Rules for Touching British Royals

Was LeBron James wrong to put his arm around Kate Middleton? A brief guide.

In the wake of basketball star LeBron James’s alleged breach of etiquette—putting his arm around Kate Middleton, the duchess of Cambridge, while posing for a photo after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ victory over the Brooklyn Nets—it seems appropriate to compile a royal etiquette guide, for all those who might one day enjoy such company themselves. What exactly is the protocol for interacting with British royalty?

The monarchy's website makes clear that “there are no obligatory codes of behaviour when meeting The Queen or a member of the Royal Family.” But those who “wish to observe the traditional forms” have options. Men are encouraged to do a “neck bow” and women a “small curtsy,” though this is often interpreted as applying only to those for whom the queen or king is the head of state.

The queen should be addressed at first as “your majesty” and thenceforth as “ma’am.” Other female members of the royal family should be addressed initially as “your royal highness” and subsequently as “ma’am,” and male family members as “your royal highness” and then “sir.” Prince William, Kate Middleton’s husband, prefers to be called “William,” though. At least for now.

With respect to dining, do as the queen does. If she stands up, you stand. If she has finished eating, let’s hope you’re full. In 2011, Barack Obama was beaten up in the British press for toasting the queen and then delivering a speech over a rendition of “God Save the Queen.” He should have stopped after the toast.

Perhaps the most oft-transgressed maxim is touching a member of the royal family in a manner that goes beyond a formal handshake—a guideline that likely dates back to the Middle Ages, when, as the British historian Kate Williams has noted, “monarchs were divinely appointed to rule by God, so they were kind of seen as gods, so they demanded to be treated as gods.”

“Mr. James should not have put his arm around [Kate Middleton],” the etiquette expert William Hanson told The Daily Mail this week. “Americans are much more tactile than we Brits and this is another example of an American being too touchy feely with British royalty. You’d have thought they’d have learned by now.”

In 2009, Michelle Obama caused an uproar by giving the queen a hug. But hers was not the first supposed infraction. In 1992, Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating put his arm around Queen Elizabeth, spurring British newspapers to dub him the “Lizard of Oz.” In 2000, John Howard, Keating’s successor, reportedly did the same thing, though Howard denied the charge. Two years later, the culprit was the Canadian cyclist Louis Garneau. Back in 1983, former San Diego mayor Bill Cleator Sr. committed a similar faux-pas; when he passed away, the first sentence of his obituary read, “William "Bill" Cleator Sr., perhaps best known as the mayor who scandalized Britons by lightly touching Queen Elizabeth II during her visit here, died yesterday.”

It’s important to note that in none of these purported breaches of etiquette, including the latest case involving LeBron, have the royals themselves expressed great displeasure. Consider the instance last year when a shop manager appeared to guide the queen through a market. “She did not touch the Queen,” a Buckingham Palace spokesman later noted, “and even if she had done [so] the Queen would have taken no offence.”

These days, it seems, the primary protectors of strict royal protocol are the British tabloids—and the etiquette experts they consult.