Royal visit protocol: Bear hugs are out

The best advice for any Canadian hoping to meet William and Kate on their upcoming royal tour is to relax, a former Buckingham Palace official says.

If you run into William and Kate, 'just be normal,' says a Buckingham Palace insider

Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, walk together in Buckingham Palace on April 30, 2011. Royal experts have said the two are much less concerned with traditional protocol. (John Stillwell/Reuters)

Much is made of what should and shouldn't be done in the presence of royalty, but in fact there is very little in the way of rigid rules or requirements.

The so-called protocol consists for the most part of simple common sense and politeness.

For Canadians hoping to catch a glimpse of — and perhaps even meet — William and Kate during their nine-day visit, the best advice is just to relax, according to Dickie Arbiter, royal commentator and former press secretary for the Queen.

"You don't go off and do some sort of bear hug, but just be normal," Arbiter said.

The official website of the British monarchy says there "are no obligatory codes of behaviour when meeting the Queen or a member of the Royal Family," though it notes that many may wish to observe the "traditional forms."

This includes a neck bow — something akin to a slightly exaggerated nodding of the head — for men and a small curtsy for women.

Others may prefer to simply shake hands, the site says. But, remember to wait for a royal to offer their hand first.

When speaking to a member of the monarchy, the traditional address is "Your Royal Highness" and "Sir" or "Ma'am" thereafter.

The only exception is the Queen, who should be referred to as "Your Majesty" followed by "Ma'am."

Deciding what to do is really up to the individual, Arbiter said.

"If they are going to bow, fine. If they are going to curtsy, fine. But they don't have to," he said.

Rules of etiquette dependent on situation

Although there are no rules per se, expectations can change depending on the nature of your interaction with the royals, according to royal expert Ciara Hunt.

An official dinner is markedly different than an encounter during an impromptu walkabout, for instance.

Guests at the former are likely to receive documentation in advance explaining when the royals will arrive and how best to interact with them, Hunt said.

Most of it, however, details logistical matters — a requirement to keep heavily scripted tours on schedule.

Hunt said guests at official functions should wait to be approached by royals for an introduction, and not vice versa.

The demands of etiquette are also much greater for high-profile guests, including heads of state, Hunt said.

"There are formalities [during official visits] but nothing for the average Canadian meeting them on the street."

Best to be brief

According to an article on the Canadian Heritage website, which offers suggestions on how to dress and act around members of the Royal Family, individual engagements can range from the "very formal to informal."

Anyone hosting a luncheon or dinner should be mindful that meals are not to exceed three courses and should not last too long — an absolute maximum of one hour and three-quarters spent actually sitting at the table.

Don't run out and buy some fancy new duds, either.

"Members of the Royal Family do not wish anyone to be put to unnecessary expense by buying special clothes, hats or gloves," the site says.

It stresses that the guidelines are mere suggestions "designed to help people feel comfortable and prepared" and should not be applied "inflexibly or prescriptively."

If you do manage to snatch some time with William and Kate, Hunt said it is best to be brief regardless of the situation.

"Say a polite few words and let them move on as they have vast numbers of people to deal with and greet," she said.

And avoid the inclination to give a personal token or piece of memorabilia that, although important for you, may mean a whole lot less for the couple who probably have everything.

"Don't bring a baby picture of William and expect that he'll want to carry it around with him," Hunt said.

She suggested bringing a small bouquet of flowers for Kate if you absolutely feel the need to give a gift.

If you do happen to make some sort of social faux pas, don't worry, as you're in the hands of experts, Hunt said.

"The royals are absolute professionals at avoiding anything that can be slightly compromising and they've really got that down to an art form," she said.

William, Kate less keen on protocol

The upcoming visit will be much less formal compared to other royal visits, largely because William and Kate have tried to live as normal a life as possible, Hunt said.

William and Kate leave the Order of the Garter service in Windsor, England on June 13, 2011. (Andrew Winning/Reuters)

This includes living without the aid of servants and, for this tour, travelling with an entourage of just seven people, Hunt said. The Queen, for instance, normally brings along a "significant amount of people," she said.

On June 17, the Daily Mail reported that Kate had also vetoed plans to hire a personal dresser for the tour, describing it as a "waste of money" and stating that she did not want to be seen as a "clothes horse."

The newly married royals are indicative of a modern monarchy that is more relaxed when it comes to pomp and ceremony, Arbiter said.

"The Queen is of a different generation," Arbiter said. "William is of a late 20th-century, early 21st-century generation, so the formality is not as great."

He has also yet to become a full-fledged working member of the royalty, and is "first and foremost" a helicopter pilot, he said.

Even so, Arbiter said there is entirely too much made of the idea of royal protocol, when it is really about simple manners.

During his 12 years in the Buckingham Palace press office, where he helped to manage a variety of events including official state visits, Arbiter said he often had to reiterate that there are very few rules about what to do and wear.

"You'd be surprised the number of times I would hear that people were being told that they've got to do this and they got to do that," he said.

"I went around telling [guests], 'Look, if you don't want to bow, you don't have to. If you don't want to curtsy, you don't have to. If you don't want to wear a hat, you don't have to. If you don't want to wear gloves, you don't have to.'"

So if you're lucky enough to get a few quick moments with the royal couple, take it easy.

"People just have to relax and enjoy the visit," he said. " 'Relax' is the key word."