We all know that nervous feeling when meeting someone super-important, say your boss’s boss or a favorite celebrity. You want to be noticed and remembered — but not for your sweaty palms or your nerves causing you to freeze up. Or worse, for doing or saying something embarrassing.
If you get jittery at the thought of meeting people just a step or two up from you on the social ladder, imagine meeting Her Majesty the Queen, Elizabeth II — a woman born into such enormous power her face graces the currency of countries around the world. And to make the experience even more daunting, everything about interacting with the queen is informed by centuries-old traditions, most of which are far from obvious to modern sensibilities. As a result, even normal social gestures can be interpreted as major breaches of etiquette when the queen is involved, and even other world leaders can get caught flat-footed, according to the BBC.
And while the royal family’s official website reassures us that “there are no obligatory codes of behavior when meeting the queen or other members of the royal family,” anyone who’s read a British tabloid knows there are certain traditional customs that one is expected to observe — or else. So to ensure your next meeting with the queen goes smoothly, here are some common mistakes to avoid.
Trying to touch the queen is a serious faux pas
By tradition, the queen’s status and power make her literally untouchable. According to CNN, one should never attempt to touch the queen unless she initiates contact. And on the off chance she does choose to let you touch her, the most she will do is reach out her hand for a polite handshake (which under no circumstances must you try to turn into a full-on hug).
This tradition has been especially fraught for friendly, social people accustomed to engaging new acquaintances with handshakes and fist bumps, and more than one high-ranking world leader has raised eyebrows for violating it. CNN reports that in 2017, Canada’s then-Governor General David Johnston sparked a scandal when he was caught touching the queen’s elbow during his visit to London. (Johnston later said he was worried about her footing on the slippery carpet and wanted “to be sure that there was no stumble.”) CNN also reports in 2009, then-U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama set off a firestorm of controversy by embracing the queen. Both survived, and the queen later dismissed the fuss about the embrace as “all rubbish.”
Remember to stand when the queen enters the room
A common thread connecting many rules of royal etiquette is this: always pay attention to the queen — and make sure she knows you’re paying attention. If you are at an event where the queen is expected, this means standing to acknowledge her presence when she arrives, according to the Mirror. And if you are already standing, keep your hands by your sides and out of your pockets. It’s considered rude and even scandalous to be seen with your hands in your pockets at royal events even if you’re a royal yourself, according to the Daily Mail, as the Duchess of Sussex and even the queen herself learned from personal experience.
But if you’ve been wearing your best high heels (absolutely no wedges — according to Cosmopolitan, the queen hates them) and your feet are burning, have no fear. You’re only obliged to remain standing as long as the queen herself stays standing. So when she seats herself, by tradition you’re allowed, if not encouraged, to follow her lead.
Make eye contact with the queen if she approaches you
If you should be fortunate enough to be approached by the queen, be prepared to give her your full attention: according to the Independent, looking distracted or inattentive around the queen is a bad look indeed. Make eye contact so she knows you’re paying attention, and you may bow or curtsy as she approaches. (Don’t overdo these gestures — according to the royal family’s official website, a brief “neck bow (from the head only)” or “small curtsy” is all that’s needed.) Alternately, you may shake hands — but only if the queen extends her hand first.
It’s also worth remembering that when it comes to the interacting with the queen, being emotionally and mentally present isn’t enough. Appearances count, especially since it’s likely you’ll have a bank of cameras trained on you. Even a seasoned world traveler like President Joe Biden — who has decades of experience meeting with world leaders — got into hot water during his visit with the queen for having the audacity to wear sunglasses at their outdoor reception. According to the Independent, this act was a blatant violation of the eye contact rule.
Remember to address the queen correctly
Before you set off for your appointment with the queen, be sure to brush up on your royal titles. Not all royals are created equal, and royal honorifics are not interchangeable — and confusing “Your Majesty” and “Your Highness” is a major faux pas. It’s especially critical to keep this straight if you’re scheduled to meet with more than one member of the royal family. And needless to say, one should never address her simply by her first name.
So how should you address the queen when you meet her? According to the royal family’s official website, the queen — and only the queen — should be addressed as “Your Majesty” upon first presentation, and after that, can be simply addressed as “ma’am, pronounced with a short ‘a’, as in ‘jam.'” And in case you’re wondering, the honorific “Your Royal Highness” is the correct formal greeting for other members of the family, according to the royal family’s website.
Initiating conversation with the queen is a major no-no
If you’ve ever trained in sales or entrepreneurship, you know that making the first move not only shows confidence, but is a sure-fire way to build your visibility and reputation. So off you go into the world every day, armed with a stack of business cards and ready to start up a conversation with everyone you meet. Sure, some people might walk away, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? And thanks to your amazing networking moxie, you’ve now been invited to meet the queen herself!
