Royal Etiquette: Do's and Don'ts When Meeting Her Majesty

Obama sidesteps traditional gift giving with a fully loaded iPod.

April 1, 2009, 11:12 AM

April 1, 2009— -- On U.S. soil, he may be a hugs and fist-bumping kind of a guy. But when President Obama and his wife, Michelle, met Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace today, they exchanged little more than simple handshakes, at least at first.

Throngs of well-wishers reportedly stood outside the palace as the Obamas arrived for the late-afternoon meeting. Obama was the only head of state at the annual G-20 summit to get a private meeting with the queen.

Later at a reception for all the visiting dignitaries," the queen put her hand on the backof Mrs. Obama, who did the same for a few moments as they chatted," according to the British Press Association pool report, which called the gesture "an unusual step" in the tightly scripted world that surrounds a meeting with a British royal.

Meeting Queen Elizabeth -- even for a world leader -- can be nerve-racking. There is a long list of protocols that guides one's behavior in the presence of Her Majesty and even though the president and the first lady are not required to abide by all of them, there are certain formalities they do have to follow.

There is the "no-touch" rule, for example. The queen's visitors have to wait until she extends her hand to take it, and they are not supposed to grip it tightly or pump it, said Rachel Kelly, a public relations executive at VisitBritain, the U.K.'s official tourism office. No hugs, no kiss on the cheek, no touching the shoulder, which is why the queen's gesture comes as a surprise.

In 1992, Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating was assailed by the media when he put his arm around the queen. It's generally not considered socially acceptable to touch Her Majesty in any kind of way or to take her elbow to direct her.

The Obamas seemed to follow that rule well as they were greeted by Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, at Buckingham Palace. Even while posing for a picture, the four stood apart with hands in the front or back.

From Greetings to Gifts

Michelle Obama did not have to curtsy in the presence of the queen. Normally, British women do a small curtsy and men bow their heads when meeting the queen. Since they are not subjects of the royal family, the Obamas were not expected to comply, but President Obama did bow slightly from the waist as he met the queen and her husband.

But the key question is how does one address the fourth longest-reigning British monarch?

Kelly said one should refer to the queen as "Your Majesty" on the first reference, and then "ma'am" subsequently. The formal greeting for a U.S. president is simply "Mr. President."

Gift-giving is also an important part of the visit. The president and the first lady gave the queen a video iPod with an inscription, uploaded songs and accessories, plus a rare musical songbook signed by Richard Rodgers. According to one source, the iPod also contains video footage of the queen's state visit to the United States in May 2007, Obama's inauguration address and photos. The queen gave the president a silver framed photograph of herself and her husband, the official picture she gives all visiting dignitaries.

It remains to be seen how the public and media will react to the gift. Obama's gift to Prime Minister Gordon Brown -- a set of 25 American movie DVDs -- was assailed by the British press.

Attire also plays an important part in royal visits. The first lady skipped a sleeveless dress -- as is her usual style -- and opted instead for a black sweater, and a black skirt topped with a white shirt, which she accessorized with a pearl necklace, a rather conservative look for a first lady who likes to show off her toned arms.

From One Royalty to Another

Even though President Obama is in the United Kingdom for the G-20 summit, the queen invited him for a private, 25-minute conversation, which she didn't do for other leaders who are attending the event. For the other attendess, the queen will hold a reception but not one-on-one meetings.

The president, who is known for his laid-back demeanor, may have had to adopt a more formal tone to discuss world affairs with the queen.

"Whatever you do, don't call them nicknames," Kelly said, or ask about her famous grandchildren, Prince Harry and Prince William.

It's OK to make eye contact and to appear lighthearted -- another plus for the president who made the queen laugh as he told her about his busy schedule and lack of sleep.

When it comes to eating, chowing down was not on the menu. Tea is usually accompanied by small snacks, and protocol dictates that the queen's guests stop eating after she takes her last bite.

General tea etiquette dictates raising only the teacup to drink, not the cup and saucer, and to return the cup to the saucer after each sip, according to Kelly. And avoid another major gaffe -- slurping.

Some advise that turning one's back on the queen is also not done. And the Obamas excelled in that department, turning their backs instead on the cameras to talk to the royal couple, and facing the media only when it came time to take pictures.

Details are scanty on what took place in the meeting behind closed doors and whether the Obamas made any gaffes. But simply put, the queen is probably used to world leaders making those by now.

"These things have been done so many times, she's a master at this point," said Charles Kidd, editor of Debritts Peerage and Baronetage, a British firm specializing in etiquette publications.

The queen has met all sitting U.S. presidents during her reign, except one.

For his part, President Obama was overtly excited about the meeting.

As he said during his meeting with Brown: "There's one last thing that I should mention that I love about Great Britain, and that is the queen. And I'm so very much looking forward to ... meeting her for first time later this evening. And as you might imagine, Michelle has been really thinking that through because I think in the imagination of people throughout America, I think what the queen stands for and her decency and her civility, what she represents, that's very important."