What is the appropriate behavior and etiquette when meeting the Queen? When they have held the throne of England for as many centuries as the Royal Family, a certain number of rules have accumulated for how ordinary people (aka commoners) should behave in their presence. If you mess up, chances are you won’t be thrown into the Tower of London, but it really would be best to get it right–if only to avoid public humiliation.
First and perhaps most important of all, don’t touch the Queen. You can shake her hand … if she offers it.
In 2000, Canada’s Director General David Johnston was spotted lightly touching the Queen’s elbow as she descended some steps at an event in London. Johnston said he was simply concerned about the Queen’s safety and made the judgement that a breach of protocol was appropriate “to be sure that there was no stumble.” But eyebrows shot up all over the world.
Now, there is a bit of wiggle room here, according to Lucy Hume, the associate director at Debrett’s, a professional coaching company founded in 1769 and an authority on modern British etiquette. They may be OK with physical contact beyond a handshake, after all. Hume has said on the question of touching: “Best not to initiate personal physical contact with a member of the royal family. It may be that they offered to give you a hug or to put their arm around you, but usually wait and see what’s expected or what’s appropriate for the event.”
Here’s a cut-and-dried “don’t”: Lateness. You should never arrive at an event you’ve been invited to after the Queen. Also important: Don’t leave before the Queen. Debrett’s states guests should never leave an event before the royal personage unless permission has been granted through a private secretary.
While you’re in the room with the Queen, don’t ever turn your back on her. It is considered rude. Here’s what the etiquette experts suggest when you find yourself in the same room as Elizabeth II: form a semi circle. “If you are presented to Her Majesty at a Royal event it is likely you will be marshalled into position in a series of semi-circles rather than straight lines,” according to Reuter’s. “Guests should try to be empty-handed,” Debrett’s adds.
On the question of Selfies? Um, what do you think? It’s not acceptable to take pictures when you are visiting Her Majesty at home. Queen Elizabeth II may be one of the most photographed women in the world, but unofficial photography is not permitted in royal palaces. In 2015, guests in Germany were advised not to take selfies.
And remember, the Royal Family has had its share of heavy drinkers, from Henry VIII to George IV, but that doesn’t mean you should tank up. You may be nervous; still, alcohol is not the answer, as Debrett’s reminds guests in times of “overexcitement or nervousness.”
Now that you know the “don’ts,” what are the “do’s”?
Get the physicality correct when greeting is the most important tip. “One of the key things to bear in mind is how to greet a member of the royal family when you meet them for the first time, and it’s customary in a formal situation for women to curtsy – a brief bob is sufficient – and for men to bow from the neck,” Hume said.
Follow the Queen’s lead in conversation, experts say. Don’t talk unless spoken to, sit until she sits or begin eating until she does. And keep the conversation lead. This is the worst possible time for TMI.
So what if you do make a mistake? “You’re not going to be in trouble,” Hume told Reuters. “There are no official legal rules in place. Apologize if you feel you may have caused offense, but try not to panic, and stay calm.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this article we referred to Elizabeth II as the “Queen of England”. We have since revised it to reflect that she is not only the Queen of England. The correction took place on 11/24/19.
Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. Her new book, The Blue, is a spy story set in the 18th-century porcelain world. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com