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Diplomatic Protocol

In international politics, protocol is the etiquette of diplomacy and affairs of state.

A protocol is a rule which guides how an activity should be performed, especially in the field of diplomacy. In diplomatic services and governmental fields of endeavor, protocols are often unwritten guidelines. Protocols specify the proper and generally-accepted behaviour in matters of state and diplomacy, such as showing appropriate respect to a head of state, ranking diplomats in chronological order of their accreditation at court, and so on.

A Brief History of Diplomacy

The ability to practice diplomacy is one of the defining elements of a state, and diplomacy has been practiced since the formation of the first city-states. Originally diplomats were sent only for specific negotiations, and would return immediately after their mission concluded. Diplomats were usually relatives of the ruling family or of very high rank in order to give them legitimacy when they sought to negotiate with the other state.

Modern diplomacy's origins are often traced to the states of Northern Italy in the early Renaissance, with the first embassies being established in the thirteenth century. It was in Italy that many of the traditions of modern diplomacy began, such as the presentation of an ambassador's credentials to the head of state.

The practice spread from Italy to the other European powers. Milan was the first to send a representative to the court of France in 1455. Milan, however, refused to host French representatives fearing espionage and possible intervention in internal affairs. As foreign powers such as France and Spain became increasingly involved in Italian politics the need to accept emissaries was recognized. Soon all the major European powers were exchanging representatives. Spain was the first to send a permanent representative when it appointed an ambassador to the Court of England in 1487. By the late 16th century, permanent missions became the standard.

Many of the conventions of modern diplomacy developed during this period. The top rank of representatives was an ambassador. An ambassador at this time was almost always a nobleman - the rank of the noble varied with the prestige of the country he was posted to. Defining standards emerged for ambassadors requiring that they have large residences, host lavish parties, and play an important role in the court life of the host nation. Embassy staff consisted of a wide range of employees, including some dedicated to espionage. The need for skilled individuals to staff embassies was met by the graduates of universities, and this led to an increase in the study of international law, modern languages and history at universities throughout Europe.

The elements of modern diplomacy slowly spread to Eastern Europe and arrived in Russia by the early eighteenth century. The entire system was greatly disrupted by the French Revolution and the subsequent years of warfare. After the fall of Napoleon, the Congress of Vienna of 1815 established an international system of diplomatic rank.

Functions of a Diplomatic Mission


Addressing Others
Although guidelines exist, proper forms of address vary greatly from culture to culture. Be sure to check local customs, but a few general rules follow. The spirit of formality among diplomatic representatives usually means not addressing others by their first names as quickly as is done in North America. Socially, you can refer to a spouse by their first name or as "my husband," or "my wife" rather than as "Mr./Mrs. Smith."
Ambassadors are addressed as Mr./Madam Ambassador or Ambassador Jones. Only by special invitation or long friendship should one address an ambassador by first name and then only when not in the public eye.
Those of rank below Ambassador are addressed as Mr., Ms. or Mrs., if marital status is known.


The purpose of making introductions is to exchange names between people so that a conversation can follow. For a formal occasion, the traditional "Mrs. Smith, may I present Mr. Jones?" is used internationally. For less formal occasions simply stating the two names, "Mrs. Smith, Mr. Jones," is acceptable. Making personal introductions (i.e., introducing oneself) is perfectly acceptable and encouraged. Adding context about yourself and your role is helpful. For example, "Hello, I'm Jane Smith, Vice Consul at the United States Embassy." In English, the accepted, formal response to any introduction is, "How do you do?" Informally, a smile, "Hello," or, "It's nice to meet you," are fine.
When making introductions, honor is recognized by the name spoken first. Courtesy gives honor to those who are older, higher in rank, titled, have a professional status, or are female. However, women are introduced to ambassadors, heads of state, royalty, and dignitaries of the church.

As they do when a woman enters the room, men should rise when being introduced to a woman. In some countries, a man kisses a married woman's hand. Men also rise when being introduced to another man. Women should rise when being introduced to another woman for whom she wishes to show great respect, such as the hostess, a very distinguished woman, or much older woman. In some countries, women rise when introduced to all others.
Throughout the world, greeting and leave-taking customs may include handshakes, salutatory gestures or other specific expressions. If there is such a tradition, use it with host country nationals, foreigners and fellow staff members. Failure to abide with tradition may be interpreted as rudeness or a lack of respect for colleagues.


