Curtsy for the Queen?
March 1, 2005 3:01 PM   Subscribe

What is the proper etiquette/protocol for Americans greeting or addressing non-American people of title? Does one say "Her Majesty" or "Your Highness" or "Lady So-and-So" or other formalities, if one comes from a country with egalitarian and anti-monarchist roots and beliefs, where the non-recognition of titles is even a part of the Constitution? How about the whole curtsying thing? Where is the line commonly drawn between being polite to someone and being true to personal and national values?

I suspect that Americans will more likely use "Elton John" than "Sir Elton John", especially in print media. But what about the frequency with which we refer to "Lord Black" over "Conrad Black" or even "Mr. Black"? Or (incorrectly) calling her "Princess Diana"? We seem to be full of contradictions.

Furthermore, what do American presidents do when meeting a member of a royal family? Are they more solicitous when meeting a British royal, because of our "special relationship" with Great Britain, or do they take care to be more perfunct, because our existence as a nation is based on denial of their "Divine Right of Kings"?

(This question was inspired by the upcoming Charles and Camilla nuptials and their accompanying will-she-be-Queen hoo-ha, which made me curious. I have absolutely no contact with any royalty or peerage, and probably never will outside of 19th and early 20th century British novels.)
posted by Asparagirl to Society & Culture (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
My personal belief is that, out of politeness, you should always call people what they wish to be called, whatever their name, nickname, title or rank, regardless of one's personal beliefs. I go nuts when people call me "Miss" or "Mrs" instead of "Ms", for example, and I don't think that their personal opinions on appropriate forms of address is at all relevant - I get to choose what you call me.

Oh, and I don't think you need to curtsey these days. Though you can if you want to ;)

FWIW, Conrad Black isn't "Mr Black" any more, which would explain why no-one calls him that - he left that title behind when he was "elevated to the peerage", as they say. Oh, and I'm not American. Or British.
posted by different at 3:14 PM on March 1, 2005

For anyone who has earned (or been born into) the right to a specific title, my rule of thumb is to be respectful and use the title. When I met Lord somebody or another in Scotland, I used the honorific. I looked at it the same way I would use "Mr." when I would meet a distinguised businessman or "Mrs." when I met my girlfriend's mom for the first time. But then again, I grew up in the South so it was natural for me.

And here's a good list in figuring out what to call them based on their position.
posted by ..ooOOoo....ooOOoo.. at 3:24 PM on March 1, 2005

oOo, great link, thanks
posted by matteo at 3:48 PM on March 1, 2005

Also, if I may piggyback for a moment, what about religious titles? How should a Jew address the pope? Must an atheist call someone "Father?"
posted by callmejay at 3:53 PM on March 1, 2005

Ooh - callmejay beat me to it. No way I'm calling anyone "Father" or "Your Holiness" unless they are, in fact, my father or made of Swiss cheese.

I've been told by a priest, however, that it's not technically correct for non-Catholics to refer to them as "Father" anyway. I think he suggested "Reverend."
posted by Man O' Straw at 4:02 PM on March 1, 2005

Response by poster: My personal belief is that, out of politeness, you should always call people what they wish to be called...I get to choose what you call me.

Yes, but in some cases, isn't that tacitly agreeing to participate in a political system you may find distateful? Why should Prince Harry get treated to more fawning nomenclature ("Your Royal Highness...") than Rosa Parks? What if you met Castro and he insisted on being addressed as Great Leader or even just Comrade, and you'd really rather not? Or if I demanded to be called Grand Poobah?

Those are over-the-top examples, I know. I'm just wondering how people reconcile "all men are created equal" with hereditary or other non-elected titles. I'm all in favor of being sensitive to someone's personal preferences, but surely there's a limit. The question is, where?

For me, I think I'd honestly have trouble calling anyone "Lord" or "Lady". It just seems...wrong. And that whole title-by-inheritance/title-by-marriage distinction is nutty; Lord Peter Wimsey's wife Harriet Vane, for example, would have to go around being called "Lady Peter" by everyone. But titles of merit rather than primogeniture would be okay; if Mr. Connery prefers to be called Sir Sean as I serve him tropical drinks on our sundeck, I'm game.
posted by Asparagirl at 4:14 PM on March 1, 2005

"Thanks, king!"
posted by gimonca at 4:40 PM on March 1, 2005

Why should Prince Harry get treated to more fawning nomenclature ("Your Royal Highness...") than Rosa Parks?

