Think protocol is easy? Tell that to President Obama, who was scalded by the British press early in his first term for giving British Prime Minister Gordon Brown a set of "region 1" U.S.-coded DVDs that don't work in Europe. Or to his wife, Michelle, who broke royal protocol in giving Queen Elizabeth II a hug at Buckingham Palace.
The truth is that diplomatic protocol is a complicated business, even if you're dealing with a third secretary from Tuvalu, let alone the Queen of England. We spoke to two experts on diplomatic protocol to give readers a primer on how to navigate thorny issues such as gift giving, communication, attire, food, alcohol, meetings and seating arrangements
Lukrecija Maljkovic Atanasovska is the former director of protocol at the U.S. Embassy in Skopje, Macedonia, and is currently the director of the Protocol Academies of Macedonia and Kosovo. Chris Young served as the chief of protocol and director of international affairs for the U.S. state of Georgia from 2005 to 2012 and is now the executive director of the Protocol School of Washington. Here are their thoughts on protocol best practices.
Atanasovska: Some inexperienced diplomats aren't aware of multicultural differences. They know diplomacy, international law and political affairs, but they don't always understand the host country's mentality. Protocol is based on international standards but a bit of it is based on the traditions and customs of the country. It's very easy to offend someone if you don't understand the country's mentality.
You have to accept that some nations are different than your own. When you arrive at a new post, start by getting to know your local staff for insights into the local culture and expand your local contacts through them. You can read books, but you'll learn more from talking to ordinary people.
Young: Trying to speak to someone in their own language can be good to warm up a room, but if you don't speak the language well, you run the risk of making mistakes. Stick to using an interpreter when you're doing business if your command of the language is weak.
Another common mistake is not giving enough thought to gifts. We might give something that is white in a culture where that [color] is unlucky or related to death; we might give the wrong number of something that's considered an unlucky number. Or we might use a material, like leather in India for example, that just isn't a good idea because of the religion or the culture.
Atanasovska: It isn't offensive to approach someone at a function and ask them if they speak English. But every diplomat should know at least one other language. English and French are the most useful languages for diplomats.
It is always good to learn at least the courtesy expressions in the local language, though. Start with a few words in the local language as an icebreaker before you switch to English and make sure you know how to say "cheers" in the local language.
Young: If you're in Paris at an event sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, it is rude to walk up to someone and start speaking English. But in the U.S., even at foreign embassies, you're always safe using English.
If you know how to say, "Do you speak English?" in the local language, that's a great way to go. It's also great to know the phrase, "I'm still learning" whatever the local language may be. The key is to recognize your own shortcoming, make light of it and move on to your common language, if you have one.
Diplomats have to be very careful what they say when they're representing their countries, and if you don't speak the local language well, you have to be very cautious.
Atanasovska: Always know the local dos and don'ts in the host country. The rule of thumb is that it's better to be overdressed than underdressed. You can always put a tie in your pocket. You can always take off your jacket. Avoid jeans; avoid very casual closing unless it's a picnic or sports event.
For women, never dress too sexy. You can show your femininity, but if you try to dress too sexy, you won't be treated as a professional. Always be elegant but not revealing or provocative.
White tie is the dressiest type of dress code. White tie is only for events with heads of state or government. Men wear tailcoats with white bow ties and medals, and ladies wear long gowns with nice jewelry. Then you have black tie, which is tuxedo and black bow tie for men and gown or cocktail dress for ladies.
For everyday dress codes, there is formal, which is in some countries known as business attire, and that usually means a suit for men or ladies. Then you have informal, which is not casual — that's a common mistake. Informal means blazer and pants with no tie for men and ladies can wear informal suits or dresses. Casual means no jacket at all.
There's nothing wrong with trying to wear national folk costumes or outfits. That can show respect for the local culture but it can also look foolish. You don't want to look artificial. It's a case-by-case situation.
Young: This is an area of protocol that continues to evolve on an almost weekly basis. Everyone understands black tie and white tie but business attire and everything else can really vary from place to place. My rule of thumb is, if the dress code isn't specified, call and ask.
When I was chief of protocol for the state of Georgia, we would always use the phrase "formal or native attire" for important functions. If you aren't native to the culture, you don't have to dress in native attire, even for national day celebrations. If you're in Saudi Arabia or the UAE, for example, women would be wise to call and clarify what they're expected to wear.
Atanasovska: Gift giving and receiving is an art. Protocol officers try to do as much advance research as possible to find out about the person who will receive the gift — their personality, hobbies, interests and so on — so the gift is meaningful. Gift giving should be reciprocal. You should only give a gift if you know you will receive one. Protocol officers check in advance to find out if gifts will be exchanged and also to confirm the value of gifts, if necessary. The point is that gifts can be an insult if they're not done right.
The value of the gift is important, because in some countries, diplomats have restrictions on what they can accept. But in some countries, it's also considered very impolite to return a gift. That's why it's important to clarify matters beforehand.
Young: Do your research before giving gifts. People assume that what works in one culture will work in another culture and it does not. Giving alcohol in some cultures doesn't work, for example. Give something that is indicative of the country you represent or your home region. In Georgia, we would give wooden bowls made from reclamation trees from Georgia's state parks, or prints from Savannah or local music. And we include a "romance card" with it that describes the story behind the gift.
