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Jules Hirst, Etiquette Expert

Why do we follow protocol when meetng the Queen?

With all of the atten­tion Pres­i­dent Obama’s Royal Mishap when toast­ing the Queen has been receiving, here is a great arti­cle that gives some insight on why we fol­low pro­to­col when meet­ing the Queen?

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama raised eye­brows when he con­tin­ued speak­ing dur­ing the national anthem with com­men­ta­tors sug­gest­ing pro­to­col had been breached. But what is royal pro­to­col and is it necessary?

Barack Obama was prob­a­bly not aware that he was doing any­thing unusual when mak­ing a toast “to the Queen” and then con­tin­u­ing with a short speech. Accord­ing to pro­to­col, how­ever, he should have stopped after the toast.

The band, tak­ing its cue from the word Queen, struck up with the national anthem leav­ing the pres­i­dent strug­gling to make him­self heard.

What hap­pens when the Queen is toasted is all part of pro­to­col, an elab­o­rate set of cus­toms and rules that gov­ern inter­ac­tions with the British royal family.

Some fuss was also made dur­ing a pre­vi­ous visit by the Oba­mas, when Michelle put her arm around the Queen, another pro­to­col breach.

Mrs Obama’s action echoed sim­i­lar slip-ups by Aus­tralian prime min­is­ters. In 2000, John Howard appeared to have put his arm around the Queen, but that was as noth­ing com­pared to the furore caused by Paul Keat­ing when he put his arm around the Queen dur­ing her 1992 tour of Aus­tralia, and was dubbed “the Lizard of Oz”.

Michelle Obama took the unusual step of hug­ging the Queen dur­ing the First Lady’s pre­vi­ous UK visit When meet­ing a 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.

But it 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,” says Dr Kate Williams, a his­to­rian at London’s Royal Hol­loway university.

They are treated as peo­ple set apart from the rest of us, so pri­mar­ily what it is cre­at­ing is dis­tance and grandeur.”

In short, says Dr Williams, “you don’t kiss them, you don’t touch them, you bow — over and over again.”

But in an era when a woman with ances­tors who worked in the coal mines can become a princess, does royal eti­quette really matter?

The reac­tion to Mrs Obama touch­ing the Queen in 2009 would sug­gest it does to some people.

Meet­ing the Queen may never be the same again after an extra­or­di­nary show of affec­tion with Michelle Obama,” wrote Andrew Pierce in the Daily Tele­graph in 2009.

For David Miller, direc­tor of Debrett’s, royal eti­quette is a help­ful set of instruc­tions to show peo­ple how to behave in an unfa­mil­iar social setting.

It’s a code of con­duct in terms of the way in which peo­ple behave at occa­sions and even­tu­al­i­ties that they do not encounter on an every­day basis,” he says.

Yes, it’s wrapped up in his­tory and tra­di­tion, but it’s also prac­ti­cal, uni­ver­sal and there to avoid embarrassment.”

Royal pro­to­col can be viewed as an expres­sion of respect for the Queen.

William Han­son, a pro­to­col expert who trained staff for the lux­ury liner Queen Mary II, says the Queen, with all she has been through, her unique per­spec­tive and posi­tion in the nation’s his­tory, deserves the respect she is afforded.

It’s because we respect her and what she stands for — she stands for all that is great in British soci­ety,” he says.

But there is evi­dence that things are becom­ing more relaxed.

Jen­nie Bond spent 14 years nego­ti­at­ing royal pro­to­col as a part of her job as royal cor­re­spon­dent for the BBC.

I don’t think that they are as hot on eti­quette as most peo­ple think they are,” she says.

They like peo­ple to curtsy, but you’re always told at royal brief­ings that it’s up to you. As a jour­nal­ist, I never did.

All this thing about not speak­ing to the Queen unless you’re spo­ken to, I don’t believe that, I always used to tell her jokes.”

Dr Williams says royal eti­quette has adapted to reflect the shift in what we expect from our royal family.

I think it is chang­ing, I think in the ear­lier period peo­ple wanted their monarch to be set apart from them, that’s what they wanted, they wanted some­one more pow­er­ful [to pro­tect them],” she says.

We’re less and less engaged with the idea of a monarch being dis­tant. For exam­ple, Princess Diana gained pop­u­lar­ity because she was so much less formal.”

But Mr Han­son believes eti­quette still has a role to play, beyond royal cir­cles as much as within them.

These things mat­ter, espe­cially when you’re doing busi­ness with east­ern coun­tries such as China, where they take it even more seri­ously than Britain,” he says.

The Japan­ese, the Chi­nese, the Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries, are more con­cerned with pro­to­col day-to-day.”

Mr Han­son sees a deeper impor­tance behind the prin­ci­ples of etiquette.

If you get the lit­tle things right, all the other things fall into place. It’s about respect and def­er­ence in soci­ety, and that is what we’re lacking.”

As for the recent faux pas by Mr Obama, Mr Han­son says: “It’s not going to spell the end of cor­dial rela­tions between Amer­ica and Britain, but it’s always nice to get these things right.”

Source: BBC News
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