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The Basics of Military Etiquette

Formal events can be daunting for non-Soldiers. This protocol primer for spouses and kids can help.
Photo by SSG Brett Miller
Photo by SSG Brett Miller

Military events such as balls and awards ceremonies can be intimidating for spouses and children, especially those new to Guard culture. But as etiquette coach and author Patricia Rossi notes, “When we are prepared, we are confident.” She recommends new Guard spouses write a list of 10 things that make them nervous about an upcoming event, then go out for coffee with a more experienced military mate and ask for advice on how to handle them. 

“Take it face to face,” she says. “The great thing is that you’ll get help and forge a new friendship.” 

We asked Rossi and Sharyn Amoroso, cadet hostess at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, for protocol pointers and etiquette tips to help Guard spouses and kids navigate common events and situations.

 

GUARD EVENTS

Balls

These formal affairs can be nerve-wracking, but knowing a few things upfront can help ease anxiety:

  • The guest always walks on the Soldier’s left so the Soldier can salute with the right hand.
  • Never skip the receiving line. “If you go straight to the bar,” Amoroso says, “it’s noticed, so don’t do it.”
  • At the receiving line, an aide will ask for your names to share with those in the line. Do not shake the aide’s hand. The guest goes through the line before the Soldier. Remove the right-handed glove to shake hands. 
  • Before sitting at your table, wait behind your assigned chair for an officer to arrive. When being seated, the Soldier holds the chair for the guest, who enters it on the right side.
  • Printed copies of toasts (and appropriate responses) are usually provided at each person’s plate. If someone presents a toast not on the program, and you don’t know the response, simply raise your glass.
  • The “Grog Bowl” is a tradition reserved for the unit. Bowl contents are left to the imagination of the banquet planning committee, and guests don’t drink from the bowl. 

Still nervous? Just remember that walking through the door is the hardest part for everyone. “It gives us the most social angst,” Rossi says. 

“The quickest way to calm down is to look for someone standing alone, or people standing in groups of three or more,” she says. “Rescue the ones who are alone, and with groups, jump into the conversation. Never approach two people. They may be discussing something private.”

Awards Ceremonies

Dress for the photo that you’ll want to display on your mantel. “How you dress is a reflection of your Soldier,” Amoroso says.

Spouses sometimes pin bars on their Soldier’s uniform at a promotion. Other times, they’re present in the front row to show support. Occasionally, spouses themselves receive awards for significant volunteer contributions to the unit. But spouses should never be surprised at an awards ceremony. A Soldier is always advised to prepare his or her spouse for their involvement (or lack of it), Amoroso says.

Homecomings

In short, be prepared for anything. Families may wait on a tarmac for arriving planes. And after that, they may wait even longer before reuniting with their Soldier. There may be a ceremony, complete with speeches, TV interviews and reporters galore.

At the other extreme, the unit’s flight could be delayed into the wee hours. Spouses could find themselves waiting in minivans with snoozing tots in an otherwise empty parking lot, with flickering street lamps as the only spotlight. 

Either way, spouses and kids should know in advance that they’re not allowed to approach their Soldier until troops are officially dismissed. During ceremonies, stand for the national anthem and the presentation of the colors with hand on heart.

Remember: This is the age of the Internet.  

“Everyone is watching in that moment,” Rossi says. “Make sure in your glee and happiness that you don’t take it over the line. A big hug and a simple kiss are enough until you are in private.” 

 

CHILDREN'S BEHAVIOR

Most family-oriented unit events are informal, but children’s behavior still reflects on the Soldier. They should always stand for introductions and address Soldiers either by rank or as “Sir” or “Ma’am.” Teach your child that when you say, “I’d like you to meet Sergeant Miller,” the proper response is to extend their hand and reply, “It’s nice to meet you, Sergeant Miller,” Amoroso says.

Rossi says many kids find it difficult to look into an adult’s eyes, but it’s important for them to learn this skill. Practice in grocery stores. “Tell them, ‘When we get to the checkout, look into the cashier’s eyes, say hello, and tell me the color of his or her eyes when we get to the car,’ ” she says.

Review politeness “rules” three times before a Guard event, Rossi says. Since kids may tune out after about 30 seconds, she recommends saying it this way: “You know we have a big event on Saturday, and I expect you to be respectful and well-behaved. I know you’ll make yourself proud, as well as Mom and Dad.” 

Then, when driving to the event, mention the rules again and add, “If I wink at you, that means you’re getting out of control.”

 

GENERAL MINGLING

Guard families have friends and co-workers in both the civilian and military communities. When the two worlds merge—such as during a backyard barbecue or holiday party attended by Guard and nonmilitary friends—keep these things in mind: 

  • Show everyone equal respect. “Don’t single out the colonel,” Rossi says. “If you show one person more respect [than others], it can be embarrassing for them.”
  • If you’re the guest, RSVP to every invitation within 48 hours, and always send a thank-you note after the event.
  • Address everyone by their title or rank. Wait for them to offer their first name.
  • Place cards are important in military culture. “Officers always want to know where they’re seated,” Amoroso says. “They don’t want to wander around the table. Even at barbecues, I’ve noticed higher-ranking officers ask, ‘Where’s my seat?’ ”

Joining the Ranks

It pays to research Army insignia before attending an event. “You want to know going in what they are and what they mean,” says etiquette expert Patricia Rossi. “If you accidentally call someone by the wrong rank, quickly apologize and bring up another subject.” When in doubt, use “Sir” or “Ma’am.” Also be aware that, when addressing someone in person, you don’t use the full title for certain ranks. Here’s a helpful guide:


For more tips on military balls, visit Military.com/spouse/military-life/newbies-and-brides/military-ball-etiquette.html