But a gentle warning: when meeting the queen, your forwardness is not your friend. According to Insider, one should never call out to the queen, nor should one initiate a conversation with her. As in all other areas of her life, the queen always takes the lead. So as much as you may be dying to run up and introduce yourself to her, cool your heels and wait your turn. Don’t take it personally; there is a good reason for this convention: because of their tight schedules, royals have to pace their conversations carefully. “Royals are supposed to begin the conversation. You’ll notice they start it, so they can be in control of the time. They have to take control,” royal etiquette expert and former butler to Prince Charles Grant Harrold told Insider.
Don't forget to bring a gift to show your respect for the queen
Being invited to meet the queen is an honor. Thus, according to the Mirror, by tradition, you must acknowledge this honor and show your respect by bringing a present. And this raises an obvious question: what on earth does one give a woman who has more stuff — and much nicer stuff — than most of us will ever have in our lives? Whatever it is, according to CNN, it must be “appropriate for the occasion.” The Mirror recommends giving gifts that reflect the giver’s culture or country. During his visit with the queen, then-President Barack Obama followed this recommendation, offering the queen “an iPod pre-loaded with Broadway songs and video footage of the queen’s 2007 visit to the U.S.,” according to CNN.
So what happens to all the presents the queen receives every year? According to Insider, the royal family does pay attention to them and make note of who gave them, keeping an itemized inventory of each present and its details — who gave it, where and when it was given, and who it was for. Insider also reports that one of five fates may befall your gift: the queen may choose to use it (provided it’s valued under £150 ($208)), it may go into storage for up to five years, it may be added to the Royal Collection, it may be donated or loaned to an organization, or it may be discarded or destroyed.
Don't begin eating until the queen has started her meal
Dining with the royal family involves yet another set of complex traditions and codes of conduct. Which table you are assigned — and which seat you are given — are determined by your rank relative to other guests, according to Debrett’s. You may also find at your place setting several more forks, knives, and spoons than you’d typically use at home (by both British and American convention, the outermost set of utensils is used for the first course, the next set for the second course, and so on, according to Martha Stewart). As Debrett’s also notes, you can expect formal prayers and speeches before the meal is served, by which time you may be starving.
But no matter how hungry you are — or how curious you may be to sample cuisine from the royal kitchen — resist the urge to dig in the minute your plate lands in front of you; it is considered quite rude to begin eating before the queen, according to the Mirror. As always, follow her lead. Once she begins eating, you are free to begin your meal as well. And once she has finished, this is a sign that the meal is about to wrap up for everyone.
Walking in front of the queen is frowned upon
When it comes to royal events, rank is everything, and everyone ranks below the queen. Thus, everything about your behavior around the queen must be guided by one central principle: she’s more important than you, and all traditions surrounding royal events are meant to reflect this.
For instance, according to Newsweek, the queen is always the first in line in any procession she appears in, and always walks ahead of everyone else — including her own family members — when entering a room. Even her late husband, Prince Philip, was obliged by tradition to walk two paces behind her throughout their married life. This means that cutting in front of her, even inadvertently, is a serious no-no, and violating this rule has gotten high-flyers into big trouble with the etiquette police. For instance, Grazia reports that during his 2018 visit with the queen, then-President Donald Trump set tongues wagging by stepping in front of her during their joint inspection of the Guard of Honour, blocking the queen’s view completely.
Being late is an avoidable error
Here’s another important rule to keep in mind when planning your visit with the queen: at royal events, there’s no such thing as “fashionably late.” According to Debrett’s (as reported by CNN), “It is correct for everyone to arrive before the royal personage.” In short, you wait for the queen; you don’t ever make her wait for you. And no, traffic delays and last-minute work emergencies are no excuse.
Fortunately for royal visitors, the royal household will contact you with all the details of your upcoming visit once you are invited, according to Debrett’s, including exactly where the event will take place and what time you are expected. But if your meeting with the queen will be at a high-profile event such as a royal wedding, be sure to time your commute carefully to ensure you arrive early. “[A] royal wedding will obviously have several important guests and very high levels of security so give yourself plenty of time to get there,” etiquette advisor Sarah Hayward told The National News.
Don't try to take a selfie with the queen — ever!
We know — none of your friends will ever believe you got to meet the queen unless you bring home a phone full of photos of the two of you together — or even better, post a bunch of them on your Facebook or Instagram pages. Pictures or it didn’t happen, right?