If for some reason you meet him and don't want to call him his royal anything, then don't. A simple "sir" to note his position of respect in his country should suffice. They're hardly going to throw you into the Tower for it; at worst you'd get a nasty look from a protocol droid and not be invited back.

For me, I think I'd honestly have trouble calling anyone "Lord" or "Lady". It just seems...wrong.

Then if you're in a position to meet someone like that, don't call them that. Don't make a fuss about it, and be polite otherwise. If questioned, you (that is, Asparagirl) could say something like "I'm sorry, I reserve that word for prayer," or "I'm sorry, sir, but in my tradition that's only used for God."

In general it's surely more polite to call people by whatever title they prefer, but if you have some semi-principled objection to it, then don't. If they're polite, they won't insist on you breaking some matter of principle or religious scruple or whatever just to satisfy their egoboo. Just be polite, say what you're comfortable saying, and don't bring it up unless someone in the room corrects you to your face.

What if you met Castro and he insisted on being addressed as Great Leader or even just Comrade, and you'd really rather not?

Then you'd call him Great Leader or Comrade or Uncle Fester or whatever he wanted to be called, because he might chuck you in prison or have you disappeared. That's just common sense.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 4:57 PM on March 1, 2005

In terms of proper etiquette, it was once held that a black man should not look a white man in the eyes. It is currently held by some that women should not show any flesh or hair in public. While it may make some feel better to denigrate others, I believe that treating other humans as equals is the only relationship that has intellectual or moral merit. It doesn't concern me if I insult someone by assuming a basic equality amongst all man-kind. If that assumption causes insult, I'd rather not make their acquaintance.

When I lived in a kingdom, I found it personally insulting that some distant relation to Napoleon thought he was born King and that my children were his subjects. It boggles my mind that an intelligent human being raised after WWII could believe in royalty by birth. I've since come to believe the only good royal is a dead royal. But unless I was invited to share my opinion, I would abstain from meeting someone so deluded rather being rude and allowing my disdain for a stranger to be aired publicly.

I have no problem with earned honorifics, but if one expects formality, they must reciprocate in kind. Again, that's just plain good manners.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 5:23 PM on March 1, 2005

What if you met Castro and he insisted on being addressed as Great Leader or even just Comrade, and you'd really rather not?

call him "señor Presidente" -- he is a President, after all. a head of State. presumably, nobody would require you to call him "excelentísimo señor Castro, Presidente de la República de Cuba". the Pope -- it's trickier. he is a head of State too, but since you may not want to recognize his religious role, and Popes all have degrees in Theology by Universities I am sure you're ready to recognize as legitimate, you can call him Professor. by the end of high school, when i had already cooled down a bit on my Catholicism, I stopped calling my teachers "Father" and switched to "Professor". nobody complained. I'd also go with "Sir" if I were you, anyway. same as for royals -- some of them have degrees, some haven't (Queen Elizabeth for example doesn't even have a formal education with a proper degree that i know of, she only took private lessons and studied at home -- well, at her Palace). with a little research you could figure out whether or not the royal in question has a degree, then call him/her "doctor", "professor", whatever.

religion: me, I'm a Goy who doesn't have any problems addressing a Rabbi as Rabbi. I am not a Buddhist but if I ever meet the Dalai Lama I'll be honored to address him as "Your Holiness". and yes, whenever you call a Catholic priest "father" you unmask yourself as Catholic, lapsed or not -- noncatholics address priests as "reverend".
and I salute the Muslims I already know with the beautiful "Assalamu Alaikum", but since it is the way Muslims say hello among themselves, I'm wary to do it with a stranger because he/she could think I'm trying to pretend I'm Muslim -- I don't really want to commit Shirk. so it really depends on how well I know the person
posted by matteo at 5:39 PM on March 1, 2005

whenever you call a Catholic priest "father" you unmask yourself as Catholic, lapsed or not -- noncatholics address priests as "reverend".

Really? I'm an atheist, but I attended a Catholic law school. On the one occasion on which I took a class from a priest, I referred to him, along with the rest of the class, as "Father" without thinking twice. Then again, I was raised a Catholic, so perhaps you're right.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 5:48 PM on March 1, 2005

I think that it's perfectly acceptable to ignore someone's title, so long as you think it's fine for them to call you "Hey, asshole," and ignore your preferred mode of address. Further, would you walk up to GWB and say "Hey, George?" Of course you wouldn't; you would refer to him as Mr President.

