Archive for the 'International Customs' Category

Obama’s Breach of Royal Protocol

At last night’s state dinner held at Buckingham Palace, President Obama inadvertently broke Royal Protocol whilst he made the loyal toast to Her Majesty The Queen.

Click to watch the video from BBC News.

So, what went wrong? After calling for the guests to stand, Mr Obama said “To Her Majesty The Queen”. If he had stopped here, this would be correct(ish). In Britain, the loyal toast is just ‘The Queen’. There is no ‘to’ preposition. This is what set off the orchestra from the Scotch Guards into playing the British national anthem, as they would be used to loyal toasts ending there. However, Mr. Obama chose to extend the toast and say a few more words, which (however well intentioned) is breaking Royal protocol.

It was quite nice to have the national anthem underscoring the rest of his toast, but normally one stands in respectful silence whilst it plays. Her Majesty, being polite and worldly, thanked Mr. Obama for his kind words and did not say anything. It would have been rude to do so.

What Mr. Obama needs to learn from this hiccough is that a toast is not a speech.

William Hanson
Tutor, The English Manner 

The Protocol of Flags

FlagsFlags: we raise them in pride and celebration, lower them in sadness and to commemorate death, burn or destroy them in anger and protest.  There is great emotion associated with this one symbol as very aptly noted by the Chief Protocol Officer for Toronto, Canada.

For several months now, my colleague William Hanson has been urging me to write something for the blog on the subject of flags. On the face of it, this was a simple request and should not have presented any difficulties as I can fairly easily recite the generally accepted guidelines for displaying flags and have often given advice in the matter (sometimes by invitation, other times not).

However, I felt that our readers expected more than mere rote and I wanted a different slant and in the process, inadvertently opened a can of worms (a modern metaphorical extension of Pandora’s Box). My research (if that is not too grand a term) included personal observation and study on three continents and many countries and eventually led to a meeting with the Lead Ceremonials Officer for the US State Department. The USA is the only country that has statute law dealing with flying or displaying its national flag (Title 36, Chapter 1).

The display of national flags is a very sensitive issue. Done correctly, you do honour to your own flag and country and to your international visitors.  Done incorrectly and you may create ill-will and animosity and perhaps even an international incident as happened on 18 October 1992 when a US Marine Corps colour guard displayed the Canadian flag upside down at a World Series (baseball) game in the USA.  The fault wasn’t intentional nor was it through ignorance, it was a mere technical glitch and the Marine had no choice but to carry on with the ceremony.  Nevertheless, it required the intervention of the President of the United States to apologise. He requested the opportunity to make amends by sending another Marine Corps colour guard to Canada to carry the Canadian flag in the following World Series game and in an unprecedented move, requested that a Royal Canadian Mounted Police colour guard carry the American flag. All was forgiven.

It seems that a thorough knowledge of flag protocol and etiquette, combined with a certain panache, allows one to flaunt the rules and get away with it, rather like a gentleman who tweaks his dinner suit (“tuxedo” in America) with a discreetly patterned bowtie rather than the standard black barathea silk version. Knowing the rules and flaunting them with style is entirely different from blundering through in ignorance.

Amongst the new twists I have observed is a display of repeating flag patterns. This display features the repetition of the flags starting with the host country’s flag on the left, then the guest nations in alphabetical order in the host country’s language, repeated any number of times across the podium or along the line and ending with the host country.  For example, host country is the USA, guest nations are Canada and Mexico: the flags are displayed USA – Canada – Mexico, repeat, repeat, repeat – USA (the host country’s flag parenthetically enclosing the entire display any time there are five or more flags displayed). This is appropriate for decoration of a room, political briefings or announcements, diplomatic and consular events and also as a background for photo opportunities.  However, one litigator I spoke with advises against trying this set-up in a court room and then trying to explain it to the judge.

In Toronto, a colourful display of flags adjacent to the city hall features 18 flag poles arranged in three rows of six poles. No reference exists for flying flags in such a configuration and only after the designers and architects had installed the poles was the protocol office consulted.  The result is a magnificent display of the Canadian, provincial and territorial flags as well as the City of Toronto flag and multiple Canadian flags included to make up the number. The provincial flags are flown in order according to when each province joined confederation, however this is not immediately clear nor, I suggest, particularly important in this configuration. It is fully inclusive and because there is no protocol or precedent for such a display, no rules have been broken and no-one could possibly take offence.

While it is considered courteous and gracious to display an international visitor’s national flag on special occasions or during brief visits, be aware of the do’s and don’ts of flying your own national flag outside your home country, at your vacation home abroad, for example. It is correct to fly it on your own national holiday but incorrect to fly it year-round without regard or deference to the flag of your host country. Host country flags always take precedence. (I am referring to private property, not embassies or government buildings.) Never fly two national flags on the same single staff flag pole although rules exist for displaying multiple national flags on a nautical (yard-arm) pole with the gaff being the point of honour.

