‘Situational and adaptable’ protocol will keep you in good standing

  • Published
  • By Anthony Littlejohn
  • Installation Protocol

 WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- What is protocol? This question eludes many an individual – especially in the public sector – and often has people scratching their heads.

Well, hopefully, these few tidbits will help further your understanding of what it means in a military environment and possibly beyond.

As you are well aware, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base came out of an elevated health protection condition this past year stemming from COVID-19 restrictions and is reestablishing some sense of normalcy by executing more and more “in-person” events, so I suspect a healthy refresher dose of how to conduct yourselves is warranted.

Though protocol scenarios vary immensely, I’ll just skim the surface on what you may encounter this winter season.

A brief definition: Protocol is the strict form of etiquette and diplomatic courtesy, customs of service (a system of accepted social patterns and traditions in the military) and common courtesies (the traits of kindness, friendliness, thoughtfulness and consideration of others) to create order. Sounds a bit rigid, huh?

In a perfect world, this would play out. But realistically, protocol rules are a reference point, and you have some leeway to adapt them to sync with your circumstances.

An example is when you’re dealing with a “place of honor” situation in a briefing, meeting or similar function, and your host or ranking member sits at the head (place of honor). Believe it or not, that ranking member has the discretion to offer up his or her seat to, let’s say, a foreign dignitary with less rank, or equivalent-ranked U.S. distinguished visitor. That classifies these scenarios as “situational and adaptable.”

What should you do if you get invited to an event? For starters, recognize and appreciate the gesture with an RSVP, which simply translates, “please reply.” Regardless of your decision to attend, respond to the host as a courtesy.

Put yourself in the host’s shoes and envision the planning, logistics and expense put into an event like this and allow that individual to prepare accordingly. As a caveat, if something comes up and plans change after the RSVP closeout date, call the host and pass along your regrets. They will appreciate it and simultaneously recognize that life happens. In other words: no harm, no foul.

Still focusing on the invitation, you’ll notice “Attire.” Now, there are a plethora of resources online that will coach you on the appropriateness of what to wear, so I won’t belabor the issue here. But if you have any questions, a good rule of thumb to remember: When in doubt, conservative attire is best, and feel free to inquire with the host or your local Protocol Office.

Now that you’ve made it to the event, show up on time but not early. If you need to stay in your vehicle until the event commences, so be it.

If you receive a nametag, wear it on the upper-right side of your torso. This allows anyone you meet to have good visibility and be able to confidently address you and reciprocate. Also, greet them with a firm, but not hard, handshake.

Though not a requirement, you may choose to bring a small gift as a gesture of thanks. If that’s the case, don’t exceed a $10 threshold.

Now that you’re getting settled and you’ve hung up you coat, try to work the room (as able and within reason), be cordial and don’t hibernate in a corner. Always keep in mind the time an event will end. I encourage you to pick up on verbal and nonverbal cues and don’t outstay your welcome.

Before departure, deliberately seek out your host(s) and thank them for their hospitality.

Here are a few more tips to help you navigate events and functions:

Dining etiquette

  • Reserve your seat with a place card, business card or purse​
  • Don’t tip your chair​
  • Enter and exit chair from the right side​
  • Don’t repair makeup at the table​
  • When leaving the table, simply say: “Excuse me.”​
  • Don’t put personal items, cameras, phones or purses on the table​
  • Turn off your cellphones unless “on call” ​
  • Try a little of everything served unless you’re allergic to it ​
  • Swallow your food before taking a sip of your beverage ​
  • Look into, not over, your glass when drinking ​
  • Keep elbows close to sides when cutting or eating​
  • When in doubt, call the event’s point of contact/host or a protocol specialist​

For more information about military customs and courtesies, refer to Air Force Instruction 34-1201, “Protocol.”