FWIW, I have it on good authority that HM the Queen gets as informal as is practical when out of the public eye. (A friend of mine was an officer on whatever ship it was she and HRH Prince Philip stayed on when they visited Canada in 1982. Philip showed up in the officer's wardroom (is that the right term?) and bought the officers a drink. She showed up a few minutes later, had a gin & tonic, told the men "Oh, please don't. Just call me Ma'am if you really must call me anything but Elizabeth," and then they toddled off to bed.)
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 6:11 PM on March 1, 2005

If you don't know the forms, it's probably better to sound charmingly HenryJamesy American-abroad and mister-and-missus (or 'sir' and 'ma'am') everybloodyone. It's one of those situations where nearly right is probably worse than not attempting to get it right.

The big one that Americans seem to get wrong is knights and dames. You gain a 'Sir', you lose a surname: so it's 'Sir Elton John' and 'Sir Elton', never 'Sir John'.

Now, when friends' parents get knighthoods, that's a problem, because you've been polite to them for years w/ 'Mr X' and 'Mrs X', and now it's formally 'Sir Firstname' and 'Lady Firstname', and they've all got broad Lancashire accents so it's all really Monty Python and you end up using vague 'yous' and trying to refer to people with gestures... etc.

Lord Peter Wimsey's wife Harriet Vane, for example, would have to go around being called "Lady Peter" by everyone.

Fortunately, Asparagirl, we don't live in the 1930s any more. Though marriage proposals in Latin are to be missed.

Last thing: don't call your surgeon 'doctor' if you're being rushed in for an emergency appendectomy in Britain.
posted by riviera at 6:24 PM on March 1, 2005

Response by poster: call him "señor Presidente" -- he is a President, after all.

But not a democratically-elected one. So the "national values" issue comes up kinda worse even than with hereditary titles, because it mocks the whole concept of being a president. I mean, saying "President Assad" makes me want to snicker and make air quotes with my fingers. At least with the hereditary titles thing, one could inwardly smile and think about strange women lying on their backs in ponds handing out swords...

the Pope -- it's trickier. he is a head of State too

Can I call him President Wojtyla (of the Vatican State)? He did get elected--by a Council of Cardinals.

I kid. I would say "Your Holiness"; he's still a holy man, even if not my particular God-flavor. And beyond the religious angle, I think JPII is a truly great man.

BTW, I was about to post that Rabbi means Teacher, so it should be okay for anyone to use, since it doesn't imply any particular belief in a religion or in the person's innate holiness. But then I checked wikipedia and saw that it can also be literally translated as "my master", which I never knew. Am slightly disturbed now.

on preview: riviera, your post made me grin.
posted by Asparagirl at 6:34 PM on March 1, 2005

I think that it's perfectly acceptable to ignore someone's title, so long as you think it's fine for them to call you "Hey, asshole," and ignore your preferred mode of address.

That's not analogous. My addressing the King of Freedonia as "sir" instead of "Your Most Gracious and Well-Endowed Majesty" is not the equivalent of him calling me "Hey, asshole" instead of Mr. Xenophobe or Dr. Xenophobe or any standard-boring mode of address for someone you don't know.

Oddly enough, the equivalent of him calling me "Hey, asshole" is me calling him "Hey, asshole."

It's not much different from a student calling me Mr. Xenophobe instead of Dr. or Prof. Xenophobe -- nobody but an utter prick would even take notice. The only difference is that it's hard to imagine a principled objection to calling someone Professor, except at Virginia.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:08 PM on March 1, 2005

At least in my experience with Europeans it is quite rare for people to use hereditary titles in their business or profession. I've found out on several instances that a Mr. Jones was actually a.k.a Viscount this or that, etc., after months of working on something.

However, an exception is when their business is directly related to their title. A surprisingly large amount of land in Europe is owned by the same nobles who's ancestors have owned it for hundreds of years, and it would be a rather false modesty to hide the ball on that.

However, none of this applies to created peers or knights. People are proud to have earned those titles and use them in the same way, and for the same reason, that someone with an M.D. is called "Doctor" even when he's not in the hospital.

