Sea Legs - Protocol


Photo of Coast Guardsman shaking hands

The Coast Guard expects its members to display everyday good manners and appropriate military courtesies. Here is a brief look at the social expectations at common military ceremonies and social situations.

Knowing when and how to introduce people is important. If you do not think people know each other, introduce them. If you are not sure of how to introduce people, just use common sense and do it in a way that is comfortable for those involved.

Some easy rules are:

  • It is often helpful to make a brief comment about the person you are introducing while making the introduction.
  • The name of the senior or the honored individual is given first. When introducing a woman and a man, the woman’s name is given first, unless meeting the president or a senior Coast Guard member.
  • Men always stand when being introduced, women may. A younger person should always stand when being introduced to an older or senior-ranked person.
  • Introduce older to younger, using the older person’s name first.
  • Shaking hands when being introduced is a friendly gesture, a woman traditionally offers her hand to a man.
  • Introduce yourself if no one is there to make introductions.

All ranks are introduced by complete title. For example, a Chaplain is called “Chaplain” and a doctor or dentist is “Doctor.” The term “Captain” is used for the commanding officer of the ship. Refer to the Workforce page, to review officer rank and enlisted pay-grade information.

Coast Guard spouses receive invitations for social functions, such as teas, coffees, and luncheons. Attending these functions will not only help you make new friends, but also provide an opportunity to learn about the many resources in your area.

Invitations should include information on the event, location, and any dress guidelines. If the invitation reads “Please Respond” or “RVSP,” it is polite to reply within two or three days after receiving it. If you accept, you should attend. A thank-you note is respectful after the event and is a thoughtful way to thank your host.

When to arrive and when to leave
Arriving late is inappropriate and often viewed as discourteous. If you are detained and will be delayed longer than 15 minutes, call the host. Punctuality is important.

  • When you are invited to an event, such as a cocktail party, your invitation should provide arrival and departure times. Plan to arrive on time or close to it, and stay through the party. Your hosts want your company, or they would not have invited you.
  • Arrive on time – not early and not late – for dinner.
  • When you are an invited guest for a parade or other official ceremony, you should arrive 10-15 minutes prior to the event, in time for seating.
  • Leaving when appropriate is just as important as arriving on time.
  • When you are invited for dinner, you should stay at least 30 minutes after the meal is over. Stay a minimum of 45 minutes at a reception, or until the senior guest departs.
  • Before leaving any social event, thank your host.

Visiting On Board a Ship, Cutter, or Boat
Guidelines to follow if you are invited on board a Coast Guard vessel include:

  • After crossing or climbing the brow and stepping onto the vessel, stop and face the stern (back) of the vessel to acknowledge the flag (ensign). Coast Guardsmen do the same thing when they board, but when in uniform they also salute the flag. Greet the officer of the deck and, if alone, explain why you are aboard. If you are not alone, your host or spouse should introduce you.
  • If your visit is informal or if you are attending a cruise for family members (Family Day or Dependent Cruise), it is safer and more practical to wear flat shoes or sneakers so you can move around on uneven surfaces and ladders. Women should wear slacks for more comfortable access to deck spaces. Take along a sweater or jacket because different sections on the vessel vary in temperature.
  • When invited to attend a change of command, dinner in the wardroom, award ceremony or other special activity, dress appropriately for the event. Women should wear low-heeled shoes and a conservatively styled skirt or dress, or dressy pantsuit.
  • Carry a purse with a wrist or shoulder strap, so that you may have hands free.

Social Attire
An invitation should state the form of dress expected for military and civilians attending. Sometimes, but not often, the meaning of the type of clothing may vary depending on the location. If you are unsure of the meaning of dress, do not hesitate to call the host and ask.

Civilian dress codes for the most common functions are listed below:

  • Brunch, luncheon or tea: Dress, suit or skirt and blouse for women; suit or coat and tie for men
  • Cocktail party: Cocktail dress or evening suit for women; coat and tie for men
  • Cookouts or picnics: Men and women wear slacks, jeans or shorts. Women also can wear a skirt or summer dress
  • Casual dinner: Dress, slacks or skirt and blouse for women; open-neck shirts and no tie for men
  • Informal dinner: Dress, skirt suit, pant suit or dressy dress for women; coat and tie or a suit for men
  • Formal dinner: Long or short formal dress for women; black tie for men
  • Dining-in: Long or short formal dress for women; black tie for men
  • Parade, change of command or retirement ceremonies: Dress or suit for women; suit or coat and tie, for men
  • Receptions: Dresses or equivalent for women; suits for men

Social functions do not require you to spend a lot on your clothes and a wardrobe becomes “new” all over again each time you move.

  Flag Etiquette
Our nation’s flag is to be respected, never defaced or scorned. There are appropriate ways to show respect in the presence of the flag. During the ceremony of hoisting or lowering the flag or when the flag is passing in a parade or in a review, everyone should face the flag and stand at attention with their right hands over their hearts. Military members who are present and in uniform should render the military salute. When not in uniform, a man should remove his hat, if wearing one, with his right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Also recently authorized by the Secretary of Defense, out of uniform active-duty and retired military may now salute the flag during ceremonies while wearing a hat (cover) or uncovered. Otherwise, the right hand should be placed over the heart while standing at attention. Otherwise, the right hand should be placed over the heart while standing at attention.

When driving a car on a military installation and “Colors” or “Retreat” (when the national flag is hoisted at eight o’clock in the morning or lowered at sunset), is sounded, stop the car and wait until the ceremony has been completed. If walking, stop, turn toward the flag and stand at attention with your right hand over your heart.

When the flag is displayed during the playing of the national anthem, all present, except those in uniform, should stand at attention facing the flag, with the right hand placed over the heart. Persons in uniform stand and render the military salute at the first note of the anthem and hold their salute until the last note is played. When the flag is not displayed, those present should face the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed there.

Naval Services FamilyLine publishes “Social Customs and Traditions of the Sea Services” that provides additional details. This booklet and many others are available at

"Semper Paratus" (Always Ready), The Official Coast Guard Marching Song
Words and Music by Captain Francis Saltus Van Boskerck, USCG; Words and Music Copyright by Sam Fox Publishing Co, Inc.

  Semper Paratus (Always Ready), The Official Coast Guard Marching Song