadfast and those in breach need not fear exile. The official website for the British Monarchy states “there are no obligatory codes of behaviour when meeting the Queen or a member of the Royal Family”. It hastens to add: “Many people wish to observe the traditional forms.”
The choice is yours but in reality, as a senior palace aide once said, “It takes quite a lot for Her Majesty to take offence” but it seems that President Xi of China and his team managed it, here is a very rare video clip of The Queen giving an opinion on anything, let alone saying something bad.