The form of address for these people is simple: knights are "Sir [first name]" or "Dame [first name]" and peers are "Lord [last name]" or "Baroness [last name]." Wives of male knights are entitled to be called "Lady [first name]. Husbands of dames and females peers get bupkuss. I don't know the form of address for wives of male peers.
posted by MattD at 7:09 PM on March 1, 2005

Wow, this came up recently with some of my colleagues and the whole notion that I would refer to somebody as "your holiness," "your majesty," "your grace," or anything else just because they were born that way drives me up the wall. If I visit some Kingdom, I will be more than happy to use proper titles, but I recognize no legitimate majestic qualities in the Queen nor any holy qualities in any religious leaders. I despise aristocracy.
posted by crazy finger at 7:10 PM on March 1, 2005

It is only polite to follow the social customs of the country you're in. Benjamin Franklin, a fiercely independent man, was still cognizant of how one swims in diplomatic waters. When in Rome, and all that.

The Peerage of the United Kingdom is ordered thusly: (for simplicity, I'm just using the male nomenclature and the UK.)


In conversation or correspondence, you should address a duke as 'Duke' (or less formally, "Your Grace"), while all the other types of peer should be referred to as 'Lord' followed by the name of their title, so you would call the Viscount of StuffyShirt "Lord StuffyShirt".

Ranked below Peers are:
Baronet - Sir "forename" example: Sir Bob
Lord Spiritual - not sure on this one
Knight - Sir "Forename" - example: Sir Bob
Esquire - "Sir", but with no name, as in "Yes, Sir"
Gentleman - as above

For a comprehensive view of the correct methods of address, I recommend Debrett's.
posted by dejah420 at 7:45 PM on March 1, 2005

The difference between diplomatic circles and social circles is enormous. As a diplomatic representative, all pomp and ceremony is required. In social circles, nobility is the greatest sham ever hoisted upon man. You've got to be kidding if you ask a modern free man to adhere to some antiquated idea of human worth. Do you respect Southerners who believe they should still own their neighbors and be called Master?

Benjamin Franklin lived in an age of kings. We live in an age of democracy or totalitarianism, I'm not sure which. Neither warrant continuation of the silly notion of hereditary nobility.

Personally, I use Sir and Ma'am for addressing strangers, and I'm otherwise informal unless one prefers mutual formality.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 8:03 PM on March 1, 2005

As regards Queen Elizabeth II, I have watched her over the years, and I have concluded, she pulls the Majesty thing off very well, and earns the title. What a job! I met someone who encountered her under circumstances where he didn't know who the friendly lady was (he was British).

Otherwise, I would tend to be happy enough with minimal titles anywhere, and whatever protocol dictated while abroad. If I am expected to bow, I would do so--Hopefully with a straight face. Nice thing is, such people usually have handlers that will be happy to advise you on the preferred protocol in advance. I'd have to have a particular reason to breach such a protocol.
posted by Goofyy at 10:39 PM on March 1, 2005

Well, Queen Elizabeth has a web page on addressing and greeting royals; eHow has one on How to greet the Queen of England. Neither goes in for puffery.

Basically, the form of address is "Your Majesty" on meeting the Queen, and "ma'am" thereafter. This is because her majesty-ness is a position she holds, not because she's your monarch. Now, subjects of the Queen were once expected to curtsy, though that custom is dying -- affectation-laden performances by Madonna notwithstanding. Around 1990 there was a flap when a Bush administration functionary in the State Department met the Queen and curtsied. She may have been taken by the moment, but should have known better; we fought a war over that, you know.

Few American newspapers, if that's any guide, use lesser titles e.g. "Sir Paul McCartney", except as an affectation, to chum up to a celebrity for his awesomeness, as in "Sir Ian [McKellen]" and many others. I don't think there's any reason to pay special attention to a knighthood, certainly -- it's something like a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, really.

Incidentally, the Divine Right of Kings wasn't English, it was French, and it was what brought about the Revolution there. The British royals have known, ever since Cromwell, that their heads are attached to their bodies by their neck and the consent of Parliament.
posted by dhartung at 12:01 AM on March 2, 2005

Of course, officially, the motto of the British monarch is "Dieu et mon droit" which means "God and my [birth] right" and expresses the same sort of ideas as the French had. In fact the idea is even in French!
posted by grouse at 2:26 AM on March 2, 2005

The only difference is that it's hard to imagine a principled objection to calling someone Professor, except at Virginia.