It is correct to raise your flags in the morning and lower them at sunset.  Flags are hoisted briskly, but lowered slowly and should never touch the ground. If flags are to be left flying overnight, it is correct to illuminate them. Soiled or tattered flags should not be displayed.  Soiled flags should be washed or dry-cleaned and tattered flags destroyed in a respectful manner – burning is suggested.  Americans, especially, are very sensitive about issues surrounding their flag and old, disused or tattered flags may be delivered to any branch of the American Legion for appropriate disposal. Americans even specify the correct way to fold their flag while other nations simply fold theirs in a neat fashion ready for next use.

Finally, “half-mast” is only an expression. When flying a flag at half-mast (on land, technically “half-staff”) it is first raised to the top of the staff and then slowly lowered a distance equal to the flag’s length (the “fly”, its longest side).  The expression half-mast originated on ships where lowering the flag by a distance equivalent to its length brought the flag to the half-way point on the mast.  It is incorrect, however, to lower the flag half-way down a flag pole although this rule is almost always observed in the breach, even on government buildings, and is so widely practised that it is commonly accepted and expected to lower the flag to the mid-point. However, purists take note.

Do you find all this interesting? Stay alert to the issues as you go about your daily routines and you will see flags from a new perspective. Do not hesitate to encourage businesses you patronise to improve their standards; banks, especially, have been guilty of continuing to fly flags well beyond their useful life.

John Robertson
Tutor, The English Manner

Blowing Your Own Trumpet: Vuvuzela Etiquette

‘Seventy-six trombones led the big parade
With a hundred and ten cornets close at hand.
They were followed by rows and rows of the finest virtuo-
Sos, the cream of ev’ry famous band’ (
76 Trombones from ‘The Music Man’)

Vuvuzelas

The start of the 2010 World Cup has brought a new and unexpected celebrity to the world’s attention: the vuvuzela. This South African trumpet-esque instrument is blown at matches (in England we’d have a claxon) by the spectators. It’s caused television viewers to complain, as they’ve been unable to concentrate on matches due to the din of thousands of vuvuzelas; when all blown in one constant stream they do sound like a swarm of wasps.

The argument for not banning the vuvuzelas has been that people have free will and as they are not harming anyone then why should football’s governing body, Fifa, intervene? Then of course there is the ‘when in Rome’ argument: the vuvuzelas are a native instrument to South Africa and by banning their use would be a snub to the host country.

So what to do? Utilitarianism would say that we should worry about the greatest good for the greatest number, and so the opinions of the worldwide television audience would take priority over the spectators at the stadiums, and thus the vuvuzelas be banned. However, the ‘when in Rome’ counter-argument is, in my opinion, equally as worthwhile. When we are visiting other countries we should respect their customs and cultures and not just march in and expect it to be England abroad: we have to adapt. But then of course the TV audience is not in South Africa, they are in their own homes… it’s a tough one, but the tournament only goes on for a month (I never thought that I’d ever say ‘only goes on for a month’) and so we should probably just put up with it for the time being… or do what I’m doing… and not watch any of the matches at all!

William Hanson
Tutor, The English Manner

The Customs of Chopsticks

Later in the week it is Chinese New Year (14th February). This year it is the year of the tiger. As such, we thought now may be a good time to enlighten you on some of the etiquette and background that surrounds chopsticks.

The word ‘chopsticks’ is thought to have been discovered in the 1800s, when foreigners heard Chinese boatmen referring to cooking utensils as ‘kuai-tzu’. Pidgin English transformed this into ‘chop-chop’.

Chopsticks are thought to improve dexterity and memory. This is especially good for wannabe painters, apparently.

In Chinese cuisine, chopsticks are used to eat everything except: soup (a porcelain spoon is used), Peking duck (the hands are employed here), and puddings (which uses either the hands or a spoon).

Hold your chopsticks a third of the way down, leaving the thicker ends clean. This is because the top of the chopsticks are used to take food from communal serving dishes to your bowl, whereas the narrower ends are used to bring food from your bowl to your mouth. In China the higher you hold your chopsticks, the more sophisticated you supposedly are.

It is considered the height of rudeness to beat the side of your bowl with chopsticks: this is what beggars used to do. It is also ill advised to drop your sticks as this is thought to bring bad luck; similarly, leaving your chopstick upright in rice evokes death.

Chopsticks are more than just eating utensils. During the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) chopsticks were made from gold and silver. Silver was thought to detect poison: but, as a lot of diners found out, this was not the case.

Gung Hay Fat Choy! (Happy Chinese New Year!)

William Hanson
Tutor, The English Manner

Etiquette for Thanksgiving

thanksgivingTwo weeks ago it was Canadian Thanksgiving; American Thanksgiving is still to come. When I once explained to a young American child that Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving in October, she looked at me in bewilderment and asked, “When do they celebrate Christmas?”

For those lucky enough to be invited to share in the bounty of their harvest table, here are a few etiquette tips to help you enjoy the day.  Of course, you will recognise these as your basic dinner party dictums tweaked for this festive occasion.

