What if your typical day at the office included hosting dignitaries and rubbing elbows with the world’s most influential leaders?
One congressional staffer doesn’t have to wonder. As the Chief of Protocol on Capitol Hill, 31-year-old Elizabeth Heng is paid to be a cultural sage.
“Currently, I serve as the Chief of Protocol for the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee,” says Heng. “In this position, I oversee when Heads of State interact with the Committee Members both domestically and abroad. My job is to ensure their interactions are flawless; because when it comes to international diplomacy, there are no do-overs.”
On Becoming A Director of Protocol
Heng, who received her undergraduate degree from Stanford and an Executive MBA from Yale University, had an over-the-top, picture perfect idea of her dream job.
“Ten years ago, I watched the Devil Wears Prada and told myself I want a glitzy, glamorous life like Anne Hathaway in the movie but in politics—excluding the devil boss. My dream job would entail traveling the world, working on social justice, and attending lots of galas. Through hard work and a bit of luck, I actually managed to land the job of my dreams.”
Although the protocol profession has been around for ages, there are no direct pipelines into the field.
“There are different certificate programs that train you on formal protocol,” says Heng. “However, most people I come across in the field stumbled upon the industry. They either excelled at orchestrating a large event or mission, or they were instrumental in managing an unforeseen crisis.”
“I’ve read every book I’ve been able to get my hands on about protocol and etiquette. Besides being trained on the proper etiquette and decorum of international standards, applying common sense and cultural competency to applicable situations is crucial to being successful. The ability to come up with creative solutions and navigate unexpected challenges is a large part of my job.”
“And although protocol isn’t a new industry, I’ve seen the industry grow both in the public and private-sector in the last few years. As technology, government, business, and the 24-hour news cycle continue to intertwine our cultures, it is even more vital that we recognize the importance of formal protocol.”
“When you meet someone, hold off on the initial political armchair quarterbacking…take the opportunity to get to know someone as a person.”
On the Perks of the Job
“Since I get to oversee fact-finding missions for elected officials, it’s great to see Members of Congress work on legislation at a 10,000 feet level in Washington and then do oversight and due diligence abroad,” says Heng.
“Just to give you an example– on a recent trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Congolese government has continuously blocked exit visas for international adoptions. A month after we returned from our trip, over 150 American adopted visas were granted. In a time when Washington is hyper-partisan, it’s rewarding to see tangible foreign policy initiatives that truly do make an impact on people’s lives.”
Etiquette Rules to Remember
“When you first meet someone, hold off on the initial political armchair quarterbacking,” warns Heng.
“Take the opportunity to get to know someone as a person before talking about what they do. And whatever you do, don’t clink glasses! Take the host’s lead but generally speaking, don’t clink glasses during a toast. When people host dinner parties, they typically bring out their finest china and glassware. You don’t want to be the person who breaks their glassware. And the appropriate way to toast? Raise your glass, make eye contact, lower your glass and then take a sip.”
How to Properly Address a Dignitary
“If you forgot all rules and happen to be at a dinner table, addressing a foreign dignitary by ‘Your Excellency’ will almost always be welcome. It is one of the most formal ways to address a Head of State or foreign Ambassador.”
For protocol tips ranging from how to eat sushi to properly introducing guests, follow Heng on Medium.
Illustration by Sonia Polyzos