It is the most coveted invitation on the planet.
The President of the United States, Barack Obama, will be hosting the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, during an official visit, including a White House state dinner on Thursday, March 10th, 2016.
If you are one of the privileged few invited guests to this prestigious banquet or if you will soon be doing dinner or lunch, here’s what you should know, observe and avoid to be a perfect host or guest.
Good to know
The last time a prime minister was invited to the White House for a state dinner was in 1997 when President Bill Clinton hosted Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.
It was in 1977, that the father and mother of our current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, were at the White House.
The purpose of an official visit is to continue the ongoing cooperation between our two countries. One can anticipate that there may be discussions on our borders, climate change, security, economy and energy.
What to wear
The dress code is indicated on the invitation.
For a state dinner black tie attire can be anticipated.
• Gentlemen: tuxedo, white shirt, bow tie, cufflinks, black patent leather shoes.
• Ladies: floor length or mid-calf gown, gloves are optional (if so, they can be worn to shake hands and must be removed for the meal), evening shoes.
Interesting Fact: 1977 Margaret Trudeau had worn what some considered a day dress, with a close to the knees length. At the time, some Americans, perceived her attire as disrespectful. In response to her critics, she would have said “Americans have no place in Canadians’ closets.”
If the dress code is not stated on the invitation, choose your outfit based on the event, the venue and the time of day. You are still uncertain? Do like my grandmother Florina recommended “When in doubt, find out.” You’ll never go wrong or offend anyone by asking the event coordinator or your host.
You can also write to me firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you an infographic that details dress codes.
How to greet
No matter where you are on the planet, the only acceptable touch in business is the handshake.
You will never make a blunder by giving a firm handshake, face to face, shoulder to shoulder, belly to belly, accompanied by direct eye contact and a friendly smile.
Ladies, please no “Damsel in Distress” handshakes.
Observe: The Obamas are rather casual. So we may see handshakes accompanied by pats on the back, hugs and maybe la bise for Madame Grégoire Trudeau.
Interesting Fact: During the official visit of the President of the United States at Buckingham Palace, the First Lady of the United States, touched and pretty much hugged the back of Her Majesty Elizabeth II. Even if, according to royal protocol, the Queen can touch her guests, she rarely does it. She rather uses her hand to guide. But the reverse, a guest touching the Queen, is very unconventional and is a breach of protocol to the monarch.
Where to sit
The place of honour is always to the right of the host and follows the order of precedence or organizational chart.
When you host a dinner or a meeting, your guest of honour will be on your right. The most important person after on your left. And so on.
When hosting a dinner English style, the host and hostess are the ends of the table. Think of Downtown Abbey.
In the French style of hosting, the host and hostess are facing each other in the center of the table. Think of the French presidency.
When dining with spouses, the host (ess) will be the wife or the husband of her guest (s) of honor on his right.
To give the maximum number of invited guests the chance to interact with anyone of the fab four; the two leaders and their wives, it may very well be that Barack, Michelle, Sophie and Justin, will each be sitting at different round tables.
Interesting Fact: In 2014, during the official visit of French president François Hollande the seating chart had to be completely redone within just a few days notice. The right of the United States President had originally been reserved for the French leader’s partner, Madame Valérie Trierweiler. A few weeks before his arrival, he announced he would be unaccompanied. Smiling solo, Hollande found himself “sandwiched” between Barack and Michelle. To avoid embarrassment, the planned after-dinner dance was cancelled.
Good to Know: Seats are assigned to honour, facilitate exchanges, avoid discomfort or to indicate certain dietary restrictions. Respect them. Never change your seat.
The receiving line
After the official red carpet photographs and the welcome cocktail, before entering the banquet, the President and First Lady of the United States, will present the Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau. Ambassadors, members of the US Congress and of the Canadian Cabinet and of course the stars will all be part of the receiving line.
Good to Know: Our head of state is Her Majesty Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada. The Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is the head of the Government of Canada. Unlike Michelle Obama, since she has no official role, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, is not the First Lady of Canada.
The prime minister will be introduced using the following formula “Prime minister, may I present …”
When making introductions always start by naming the most important person based on your relationship, the order of precedence or the organizational chart.
Remember, in business the client is always the most important.
Observe: Barack, Justin, Michelle and Sophie, will probably be on a first name basis.
The four or five course dinner will be centered on Canadian cuisine (for the comfort and ease of the honoured guests) with American local ingredients. I do not think they will serve poutine, but … you never know. 😉
Obviously, allergies and dietary restrictions will be accommodated.
Good to Know: Allergies are the guest’s responsibility. As host, it is gracious to inquire. I encourage you to do so.
Observe: The china service was designed by First Lady Michelle Obama. The service is white with a “blue kailua” contour, to represent Hawaii, the home state of her husband. The service plates, the dessert plates and coffee or tea cups bear the coat of arms of the President, in gold. The 44th President of the United States service is an eleven-piece service for 320 guests.
Good to Know: Do not touch anything, not even your glass of water, until your host indicates the beginning of the meal, by placing his napkin on his lap. Identify your table setting with the acronym B.M.W. B is for your Bread plate, on your left. M is for your Meal, in the middle. And W is for Water and Wine glasses. They are on your right. Use your utensils and glasses from the outside-in.
There may be up to three toasts. The first is a welcome toast. The second is a toast by the host to the guest of honour. The third is by the guest of honour to thank his host.
Good to Know: Glasses are called stemware. The glass should by held by its stem and not the goblet. Thus the wine temperature is preserved and the glass is not soiled. The tradition of clinking glasses goes back to the Middle Ages, to check for poisoning intentions. You certainly trust the people you are dining with, so do not clink. When toasted you do not drink to yourself, just as you do not applaud yourself.
What to talk about
A state dinner is a social activity and it has no political agenda. We can pretty much talk to about anything except of course the traditional taboos. You can talk about hobbies, holidays, books, movies, cultural activities and yes about the children.
Good to Know: At the table avoid talking about anything from the D.I.N.E. acronym; Disgusting, Insulting, Negative or Emotional
Contrary to popular perception etiquette evolves to reflect modern manners. Thus, we can probably expect some unofficial impromptu photos on the Twitter feed; @POTUSfor the President of the United States, @JustinTrudeau for the Prime Minister of Canada. The First Lady is @FLOTUS while Sophie Grégoire Trudeau is not on Twitter, yet. Knowing that both leaders are quite good at it, there could very well be some selfies of the dynamic duo.
Good to Know: Bringing technology to the table is like starting a ménage-à-trois, without previous consent. Oh la la!
Observe: Gum chewing by guests and maybe hosts. Attention all, according to this etiquette expert, gum should be a solitary activity. Yes, I know, chewing gum curbs smoking, freshens breath and relaxes. But, gum chewing is visible and detracts from your words.
Host or guest, conclude by thanking. The best Return on investment is a hand written thank you note. The effect is lasting.
World leader or not, respect, honour and above all avoid embarrassment and blunder by knowing what to do, when and how. Remember, when in doubt, find out. Ask.
Lastly, the purpose of a state dinner or business lunch, is to build relationships and get to know each other better. You are not there to eat and drink!