Atanasovska: You should be curious enough to try new foods, but if there's something you just can't swallow, just cut your food into very small pieces and pretend you're eating it. Or eat the garnish, or just say that you're so full from the starters that you can't eat it. Or lie and say that you are allergic. Just try not to insult the host. And don't spit anything out.
In some countries, like Israel for example, you are expected to leave some food on your plate. In Albanian homes, you also leave some food on your plate because it's for God or poor people. In other countries, if you clean your plate, that's fine.
Young: If there's some food you really don't like or don't want to try, how you react depends on the situation. If you're negotiating a big trade deal, for example, that's a time for you to broaden your palate. If you cannot eat something for medical or religious reasons, it's up to you to tell your host in advance. Otherwise, even if you don't like something, it's polite to at least take a bite.
The only time I could see spitting something out is if there is something completely foul there. Generally, you don't want to spit things out. That would be a deal breaker in most situations. For diplomats, eating different foods is a hazard of the job. If you have a weak or squeamish stomach, you might want to consider a different line of work.
Atanasovska: One should never miss an opportunity to try the national drink. It's part of the culture — one glass won't hurt you. But in some cultures they have a greater capacity or tolerance for drink. You don't want to compete with Russians, for example. If you accept every glass that's handed to you, you might sabotage your career. You never want to get drunk because if you do, you'll be in the newspapers the next morning.
Young: In countries that like to do multiple toasts, you have to pace yourself. In most places, it's perfectly acceptable to toast with water, tea, Coke or some other nonalcoholic drink. You might tell your host in advance that you don't drink much, if at all. Try the traditional toast once if you can with whatever they serve you, and then try to switch to something else if you can. Ten years ago, I would have said it was insulting to go to China, for example, and not do the gang bei (toasting, which literally means "dry the cup") 30 times in a meal. Now, in many cultures they realize that it isn't as common in our culture to do that, so toasts are still done but the liquids may change.
Atanasovska: It's a flagrant breach of protocol to receive foreign diplomats at the wrong level. You have to respect the level of the person who requests the meeting. There is no difference between big and small countries, rich or poor countries, or powerful ones and less powerful ones. It sends a message when you offer to receive another country at a lower level. It's better to decline a meeting with justifiable reasons than to offer a meeting with someone who is in a much lower-level position.
Young: Titles don't always translate across cultures so it's important to have strong working relationships with your foreign counterparts so you can match peer to peer. If it's a lunch or dinner meeting, I would suggest the place if I'm requesting the meeting. And the asking party should always pay, unless you have a situation where it would be illegal due to ethics rules, and in those cases, you should spell that out in advance.
Perception is everything. As a general rule, when you're a guest, stay away from ordering the most expensive thing on the menu or the most expensive wine. It's a subtle way of showing appreciation for the meal.
Atanasovska: Seating arrangements can be a nightmare. You have to know the ranking order of who will be there. Married couples shouldn't be next to each other, or even at the same table. Women shouldn't be at the end of the table. You have the British style of seating, where the host and hostess sit at the end of the table, and also the French style, where they sit in the middle, among others.
Seating is a science. It depends on the shape of the table, the rank of the guests and other factors. Whichever way you do it, you'll always have one guest who is not satisfied. The general rule of thumb is that those with the highest rank get to be closest to the hosts. And whenever the highest-ranking person enters the room, you should stand up.
Young: At business meetings, it doesn't matter if someone is male or female, you seat people according to their rank, and so you don't have to blend the sexes the way people used to. For social occasions, you don't have to have a rigid structure. The important thing is to create interesting tables.
Make sure there are high-ranking people at each table but then just work on creating interesting pairings. Whatever strategy you choose, make sure it's logical and consistent, so if someone is upset at where they were seated you can explain the rationale. And you have to keep in mind geopolitical considerations. Why seat someone from Argentina next to someone from the U.K., for example, or Arabs and Israelis or people from some of the Balkan countries unless you have to?
Atanasovska: Protocol is becoming more relaxed, especially the ceremonial aspects. Official visits used to last three, four days but not anymore and that's probably a good thing. Women's attire has become much more relaxed; they can wear straps, or sandals or show their armpits. That was unthinkable years ago.
Young: The trend is definitely toward informality in protocol. There are a lot more casual working events. And you see that in how we correspond as well. Now text messaging is, in some ways, supplanting e-mails. And you wouldn't see the president fist-bump the prime minister of Japan but think about how often he does that here in the U.S., even at the White House, and there's nothing wrong with that.
For more protocol coverage, check out The Washington Diplomat's January 2013 cover profile of U.S. Protocol Chief Capricia Penavic Marshall. Also see "Faux Pas Fixes: Huge Part of Protocol Is Just Smoothing Over the Slipups" in the November 2009 issue of The Washington Diplomat and "Rules of Engagement: Protocol Instruction Pulls Together Finer Points of Global Diplomacy" in the May 2008 issue.
About the Author
Dave Seminara is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and a former U.S. diplomat.
Last Edited on April 29, 2013