It’s a good idea to ask about dress code.  Thanksgiving is not a black tie affair and is often relaxed and casual.  But there is a festive air to the occasion and trousers and a sweater or a sport shirt and blazer may be the order of the day. “Casual” never means jeans. Be assured that your hosts will have gone to a lot of trouble to prepare a special dinner and an invitation to share the day is an honour. Make an effort! A quick call to your host is good idea.

While you’re making that call to your host, ask what you can bring. You might be surprised to receive very specific instructions for this particular event but unless pre-arranged, do not bake a pie or food item as this may never make it to the table. Standard host or hostess gifts are appropriate – wine, arranged flowers (sent ahead of time – you’re a pro), a decorative candle, chocolates or candy are all appropriate.

This is not an occasion to be fashionably late. Dinner will be the focus of the day and a day to arrive promptly at the stated time.

At its heart, Thanksgiving is a time for family so expect to greet your host’s parents or other senior relatives. Remember your protocol basics at a social event, the senior lady outranks everybody and appropriate deference is due.

As always, follow your hostess’s lead.  When she asks everyone to move to the dining room, feel free to lead the way, perhaps escorting a senior relative. And when seated, be aware that there will undoubtedly be grace so resist the temptation to begin. Have a grace at the ready should the honour unexpectedly fall to you, or have an appropriate toast to your hosts but only after your host has proposed the first toast.

There will usually be just enough food to feed exactly twice as many people as are at the table and this often means that plates and dishes are passed. It is not your job to enforce the traffic patterns but if you try to keep things passing to the left, it will simplify things. Be aware that many dishes may be old family recipes and favourites that make an appearance only once a year and it is a good idea to try some of everything. Even if it’s got tiny marshmallows in it. (Especially if it’s got tiny marshmallows in it.)

On this happy, festive occasion, keep the conversation entirely above board – family, holiday plans, what books others are reading, the food and table decorations. This is absolutely not an occasion to discuss politics or the economy.

Stay alert to your hostess’s cue for the end of the meal and when she suggests that everyone move to the next room for coffee, again, feel free to be amongst the first, and again, offering to assist any who need it. Never, ever stack dishes at the table thinking you are assisting your hostess.  (Unless, of course, she asks you to.)

There’s one more cue to be on the alert for, and that when it’s time to go home. The focus of this day is the dinner and you are not expected to settle back for the evening.  Comments such as “What a lovely day it’s been, I’m so glad you could join us” are your cue to be gathering your wits and taking your leave.

Finally, within 24 hours, write your thank you note.  Considering the trouble and expense your hosts have taken to entertain you, a telephone call or an email just won’t do. The thank you letter lets your hostess know how much you appreciated the day and is a reminder that she can re-read and share.  A telephone call is over in a few minutes, and an email deleted even faster.  I could go on about thank-you letters, but that’s a whole other blog.

Happy Thanksgiving!

John Robertson
Tutor, The English Manner

Travel Tips

The summer is nearly upon us, and for many of us this is reason for a holiday; whether you are traveling to distant lands or welcoming international visitors at home, make the most of the opportunity to improve your country’s profile and reputation. While no-one sets out to insult or offend their hosts or guests, unknowledgeable and naïve travellers may leave a trail of ill-will and hard feelings.

Before you go, obtain at least enough local currency to get you through the arrival process, tips for the airport porter, your driver and hotel bellman. Your home currency will be of considerably less value to them if they need to convert it at a bank and it suggests an arrogance to flaunt your home currency as though it were an international standard. Don’t over-tip, some cultures find it insulting. While recognising exceptional service is appreciated world-wide, standard services such as handling your baggage or driving from airport to hotel require only a modest tip, if any.

superstock_1598r-82430Prepare yourself with a few key phrases in the language of your host country. The first and most important phrase to learn is “Thank you.” Along with good morning/afternoon, and goodbye, these phrases, delivered with a smile even in your questionable accent, will ease your arrival and minor transactions during your stay.

Familiarise yourself with the culture you are visiting.  While hotel destinations in the Middle East are accustomed to Western dress, once off the hotel property or when traveling through the airport, women especially need to be aware that even simple items like sleeveless dresses or anything revealing the shoulders are considered immodest and may cause offence.  While alcohol is available at resort properties, when leaving the compound to experience the very culture you came to visit, don’t mention it or try to order it.

Even on the most casual of vacations, have at least one decent set of clothes to wear when the occasion presents itself. While formal dress codes are rare, a sense of moderation is encouraged or requested in many dining situations. For men, this means a collared shirt and long trousers (not jeans).  Ladies, no halter tops or shorts in the dining room.  And everywhere at all times, gentlemen (unless they have a medical or religious reason to keep it on) remove their hats indoors and this includes the ubiquitous baseball cap.

If you see an international visitor about to commit some glaring offence, a considerate prompt might be appropriate.  Remember, no-one sets out to offend or antagonise their hosts. A polite suggestion that saves a visitor later embarrassment or discomfort will be much appreciated.

Remember that when travelling, you are an ambassador for your country and the impression you leave behind reflects on your country and affects the way your fellow citizens will be welcomed in future. Arrive as a stranger, leave as a friend.

John Robertson
Tutor, The English Manner


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