Here are the basics of military protocol and etiquette for military spouses

Etiquette and military protocol: The words themselves are intimidating, overwhelming. . .  and even a little frightening. With all the craziness of military life, who has time to investigate and study these topics?

We do!  At Etiquette Chics, we have made this our mission. We love etiquette, but we also have been there, with military protocol questions swirling around our head.

Yes, we are passionate about etiquette and protocol, but we are also a proud Army military family. We have compiled a list of some of those murky areas of military spouse etiquette. Of course, there may be some variety and differences regarding these points, depending on the branch of service. Many of these apply regardless of the branch. And, you can invest just a little time in doing some of your own research. Your smartphone is perfect for that; you do not need a gigantic 500-page etiquette or protocol book to do some research. These are some areas I found through my own personal experience of being a military wife for over twenty years that may be helpful. Gear up and let’s jump into basic military etiquette!

Walking and standing with your spouse

This is so simple and one I wish I had known sooner rather than later. Remember which side to stand on or walk on by thinking about the hand that your spouse uses to salute. Since their right hand needs to be free to salute, you need to be certain you stand to the left hand of the one in uniform. Have we all inadvertently gripped our spouses other arm at an event? Probably. No need to focus on it. Just move forward and remember, “Left is best.”

The National Anthem

How precious we hold this as military families, don’t we? Of course many Americans do, military and non-military alike. I cry or at least tear up with emotion almost every time I hear our anthem. The information we are providing here just touches on a few areas of flag/anthem etiquette. Here are some very simple guidelines to start:

  • It is customary to always stand for the National Anthem.
  • If the event is taking place outside, place your hand over your heart.
  • At an indoors event, your hand can go over your heart, at your side, or behind your back. (To simplify the life of a military spouse–because we certainly have enough complicating it–I just always place my right hand over my heart. It is a safe response and one that is never, ever wrong.)
  • If wearing a hat, it should be removed.
  • No obvious blunders such as gum chewing, eating or drinking during the anthem.


This one was always tricky for me because in day-to-day life outside of the military, I sometimes say “sir.” When addressing someone in uniform, remember you are not (as a civilian spouse) to address them as “sir” or “ma’am.” Use their rank instead. Say, “Good Afternoon, General Washington.” Save the “sir” or ma’am” for outside of military circles. Practice this before events and be certain you have the correct rank. Maybe the only thing worse than uncertain dining etiquette is being uncertain about the rank, which leads me to my next point. Learn rank insignia.

Learning about ranks

There are many wonderful publications for your branch of service and learning ranks for enlisted and officers. . . or just Google it. Although this will require some studying, it will prove immensely rewarding. To not have to wonder what rank the insignia stands for, will prove beneficial, and like many forms of etiquette, it keeps you from making obvious, embarrassing blunders such as saying the incorrect rank.When it comes time for your next military event you will know exactly how to address each individual.

Dealing with dress code

This one can be exciting, fun, and most of all, super-confusing. Here are some of the main categories with a quick outline for each. They are: Formal, Informal/Semi-Formal, Coat and Tie/Business, Casual, Very Causal. This also requires an entire segment of its own.

To summarize, “Formal” and “Informal/Semiformal” range from service uniforms with bow ties to a four-in-hand tie. Spouses: This ranges from a long formal dress to a “dressy” dress or suit.

“Coat and Tie” and “Business” attire is a service uniform and tie. Spouses: Wear a dress, skirt/blouse or a suit.

“Casual” is just that, casual. Both parties dress casual for this and wear a choice of, dress pants, casual shirt or a simple dress.

“Very Causal” is shorts, t-shirts etc. Avoid the inappropriate: Too short, too tight, too much skin showing. Save that for your personal events if that is your choice attire.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: Ask the host or hostess for the exact attire category before the event, if uncertain. Do your homework and research exactly what is the appropriate attire. Showing up under- or overdressed are never fun experiences. It only takes one time for you to say, “Never again!”

Receiving lines

I know you may be thinking, “Blah, blah, blah,” but this is so important. If you read this section once, you will most likely have a good grasp on it because it is so basic, yet needed.

Those in the receiving line will be the honored guests, host/hostess, and any guest speakers. Before going through the receiving line, put away or discard all drinks, and put away or place at your table large purses and cell phones so that your hands are free.

Women walk first at Army, Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard functions. Ladies follow behind at Air Force events, and should we ever be fortunate enough, at White House events. Please note that typically, the first person in the receiving line is the “Announcer” and you do not shake their hand. If they reach out to shake your hand, then of course, reciprocate.

Speak briefly as you make your way through the receiving line. This is the key to success in a receiving line. The goal is to meet each person, but to keep the line moving at a good pace. Basically make good eye contact, smile, speak briefly and have a firm, but not death grip handshake. And most of all, enjoy yourself and let “you” shine through.

Promotion ceremonies

These are truly the most precious of ceremonies, where we can recognize and celebrate our service member’s and family commitment and successes. Families are often a part of this proud event. When the ceremony begins and the presiding officer enters the room, all should stand. When “Attention to Orders” is called, civilians/family are not required to stand but should out of courtesy. Spouses and children often participate in pinning the new rank insignia on one shoulder (usually the left) and the presiding officer pins on the right shoulder.

Dining etiquette

I could never possibly cover all there is to learn in this one bullet when it comes to dining etiquette. I also know that I have been to enough formal events, dinners, and luncheons to know this is worthwhile in taking some time to learn. Etiquette Chics has videos that are only 30 to 60 seconds long that cover the ins and outs of dining etiquette. Our YouTube Channel and Facebook page have all these topics covered, in our fun, modern, and quick videos that are jam-packed with information.

We hope you feel inspired and maybe a little more prepared for you next big event. Please remember, these are strictly to encourage you and help you on this journey. We have all been there and made mistakes. That’s okay! But hopefully this blog helps you minimize those experiences. And, as always, share your information and knowledge and encourage one another; we are all together on this journey called military life.

By Susan Vernick