Five Principles of Protocol for Entertaining Important Guests


A protocol as used in the context of this article is a set of Internationally accepted procedures for handling important guests and dignitaries.

You are expecting the arrival of an important overseas guest and you are wondering how to treat them properly and without appearing rude.

The difference between knowing protocol and not, in such circumstances, is critical.

To effectively manage such circumstances, let’s take a look at International Protocol!

What is International Protocol?

If you are interested in Japanese etiquette, you may also be interested in the following article:

What Do visitors think of Japanese manners?

If manners and etiquette are about being polite to others in a personal situation, then what is International protocol?

Protocols are procedures prescribing what to do and how to behave politely and respectfully between representatives of different nations.

Etiquette is a set of basic rules to ensure that people of different cultures and customs can feel comfortable interacting with each other and therefore an essential constituent of protocol.

On following protocol, the people involved have a sense of security and familiarity through following the same mutually understood rules of engagement, which ultimately simplify and enhance exchanges.

Origins of Protocol

The first documented record of Protocol is from Italy, in the form of a book of manners called the ‘Galateo’, written by Giovanni della Garza in the 16th century.

It contained instructions on how to greet guests of different customs and religions, as well as how to behave and how to eat in company.

The manners described in Galateo spread to the nobility, royalty and religious families of Italy, and then on to the centralized states of Europe.

Then came the Age of Discovery.

George McCartney, then a representative of the British Empire refused the Ch’ien-lung Emperor of the Ch’ing Dynasty in China the courtesy of kneeling on one knee, as he had done for the Queen of England.

The audience went itself went off without a hitch, but the opening of the Qing Empire, and the signing of a Treaty of Commerce between Britain and China, which had been the aim of the British, did not result.

This historical event demonstrates the importance of courtesy in diplomacy between nations, and highlights the need for a mutually agreed etiquette framework amongst nations.

This was the basis for establishing the current European Protocol standard of the day.

Currently, there are around 1,000 rules of protocol for a variety of situations and activities: seating order, raising national flags, dress code, dining etiquette, titles of respect, to name only a few.

Amongst these perhaps the most important are the ‘Five Principles of Protocol’. These are common sense protocols that you should be able to put to adopt immediately.

The Five Principles of Protocol

1  Local customs are to be respected, respect for other cultures

Respect other people’s cultures, customs, religions and habits.

Respect the position and cultural differences of others and treat all equally, regardless of nationality or race.

Respect and treat each person as an individual, and not as a part of a separate entity.

In addition one should have a good understanding of one’s own culture and ethos.

2 Consciousness of Rank

At official events, there is a hierarchy and a set pecking order.

As an expression of respect for those who attend, order of precedence is important in all situations, such as in forming a line, entering a venue, and exchanging greetings.

3 Highest Rank on the Right

Highest rank on the right is the order of precedence for officials in everything from transport to seating, from the raising of the flag, to the order of escort.

4 Reciprocity and Reciprocation

Reciprocation is the act of returning favor equally.

Exchange should always be reciprocal.

If you have been entertained by an official, you must reciprocate in equal measure by offering the official the opportunity to be entertained by you, and of course, following through on the commitment.

5 Ladies First

Women should receive priority in all situations, except where religious constraints apply.

This applies for example, to entering and leaving buildings, getting in and out of vehicles, etc.

Protocol and Etiquette

In this section, we will consider some of the etiquette and behaviors which can be adopted easily and immediately from the more than 1,000 articles of protocol.

Dress Code

A dress code is a set of rules of dress for an event, such as a formal investiture ceremony or a dinner party, that is appropriate to the place and time of the occasion.

For protocol purposes, the dress code is based on what the invitation or event organizer has specified.

The basic dress codes that may be specified are:

•  Evening Formal dress 

For men this should be a suit with tails, and for women, a long evening dress, sleeveless, open at the chest, and covering down to the heels.

• Evening Semi-formal dress 

Dinner jacket for men, semi-formal evening dress or dinner dress for women.

• Daytime Formal Dress 

Morning coat for men, afternoon dress for women.

Non-shiny material and long sleeves are a basic requirement.

• Daytime and evening formal attire 

Plain dark suits and lounge suits for men, dresses and suits for women.


Escorting a guest in the proper manner and according to protocol, is another way of showing respect to that guest.

There will be occasions when you must walk ahead of a guest, for example, when escorting them into a venue unfamiliar to them. In such instances, you should always escort the guest whilst standing to their right, and walking 2 or 3 steps ahead.

When it comes to being taken to your table or private dining room at a restaurant, the waiter should be allowed to lead, followed by the official, and then you.

If there is no waiting staff, you as the host should be the one to escort the official to their table and seat.

It is also important to be mindful of the pace of the person you are escorting, so that they do not get left behind.

Ladies First

‘Ladies First’ is one of the five principles of protocol mentioned earlier in this article. In Western culture, when being well mannered, this is routinely applied.

But when is it necessary to apply the principle of ‘Ladies First’?

– When entering a lift or going through an entrance or doorway, the man should hold the door open or stand to the side of the entrance to allow the woman to enter first.

– When eating a meal, the man should lead the woman to the table, pull up a chair for her, and carefully push it in as she begins to sit.

 You may wish to practice this so you can time it so that the chair is pushed far enough in for her to be seated comfortably, but without bumping her legs as it is pushed in.

– When getting into a car, the man should open the door, allowing the woman gets in first. Once she is fully seated, carefully close the door.

When getting out of a car, the man should get out first and open the door for the woman, closing it for her once she has fully exited.

Protocol and Hospitality 

The ultimate purpose of protocol is to treat the dignitary or official in a way that is familiar and therefore makes them feel at ease.

Protocol is a universal communication tool.

If we can use it like language, we will always be able to treat our most important guests in a calm and respectful way.

The basic spirit of protocol is ‘to be considerate without causing offence to others’, in a spirit similar to that of ‘Omotenashi’, the Japanese spirit of hospitality.

When you entertain someone employing Omotenashi, it is important to be aware of the guest’s situation and circumstances:

Is the guest likely to be tired after a long journey?

Might they be stressed or nervous about their stay in an unfamiliar country?

May they feel uncomfortable with the different culture and setting?

What are their preferences?

And so on.

By doing some background research on the individual before their arrival, and by paying attention to the person once here, we can ascertain their preferences and dislikes in advance, as well as what he or she needs at any particular time during their stay.

On top of these considerations, we should prepare hospitality, whilst also heeding applicable protocol.

Learning about protocol is not only for the benefit of the person you are hosting, but also for you to learn how to behave as a host without embarrassing yourself and those around you, and ensuring your guest is at ease.

This will make your International communication go smoothly.

You can start with the five principles of protocol, and study up on other protocols that apply to the specific circumstances.

In this way you can make sure that the hospitality you extend is perfectly customized to the needs of your guests and to the occasion.


Protocol is the basis of official state interaction, but even if you are not managing or participating in a formal occasion, it is good to know the basics.

By learning protocol, you will be able to treat your business and personal guests with due respect, courtesy, whilst extending hospitality to them.

Also, do not forget the most important thing:

The most important part of protocol is to smile, look the person in the eye, and speak warmly and politely when greeting them.

It is the key to pleasant interaction worldwide!

Document References:

(Japanese language version available only)