Sorry to disappoint you, but that’s not going to happen. According to the BBC, unofficial photos are expressly forbidden in royal palaces. And at other royal events, guests may be asked to leave their phones at home or keep them turned off, according to The National News. But if you absolutely must take a selfie to commemorate your visit, be discreet about it. “Any photographs taken to mark the occasion should be taken outside the gate before the event begins,” advises British etiquette authority Debrett’s. And, as The National News notes, live-tweeting your visit with the Queen is considered extremely rude.
But don’t worry — according to Debrett’s, you can still get photos of your time with the queen: Your visit will likely be documented by an official photographer and/or videographer, and you’ll be able to order souvenir photos or video footage if you wish. You may have to pay for these photos, but let’s face it: they’ll probably be much more flattering than any shots you could have taken yourself.
Avoid asking the queen personal questions or discussing controversial topics
Here’s a royal etiquette rule that should be familiar to most commoners: when talking to the queen, as when talking to any other new acquaintance at a social event, keep the conversation light and don’t talk about politics, religion, or other controversial topics. According to Insider, trying to engage the queen in a friendly debate about the hot topic of the day is a serious breach of etiquette, as is asking any personal questions about herself or the royal family. So no matter how curious you are to hear her thoughts about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s departure from the royal family, don’t even think about going there. Instead, chat about a topic of mutual interest (as Insider notes, if you have a corgi, she’ll be delighted to hear about it).
Even if you’re feeling great chemistry with the queen, be mindful of subtle cues that you’re going too far. As royal etiquette expert Grant Harrold tells Insider, royals will rarely tell you upfront that you’ve crossed a line. Instead, they’ll pretend not the hear the question or laugh it off. So if you find yourself repeating questions, it’s probably time to change the subject.
Never turn your back to the queen
At any event involving the queen, she must be the center of attention. Thus, while you’re not required to train your gaze on her at all times, you must avoid turning your back on her, which is considered disrespectful, according to the BBC.
Fortunately for less-coordinated royal guests, this rule has loosened in recent years, according to the Daily Mail. By tradition, the edict against turning one’s back on the monarch was formerly so strict that those approaching her were forbidden from simply turning around and walking off after their encounter. Instead, etiquette required them to walk backwards as they left the queen’s presence. But because his tricky maneuver could not only lead to embarrassment, but the very real possibility of falls and injury — and possible lawsuits against Buckingham Palace — since 2009, the royal family has mostly scrapped it apart from a few ceremonial uses. So today, it’s perfectly acceptable to turn around and walk away after your chat with the queen. But in deference to this tradition, you still must not walk in front of her, according to Newsweek.
Never leave an event before the queen does
You’re probably familiar with the standard rule that it’s rude to overstay your visit — for most social events, the polite thing to do is take your leave well before your host starts to yawn. But when you’re at an event with the queen, the opposite rule holds: according to CNN, it’s considered rude to leave an event before the queen. If you know in advance you have a scheduling conflict and will have to leave early, you must obtain permission in advance from one of the royal family’s private secretaries.
This edict even applies other members of the royal family, who must follow a domestic version of this rule, according to Newsweek: never go to bed before the queen. Newsweek reports that the queen is a night owl, and her penchant for hours of late-night conversation made Princess Diana miserable. “For Diana the long royal evenings were agony,” the queen’s former private secretary Sir William Heseltine wrote in his book “The Royals in Australia” (as cited by Newsweek). “There’d be an hour or so in the sitting room of everyone sitting around making conversation. And Diana was driven to such extremes that she’d excuse herself and go to bed, which was thought to be rather bad form, going to bed before the queen.”
When in doubt, follow the queen's lead
If you’re called upon to meet the queen on short notice and don’t have time to memorize a long list of obscure (and often counterintuitive) rules of royal etiquette, a good general rule of thumb is to simply follow her lead, according to CNN: Eat when she eats, sit when she sits, and basically follow her cues. This will keep you out of trouble in most circumstances during any royal event.
But if the very idea of meeting the queen has you paralyzed with social anxiety, don’t worry. You’re not the only one who’s both intimidated and baffled by royal etiquette, and the royal family understands this. For this reason, they will have their household staff provide you in advance with detailed information and advice about your upcoming visit: the dress code, code of conduct, and what to expect, according to Debrett’s. “The aim of the Royal Household is to make people comfortable and ensure they have a good experience,” Debrett’s explains. “Once at the event, members of the Royal Household are on hand to guide guests throughout. The net result is that people are far less likely to encounter any awkward moments at a royal event than at some other formal events where the hosts may be less experienced.” So relax. Use your common sense (and as Debrett’s warns, don’t drink too much), and if you do commit any minor errors, they will almost certainly be forgiven.
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