Advice for Meeting Her Majesty (Please, No 'Queenie')

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 28, 2007

LONDON -- So you head off to the Mall or Jamestown or NASA, hoping to catch a glimpse of Queen Elizabeth II on her visit to the States, and suddenly, it happens. You find yourself face to face with the British monarch. She's all pearls and gloves. That face. That hair. That hat. What do you do?

A lot of people around Washington and Virginia -- from governors and ambassadors to the hoi polloi -- might get their chance to meet the queen after she touches down Thursday in Richmond. For six days, Her Highness -- wait, that's wrong -- Her Majesty will run a strictly controlled gamut of tours, tree plantings and ceremonies from Jamestown to the White House.

It would behoove folks within range to know the rules for meeting royalty. Fortunately for them, there are not as many as there used to be, according to Robert Lacey, a leading British royal historian and the queen's biographer.

"Americans shouldn't feel unduly flummoxed by this," Lacey said.

He said the queen has met people all over the world, all her life, and she understands that it is an important and sometimes nerve-racking moment for the person meeting her. Just try to relax and be natural, Lacey said.

You don't have to curtsy or bow. That requirement went out a generation ago, although some older people still do it out of habit.

Address the queen as "Your Majesty" or "Ma'am."

" 'Liz' or 'Elizabeth' don't go down well," Lacey said. "And you wouldn't shout out, 'Queen!' or 'Queenie!' That would be considered rather aggressive."

Lacey said people the world over have watched the queen grow up in the public eye, and some therefore feel they know her and presume an intimacy with her. Bad mistake, according to Lacey, who said even more people think they are pals with the queen since the success of the Hollywood movie "The Queen."

Be careful not to affect a British accent, he said, as some Americans visiting Britain tend to do.

Ideally, it is best to wait for the queen to offer her hand to shake, rather than reaching for hers. Lacey cautioned against too firm a handshake, reminding that the queen, who turned 81 on April 21, appreciates "a gentle touch."

If the queen lingers, feel free to engage her in friendly small talk. "Anything in the public realm is allowable," Lacey said. "But not, 'My family history shows that I am related to the Royal Family,' things like that." It's simply too familiar.

Lacey recalled going on a tour of Australia with the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, where he spent one day with Phillip on a farm that produced cheese while the queen went elsewhere. In the evening, Lacey saw the queen and began describing Philip's visit to the cheese farm. "That did not go down well," he said. "It was not for me to tell her how her husband had spent his day."

Inquiring about the well-being of Prince Charles or the queen's other children is fine. Lacey said you should also feel free to ask about Prince William and Prince Harry, because the Queen is a proud granny, like any other.

Is it all right to mention Princess Diana? The queen and Diana had a famously complicated relationship before Diana died in a car crash in 1997.

Lacey seemed stumped as he pondered that etiquette minefield for a long moment.

"Maybe it's the mischievous in me, but I think, 'Give it a go!' " he said. "She's been doing this for more than half a century. I think she rather enjoys it these days when taboos get broken and there's something that breaks the mold."

In any event, Lacey said, the consequences of offending the British monarch are not as dire as they once were.

"You're not going to end up in the Tower of London," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company