Protocol: the rules of engagement

| January 5, 2015 | 0 Comments
When a member of the Royal Family is present at an event in Canada, his or her personal Canadian flag takes precedence over the Canadian flag.

When a member of the Royal Family is present at an event in Canada, his or her personal Canadian flag takes precedence over the Canadian flag.

It might sound a bit like a fusty carryover from bygone times, but protocol — the etiquette of diplomacy and relations among nations — remains essential for the smooth functioning of international interactions.
“Protocol is really a bridge profession,” said Christopher Young, past-president of the Protocol & Diplomacy-International Protocol Officers Association (PDI-POA), which held a workshop in Ottawa. “We take that which is old — traditions, rules and practices that have been in place for centuries — and translate them into a modern world, a modern language of respect and honour.”
More than 150 people who work broadly in the field of protocol attended the workshop last autumn. To be sure, there were people from government and from diplomatic missions, but there were also people from museums, the hospitality industry and private enterprise. Protocol, after all, also has its place far from the halls of state.

Setting a table properly is also important to purveyors of protocol.

Setting a table properly is also important to purveyors of protocol.

“What is protocol in its essence?” Mr. Young asked, rhetorically. “It’s simply the creation of good conditions for business and diplomacy to succeed. Once upon a time, it might have been lavish banquets, who bowed to whom, how you addressed certain august people, and in many contexts, it is still those things. But today it’s also far more subtle — what goes into a gift, what goes into menu selection, how you meet people arriving at airports.
“It promotes little points of connection that further everyone’s work, as great an advantage to a corporate CEO or a university chancellor as it is to a head of government or head of state.”
The workshop offered a day’s worth of lectures on some of the imponderables of protocol (who says the guest of honour sits on the right?), including those surrounding national flags and royal visits.
Certainly, a great deal of the perceived wisdom in protocol is arbitrary, Mr. Young explained.
“Who said a duke is better than an earl? Well, there’s a system of ranking that came from a bunch of white guys in six western European countries several centuries ago and we still abide by the rules they came up with, and will until the international community decides to dispense with them.”
In fact, it was exactly two centuries ago, at the Congress of Vienna in 1814, that protocol was first given exacting treatment by ambassadors from across Europe. In principle, they had larger fish to fry, since they were figuring out ways to maintain long-term peace following the French Revolutionary Wars and the Napoleonic Wars. But already there was a sense that acknowledgement of procedural niceties could help maintain good relations among states, and the issue was addressed in a preliminary conference devoted entirely to protocol.
“They set the standards, they decided on the rules,” Mr. Young said. They formalised the ranking of dukes and earls and other notables and set out the proper ways of addressing officials (“Your Excellency,” “Your Majesty,” and so forth.)
Though the United States does not confer titles on people, Mr. Young, who hails from Georgia, said the title “the honourable” had a very American provenance. In the early 18th Century, Thomas Fairfax of Virginia was the only resident peer in late colonial America. He had inherited his lands and title from his father under the principle of primogeniture, which stipulated that property and titles go to the eldest son, leaving Fairfax’s two younger brothers destitute of property and honours. “He couldn’t accept this,” Mr. Young said, “and he declared that both brothers would be styled ‘the honourable,’ which would mean ‘son of a noble person’.”
A formalised honorific system in which precedence is clear simplifies life for the protocol officer, Mr. Young said. However, there is risk in this comfort, because the honorific system of one country may not translate neatly into that of another country.
“It’s a big no-no to make any assumptions here,” Mr. Young said. “You might call someone at a particular level ‘His Excellency’ or ‘the honourable,’ but that person may not have the same precedence in his own country that he would have in your own.”
He said protocol officers must always ask their opposite numbers to provide a list of any delegation in order of precedence. “No exceptions. You must ask, because titles just don’t translate across cultures. And asking puts the onus on them, covers your hind end.”
The list can address more confusion than merely matters of precedence. Family names should be capitalised since in some languages they may come at the beginning or the middle of a person’s full name. The gender of the person should be specified to help with gift selection and other matters. Perhaps most important, a phonetic pronunciation should be provided. “Nothing is more important than a person’s name,” Mr. Young said. He recalled a reception at which one of the guests, from southern Africa, had an exclamation mark in his name, a difficult phonetic that requires a kind of clicking sound. Mr. Young found someone who could model the pronunciation, practised it for days, and left the guest impressed with how near he came to the correct pronunciation.
