Friday, January 29, 2010

The Etiquette of Forms of Address

Proper etiquette and protocol is no more important than when dealing with how we address our elected officials. Proper forms of address ought to take precedence above all else in almost all situations. There are very clear guidelines delineating these forms of address which have been in place for decades. They follow closely the rules that have been used by European royal families, the military, the court system and the clergy for centuries. They are clearly written down in a number of readily available books and there is a consistency which is ironclad. Whenever any one of us is going to meet an important official, if we are lucky, we are given clear directions on what to say, what to do, how to address the person, and a list of things to avoid doing or saying. The purpose for this is to ensure that due respect is appropriately adhered to and the event or meeting is pleasant and fruitful.

It has always baffled me why the media, especially, but not exclusively, the television media, seem to be immune to these guidelines. It's very noticeable and annoying to anyone who knows the difference. It is also unprofessional, disrespectful, and irresponsible. These gaffs are pet peeves of many etiquette professionals. The media has enormous influence over the public at large. We learn about what is going on in the world as a result of the timely reporting which is the sole purview of newscasters. It is no secret that not everything reported by them is the gospel truth; however, when it comes to having the common decency of respect, there is no good reason for being mislead. If I were to give them the benefit of the doubt, I could argue that no one ever taught them what is correct. I am not want to be that generous in this case. I view it as blatant disrespect. Feigning ignorance just doesn't fly. There are many gentle media folks who get it right, but I am surprised by the number of prime time hosts who don't. I even heard an esteemed commentator on CNN News refer to the U.S. president as Chief Obama just the other day. What was he thinking?!

The latest and most up to date source for the important information of how to address everyone with any rank at all is Robert Hickey's book, Honor and Respect, published by the Protocol School of Washington (to which I was a contributor). It should be on the shelf of anyone who will potentially use or uses this kind of information on a regular basis. It will no doubt become a classic reference book on the subject.

There are a few rules of thumb which can demystify this subject which follow the common sense fundamentals of all etiquette. For anyone in an elected office for which there is only one occupant at a time, such as prime minister, president or mayor of a city, they are properly referred to verbally as Prime Minister Harper, President Obama or Mayor Craig, and not Mr. Harper, Obama or Craig. Mr. Prime Minister, Mr. President, or Your Honour would also be appropriate. Some titles are retained for life. These tend to be professional or appointed positions. Others are not and the titles are dropped once the office is vacated.

It would be far easier if the forms of address used in the United States and Canada were the same, or even similar. This is the case sometimes, but just when you think you have it right, a difference appears. The structure of the governments - federal, provincial/state and local; their military; and their judicial systems are surprisingly complicated and quite different. This is true of many other countries as well. Commonwealth countries do tend to share a great deal in common however, which does make life simpler when dealing with them. When any question of how to address someone is in question, err on the side of caution and check a reliable source. Government offices can be helpful. The Chief Protocol Officer is likely to have the most up to date information at hand. Don't be shy either. these offices are all too happy to help. It is important to all concerned that these details are correctly handled.

It is interesting to me how these forms of address vary from country to country. What is interesting to me is that these details can be a critical ingredient in a successful business deal or even in a governmental exchange with other individuals or nations. That is precisely why reference books exist and have for a long time. Taking the time and making the effort to be sure that how you address someone verbally or in writing, formally or socially, shows that you in fact do have respect for the other person and their office. In turn, this reflects the respect you have for yourself.