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IT'S A MATTER OF PROTOCOL : When Foreign VIPs Come Calling, Just to Visit or to Do Business, There's a County Office to Turn to

February 03, 1990|EVE BELSON | Eve Belson is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Is it OK to give a king a friendly slap on the back?

Sure, if he's a king of rock 'n' roll, a king of swat or a king of the silver screen. But don't try it on a genuine blueblood. Protocol dictates that you should never touch royalty unless one of them touches you first. And going on past record (several thousand years or so), the chances of a commoner getting a royal backslap are pretty remote.

Protocol is an internationally accepted code of civility which dictates how we deal with each other's dignitaries--whether we touch them, how we address them, where we seat them at banquets, and what we chat about with them.

It was not so long ago that wars were being declared over mere slights and duels to the death were being fought over which ambassador sat where at court balls.

And today's standards of international behavior are history's legacy to us.

In some ways, not much has changed. An affront to a nation's representative is still considered an affront to the nation itself, although seating someone behind a pillar is not exactly a declaration of war these days.

To avoid such diplomatic gaffes, specialists in the arcane details of protocol are de rigueur in the world's capitals.

But because globe-trotting ministers of trade, members of Parliament, mayors and university chancellors conduct much of their official business outside diplomatic and political circles, states, cities, and even large corporations like AT&T have established offices of protocol to ensure all the Ts are crossed when foreign VIPs come calling. The state of California has an office of protocol. So does the city of Los Angeles.

Even Orange County has one.

Now, just a minute. Bureaucracies of pomp and ceremony in laid-back Southern California? Didn't we come out West to get away from this kind of starched ritualism?

According to Mary Bonino Jones, Orange County's chief of protocol, how we choose to conduct ourselves privately is our own business. But when we are dealing with foreign dignitaries in an official capacity, we have no choice but to abide by the formalities agreed upon by the international community.

"In spite of how we feel, we still have an obligation as a government to adhere to the rules of protocol when relating to other governments and their representatives," Jones insists. As the titular head of their nation, they are entitled to be received in an appropriate manner, like it or not.

And like it we do.

In spite of our weak protestations, America is a nation of unabashed royalphiles. Reportedly, more books on Britain's royal family are sold in the United States than back home on their own turf. We can't get enough gossip about Princess Di and Princess Stephanie of Monaco.

And the thought of actually meeting someone--anyone--with a title is enough to make us jelly-kneed.

Thomas Rusk, clinical professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego, calls the phenomenon "compare and despair." As he sees it, economic status alone is no longer enough. We crave class, distinction. A title is one of the few things that can separate us from the simply rich guy who lives next door.

"There are hundreds if not thousands of years of tradition behind a title," he explains. "Money can't buy that and these people know it."

If we can't be royalty, then rubbing shoulders with them seems the next best thing.

Do you curtsy, bow, or shake hands? Do you talk or wait until you are spoken to? What about turning your back on them as you walk out of the room?

When royalty beckons, who ya gonna call? That's right, the office of protocol.

Established in 1984 by the Board of Supervisors, the Orange County office of protocol has a sterling grip on the minutiae of when to address a duke as "your royal highness" and when to merely call him "your grace" (hint: a duke who is given the title is smaller potatoes than one, such as a member of the royal family, who is born to it.)

The office of protocol's kid-glove treatment has been extended to the crown prince and princess of Luxembourg and to the king and queen of Sweden (who came to Orange County as private guests of Henry and Renee Segerstrom).

And in an unequaled public relations coup, the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, was in town on the day the world learned that he had been awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

Although the county provides the three-man protocol team with free office space in the Hall of Administration in Santa Ana and absorbs telephone charges, the office of protocol is funded through the efforts of its support arm, the Protocol Foundation.

Membership dues from about 350 private and corporate supporters provide the bulk of the annual operating budget (estimated at $104,500 for 1989-90). The balance is raised at the annual and very formal International Protocol Ball.

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