DEAR MISS MANNERS: What should an American president do when he greets a foreign head of state? What about his wife? And would that be any different from an average American citizen greeting a foreign head of state?
A handshake and “How do you do?” seem appropriate everywhere, but what about curtsies, head nods and genuflecting? Is a bend at the waist considered different from a bent knee? If anyone can have a final say on this, I believe it would be you.
GENTLE READER: Final say? If only that were true. Miss Manners has now watched at least half a dozen administrations get this wrong. They go to one extreme or the other, behaving like other presidents’ buddies or like monarchs’ subjects.
Where is the Office of Protocol, for goodness’ sake?
Yes, yes, Americans pride ourselves on being warm and open and spontaneous. But heads of state are the symbolic embodiments of their countries, and the greeting gesture is itself symbolic. If they improvise mistakenly, they can expect a spontaneous outburst of American disdain.
The American greeting routine used to be simple. Because we officially consider all people to be equal and equally worthy of respect, the same gesture, the handshake – simple, dignified and egalitarian – would do for all.
We knew it wasn’t universal, but it was our way. We felt superior to people who had to bow down to their leaders. And we found it side-splitting to watch news footage of French generals bestowing kisses on their soldiers when they gave out medals.
Then, about half a century ago, came the American huggy movement. Instant intimacy was going to solve everyone’s problems by making them feel good, which, in turn, would end war and strife. It took rather vigorous forms among some, but eventually infiltrated even the most staid parts of society, where the handshake had been the greeting that fathers gave their young sons.
And it spread internationally. Heads of state took to kissing and hugging one another, a truly bad idea politically. Those photographs are bound to surface when the loved one or his country does something nasty.
Symbolically, it is bad even in good times. Such bonding smacks of the days when protocol had sovereigns from different monarchies addressing one another as “Monsieur Mon Frere” or “Madame Ma Soeur,” regardless of whether they had any familial ties. The idea was that they belonged to an international ruling class as distinguished from the mere subjects over whom they reigned.
And if you don’t see that, you should try a spontaneous hug on any head of state – your own or anyone else’s – who happens to come your way in a parade or ceremony.
But symbolic subservience to a foreign ruler is worse. When Miss Manners sees American citizens delighting in bowing or curtseying to royalty, she tries to remind herself that they are just being silly, not treasonous. When an American official does it, we can only hope it was because he was noticing that his own shoelace was undone– and not that he recognizes the divine right of kings in general, or the authority over us of that king in particular.