Forms of address for foreign government officials and people holding professional, ecclesiastical, or traditional titles vary among countries. It is appropriate to begin letters and refer to others directly and indirectly with the following titles.

Diplomatic Titles

Chiefs of Mission
Mr./Madam Ambassador (this also applies to an ambassador with a military title), or Ambassador Reed.

Sir Richard - British ambassador who is a knight (Sir Richard's wife would be addressed as "Lady Smith".)

Lord Montgomery - British ambassador who is a baron

Mr./Mrs. Douglas or Ms. Williams - the ambassador's spouse

Chargé d. Affaires
Mr./Ms/Mrs./Madam Randal

Ministers and Others
Mr./Madam Taylor

Not all countries use the term "Excellency" as some countries do when referring to ambassadors.

Invitations and Responses
Cultural differences abound in issuing and responding to invitations. In most cases, the invitation will come addressed to all the family members invited. If a spouse is not specifically named, he/she is probably not invited. It is inappropriate to bring a date to a working event. However, in some places, one invitation addressed to the family is meant to include everyone in the house, even guests and visitors. Responding is very important and should be done, generally by phone, within two days of receiving the invitation. Be sure to observe the request on the invitation. "Regrets only" means to call only if you will not attend, and "RSVP" means to respond whether you will or will not attend.

Local concept of social time
In some countries, an invitation for 8:00 p.m. means you should arrive at precisely 8:00 p.m. In some other countries, it means you should arrive no earlier than 9:30 p.m. To avoid awkward and embarrassing situations, ask questions before attending social events.

Dress, too, varies according to country and event. Women should be particularly mindful of conservative dress rules, such as skirt length, low necklines, and having one's arms covered. Remember that "casual" almost never means jeans or shorts. It is always better to be too dressed up than too dressed down.

Conversation Topics
Be aware that there are cultural differences about what constitutes casual conversation. In some places, it is perfectly acceptable for someone to ask your age or income. Knowing what is appropriate and what to expect helps one avoid problems. Acceptable casual conversation topics vary from culture to culture. Discussing children or food is rude in some cultures. Because one circulates at social events in order to meet as many people as possible, conversations should be fairly brief.

Even something as simple as bringing a gift to the host can be tricky. Many rituals and customs often surround the meaning of gifts. The type, color and number of flowers you bring, for example, may have a hidden meaning. In Italy, mums (chrysanthemum - chryzantéma) are funeral flowers; think twice about bringing them to a dinner party. A guest may be expected to bring a small gift, or it may be better to bring nothing at all.

Eating and Drinking
To be polite, accept the food and drink that is offered. If unsure or a bit apprehensive, try a small portion. If you do not wish to drink alcohol, still take some to have in your glass for toasts. If, for health or religious reasons, you absolutely cannot try even a small portion of a particular food or drink, it is acceptable to refuse with a short explanation. Consider new foods and drinks as an opportunity to explore the new culture.

Gender Issues
Gender roles vary from country to country, and sometimes even within regions of one country. For example, a husband may be expected to precede his wife in a receiving line, or men and women may go into separate rooms for dessert. Although men and women may drift away from each other and talk amongst themselves, the practice of actually separating men and women at any time during a dinner party is rare even in primarily gender-biased societies. Be aware that this may happen and when it does, it is best to go along with these traditions.

When everyone is treated respectfully, only a few status issues merit special note. As mentioned earlier, stand when an ambassador and his/her spouse enter the room, and allow him/her to enter and exit a room first. When making introductions, introduce someone to the more distinguished or older person. In addition, reserve the far right-hand seat of a couch, as you sit, for the guest of honor.

Thank You
Rituals often surround thanking someone. Without exception, thank your host before you leave. Tradition determines how you should thank the host the day after the event. What, how and when to send gifts may be different. In most cases, a hand-written note is sufficient.