Mr. Young acknowledged that some of the stipulations of protocol are puzzling. “Who says I can’t raise a glass to myself? Why can’t I join in on a toast to myself?” he asked the audience. The answer was sensible in its original context. Among the ancient Greeks, when a king was honouring a guest, everyone present would drink except the guest. “This had nothing to do with humility,” Mr. Young said. “The point was that the honoree would see that the wine wasn’t poisoned.”
Why do soldiers salute? This practice began with a gesture that knights used to make when greeting other knights. Each would raise their visor to reveal the presumptive good intentions in their eyes.
The custom that a guest of honour sits or stands at the right hand of his host comes through auspicious biblical precedent. Luke 22: 69 says, “Hereafter shall the Son of Man sit on the right hand of the power of God.”
One does as much advance work as possible to ensure few problems when planning a large-scale event, but don’t ever expect that all pratfalls can be avoided, Mr. Young said. He recalled a large dinner held by the governor of Georgia in honour of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. They had a number of illustrious guests to share Mr. Ban’s table — a four-star general, the director of the Centers for Disease Control, the archbishop of Atlanta. But who could they find from the world of sport? They settled on a famous race car driver from Georgia, who duly arrived, looking out of his element in a navy blue sports jacket two sizes too small, though he proved loquacious and comfortable at the table. At the end, he presented his business card, which showed that he had the same name as the famous racer but a different métier — licensed plumber.
“Somehow his name got in the system,” Mr. Young said with a laugh. “But good on him. He sat among the cream of Atlanta society and acted like he belonged.”
There are innumerable protocol rules and conventions relating to proper placement of flags. Paul LeBlanc, now retired, but formerly the senior ceremonial officer with the Department of Canadian Heritage, said the governing principle is that the Canadian flag is the most important national symbol and takes precedence over all other national flags. (There are minor exceptions. When a member of the Royal Family is present at an event, their personal Canadian flag takes precedence  over the Canadian flag. The same is true of the flags of the governor general or the lieutenant governors in their own provinces when they are attending an event.)
When many flags are on display, those of other sovereign nations are placed in alphabetical order. Those of provinces are given in the order in which they joined Confederation. Those of territories are given in the order in which they were created.
When numerous flags are displayed, they should all be of roughly the same size.
Protocol is never more on display than during a royal tour. The Canadian secretary to the Queen, Kevin MacLeod, has worked on them for more than a quarter of a century. For Mr. MacLeod, such tours are an occasion to remember that “the constitutional monarchy is an integral part of who we are as a nation, part of our heritage and institutions, and extremely well suited for the federal arrangements that we have.
“For me, the monarchy, though a living, breathing entity, is like a fire hydrant — on the wall, very colourful, and you know it’s there — and if you do have to use it, you’re glad you know where it is.”
Mr. MacLeod recalled a comment that the Queen made when visiting then-president Ronald Reagan at his California ranch in 1983: “‘I’m going home to Canada tomorrow,’ she said, and that speaks volumes about how she sees her role in our country.”
Though protocol tries to grease the skids when diplomats and other representatives meet, there are additional factors that condition how such encounters go, especially the styles of communication and thought that come from individual cultures. The current president of PDI-POA, Lanie Denslow, through her Los Angeles-based business World Wise Intercultural Training & Resources, tries to help clients understand these styles and better cope with them.
Drawing on the work of linguist and businessman Richard Lewis, Ms Denslow said people from different cultures have vastly different ways of looking at time, talking and tasks. The United States, for example, is a “linear active” nation in which communication is direct, schedules are important and stress is placed on data, facts and statistics. Brazil is a “multi-active” nation in which relationships are valued, communication is exuberant, time is considered abundant and the rules and timetable are flexible. Japan is a “reactive” nation where communication is careful, harmony is stressed, plans are developed slowly, punctuality is important and age and experience are accorded respect. These differences result in differing ideas of appropriate business practice. Cultural sensitivity is critical, especially as the world becomes more and more globalised.
Ms Denslow recalled a European colleague who would never vehemently disagree with any proposal, but would often express lack of certainty about a proposed course. Eventually, Ms Denslow discovered that this was a tactful way of expressing strong disagreement. “In her terms, she was speaking clearly, but I didn’t get this until I learned to read between the lines. Then I understood her well.”

Charles Enman is an Ottawa writer who now knows how to butter his bread properly.

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