At UVA? How's that, exactly?
posted by armage at 5:32 AM on March 2, 2005

Many of the standard handbooks on etiquette fail to reflect the enormous changes in social conventions that have taken place in the last fifty years, and are no longer a reliable guide to 'correct' behaviour. My copy of Titles and Forms of Address (7th edition, 1949) informs me that Harriet Vane, as the wife of a duke's younger son, should properly be addressed as Lady Peter Wimsey, or 'less formally' (!) as Lady Peter. But even in the 1930s this was starting to seem slightly old-fashioned (as is clear from the Lord Peter novels themselves), and nowadays it looks positively archaic.

There is, of course, a long and honourable tradition -- going back to the Quakers in the seventeenth century -- of refusing to use titles of honour. If you addressed the Queen as 'Mrs Windsor' I suspect she would be completely unfazed. In fact I am sure she would be the epitome of graciousness and charm. There is a risk, of course, that when you looked back on the encounter you might start to feel that you had been slightly ungracious in refusing to use her customary title -- but that's your problem, not hers.

(The famous, though possibly apocryphal, story of William Penn refusing to take off his hat in the presence of King Charles II is a cautionary tale of how someone who doesn't follow the correct protocol, however honourable their motives, may find themselves looking slightly stupid.)

As for Charles and Camilla, traditional etiquette would (I think) require one to address them as 'your royal highness/es' on first meeting, and then as "sir" and "ma'am". However, I don't know whether traditional etiquette will be applied in this case. It is possible that Charles may adopt a more relaxed standard of protocol, simply to protect his new bride from being snubbed by fanatical Diana-worshippers and conservative evangelicals. If so, this will be another step along the road to a more modern monarchy -- no bad thing, in my opinion.

Incidentally, Titles and Forms of Address also informs me that I should address an Anglican clergyman as 'Mr Smith', a Roman Catholic priest as 'Father Brown', and a Jewish rabbi as 'Rabbi Cohen', regardless of my own religious affiliation. Similarly, I can address the Pope as 'Your Holiness' without implying anything about my own religious views. Once again, however, I am conscious of the fact that these forms of address, while traditionally 'correct', may not reflect current usage. In twenty years' time, calling the Pope 'Your Holiness' may seem as archaic as calling Harriet Vane 'Lady Peter'. Who knows? Personally I don't have a problem with titles like 'Your Highness' or 'Your Holiness', but I can see why other people might object to using them.

Anyway, Asparagirl, let me assure you that you can safely visit England without the risk of being thrown into prison if you fail to curtsy to the Queen.
posted by verstegan at 5:38 AM on March 2, 2005

armage: The university was founded by Thomas Jefferson, who never had a doctorate. So calling yourself "Doctor So-and-So" is -- theoretically -- seen as implying an (almost certainly false) intellectual superiority to Mr. Jefferson. By tradition, professors at UVa are simply "Mr. So-and-So" (or Ms., etc). Hardly a big deal, even there, but one of those amusing bits of tradition.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:21 AM on March 2, 2005

In another example, Rudy Giuliani (being a non-UK citizen), cannot call himself "Sir Rudolph" but does get to put KBE after his full name.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 6:32 AM on March 2, 2005

As ever the Xenophobe (who, may I add as an aside is one of my very favourite Mefites) nails it.

It hangs on protocol and context. If you do meet aristocracy in a social context it's all about adherence to accepted social norms in order to put people at their ease. If however you're intent on making a political and / or ethical point then flouting these norms will send this message loudly and clearly but will be construed as either ignorant or confrontational.

The British and American diplomatic corps work hard to ensure that whever the differences in our countries' view on egalitarianism we work hard to put the other at their ease in order to facilitate social intercourse. If you're more interested in making points than engaging in conversation you'll flout protocol. Perhaps a shame as in my experience aristicrats tend to lead lives so different from peons like me that I find what they've got to say interesting, albeit not always right.

Less vexing however are those such as our current Lord Chancellor who by rights should be addressed as 'my Lord' or referred to as Lord Falconer who insists on being known as 'Charlie'. If you don't want the title dammit, renounce it! Tony Benn did!
posted by dmt at 8:14 AM on March 2, 2005

Following up on my comment above: starting today, Bill Gates can do the same.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 11:20 AM on March 2, 2005

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