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What is protocol? It's a series of guidelines that permit behaviour that's acceptable to the involved parties. There are four branches: government, diplomatic, business and social.

The following questions and answers will address issues that frequently arise during meetings, conferences and business trips.


Q. How do I ensure that appropriate government representatives are involved in an international conference with visiting dignitaries?
A. Early on, identify the most appropriate government representatives and call their offices to ascertain their interest and availability. Follow up with an invitation outlining the specific activities the elected officials would play at the conference and why their participation would be mutually beneficial.

Q. How do we address foreign dignitaries?
A. Government ministers of foreign countries are referred to as: Your Excellency. The same address is used for ambassadors and high commissioners. Depending on the country, some Prime Ministers are also referred to as Your Excellency, Mr. President, Mr. Prime Minister or Madame Prime Minister.


Q. Shortly after several diplomats accepted my invitation to an event, an international dispute started. How do I assign seating, when eight members of the diplomatic corps are at war with each other?
A. Event coordinators should not make judgment calls by themselves on politically sensitive issues with national and international implications. Contact the Office of Protocol at Foreign Affairs or a Chief of Protocol.

Q. How should I handle media when visiting dignitaries don't want to be asked questions about problems in their home country?
A. Notify the media that questions on certain topics will receive no comment, then monitor their questions. Dignitaries need prepared statements that make it perfectly clear that they will not discuss a specific topic. Questions could also be submitted and approved for discussion before the interview.

Q. Do I greet foreign dignitaries with handshakes? Do I bow in return if the foreign dignitary prefers to bow?
A. To show courtesy and respect, you may want to alter your traditional handshake to show an understanding of your guest's cultural background. This could involve bowing or bringing hands together as in prayer. Handshakes, with women of certain religious beliefs such as Moslem or Orthodox Jews, may be considered disrespectful.


Q. Is it appropriate to call a foreign conference organizer to discuss plans for gift exchange so your organization can reciprocate with a gift that's of an appropriate type and value?
A. Yes. Your gifts should not overshadow your guests' gifts causing them embarrassment.

Q. As you're giving out incentive gifts, a participant says his company's policy doesn't allow him to accept it. What do you do?
A. Avoid this awkward situation by asking about the corporate gift policy when planning the event. If a gift is refused, apologize to the guest, and never pressure him to accept it.

Q. How would I avoid perceived favoritism in seating plans?
A. Establish an order of precedence, in advance, based on the guests' elected or official titles, or level of donation. Every seat should be assigned in relationship to the principal host and the most important guest present.

Q. When I have a limited number of VIP suites at a hotel, how do I determine an upgrade protocol?
A. You need to start with a precedence list of delegates. You can attempt to compensate guests in lower-quality suites with a fruit basket, bottle of wine or flowers.

Q. As a female meeting professional and incentive manager in a global economy, I'm acutely aware of cultural norms that are gender-based. How should I alter my behavior so that I'm successful but don't offend clients from other cultures?
A. Women traveling on business should maintain a reserve and formality especially in Asian and Middle Eastern cultures where female business executives work in a male-dominated environment. This is especially true in Japan. Dress conservatively in Middle Eastern countries.


Q. A VIP, with a known drinking problem, was scheduled to address my group. During the cocktail hour he downed several drinks and could barely stand when it was time for him to speak. What should I have done?
A. Since the VIP's drinking problem was a known factor, organizers should have anticipated this situation and prevented it. Planners have responsibilities, both to the VIP and to the guests, to avoid unpleasantness and embarrassment.

Q. How do I handle VIPs who arrive at a formal dinner without an invitation and with an entourage? Seating is assigned and there is no space to accommodate them.
A. Gate-crashing is practised at all levels and VIPs are no exception. A seasoned planner should anticipate this situation and have a contingency plan that allows unexpected guests to be seated without undue attention.

Q. When a table is set, alternating male, female, what do I do if one person cancels at the last minute? Remove the place setting? Rearrange the seating so it remains male/female? Also, should the guest speaker sit to the right or left of a central podium? Where does the host sit?
A. Remove the place setting. Alternating male-female seating dates back to when men brought their own knives to the table and cut the meat for the ladies. Seating is now more flexible with the changing definition of what constitutes a couple and the increasingly professional roles of women who often outrank their male escorts.
The host sits to the right of the podium, facing the audience, with his honored guest to his right. If the guest is very important, the host can defer his seating to the guest.

Q. Where should the toast to the Queen be in an event? Do you toast with water, wine or any beverage?
A. A loyal toast (toast to the Sovereign) is done with water. It can be at the beginning of the meal (following grace, because church comes before state) or at the end.



Sheridan College, Oakville, Ontario. International Studies Business Program: http://www1.sheridaninstitute.ca. This one-year postgraduate course on developing foreign markets and business plans includes training in cultural awareness.

The Protocol School of Washington: http://www.psow.edu

Protocol School of Palm Beach: http://www.etiquetteexpert.com


Protocol, a resource for event suppliers, published by The Council of Protocol Executives in New York City.

Protocol: The Complete Handbook of Diplomatic, Official and Social Usage, Maryjane McCaffree and Pauline Innis,. Devon Publishing Co. 1997.

Complete Business Etiquette Handbook, Barbara Pachter & Marjorie Brody, Prentice-Hall. 1995.