Prim and proper: Etiquette for a royal visit to Capitol Hill

Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding might have passed, but next week Washington is scheduled to get one more dose of British royalty. 

England’s Prince Edward is slated to attend a royal reception Monday with Sens. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), as well as Miss America 2011 Teresa Scanlan in honor of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award — The Young Americans’ Challenge. Earlier in the day, the prince is planning to meet with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, according to Josh Randle, national executive director of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.

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Indeed, Washington is seeing its fair share of European royalty this summer. Queen Margrethe II of Denmark toured House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md.) office last week before attending opening night of the Royal Danish Ballet as guest of honor at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

From controversial embraces with royalty — first lady Michelle Obama cuddled up to Queen Elizabeth II in 2009, though Buckingham Palace defended the gesture as “a mutual and spontaneous display of affection”— to President Obama’s bungled toast to the queen last month when he spoke over the British national anthem, we Americans have fumbled through regal encounters in the past.

In anticipation of this week’s activities, anyone socializing with the prince — or any other member of the royal family — would do well to listen to some expert guidance on how to avoid such royal missteps from Nancy Mitchell, owner of Protocol Partners: Washington Center for Protocol.

First off, Mitchell advises everyone to stand — and stand quickly — whenever His Royal Highness enters a room.

But do not bow, Mitchell instructs, citing a “protocol firestorm” Obama caused after bowing to monarchs in past years. Americans are not subjects of foreign royal families, Mitchell explains, so bowing is inappropriate. 

“I think that was what the American Revolution was all about, if I’m not mistaken,” she said.

Mitchell also warns against shaking the prince’s hand, unless the prince extends his first. Though traditional rules against touching royalty have relaxed, “we should not be the first person to have our hand out,” she says. 

When conversing with the prince, Mitchell recommends calling him “Your Royal Highness,” and scaling back to “Sir” after several references.

Finally, when in doubt, proceed with formality, as most mistakes arise because we act too informally.

“We say what we want to say, when we want to say it. We live in the moment,” Mitchell explains of the American mentality.

The British, on the other hand, “are sticklers for protocol and details, and we want to rise to the occasion,” she said.