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Guidelines: Naval Social Customs

The Navy Wifeline

Cover: Guidelines: Naval Social Customs, Compiled By Newport Fleet Officer's Wives, Newport, Rhode Island, Republished by The Navy Wifeline Association,  Washington Navy Yard, Building 40, Washington, D.C. 20390
Cover: Guidelines: Naval Social Customs, Compiled By Newport Fleet Officer's Wives, Newport, Rhode Island, Republished by The Navy Wifeline Association, Washington Navy Yard, Building 40, Washington, D.C. 20390.

[Introduction to] Naval Social Customs
Calling [social introductory visits including the use of calling cards]
Receptions, "at Homes," and Other Official Functions
Other Parties
Social Obligations
Shipboard Etiquette
Flag Etiquette

Compiled By Newport Fleet Officer's Wives
Newport, Rhode Island

Republished by The Navy Wifeline Association
Washington Navy Yard, Building 40
Washington, D.C. 20390


Naval officers and their wives come from all parts of the country and from widely varying backgrounds. This little pamphlet is not to prescribe in a rigid and inflexible manner exactly how everything is to be done socially. In a social sense, there are no such things as absolutes, but it helps to know the generally accepted customs so that you are not constantly wondering what to do.

However, there is a generally accepted body of social customs in the United States. Social customs have been fluid throughout history and they are changing daily. In the first place, it must be recognized that etiquette and social practices are only customs, they are not laws or fixed values, and sometimes their origins are rather obscure and farfetched. In general, in the United States, and even in other parts of the world, accepted social customs have become less formal over the past fifty years. These changes are quite natural in view of the great changes in the complexity, pace, and character of life in the United States.

For those of us in the Navy, it is good to have some generally recognized social customs. It is helpful for new arrivals in the Navy to know what these customs are because a young wife may have arrived from a part of the country or a segment of life which is quite different from Navy life. Navy social customs are, of course, built basically on acceptable civilian customs in the United States and abroad. They are adapted particularly to the Navy way of life, which is one of high mobility, rapidly changing environments, and a real need for rapid family assimilation into the Navy and the community of the new duty station. Basically, the Navy social customs make life more enjoyable, they encourage the quick formation of new friendships and encourage a "sense of Navy family". The Navy's customs adapt civilian practices to Navy protocol.

In addition to our day to day Navy social practices, it is, of course, good to know the more formal customs that one may encounter in certain official functions in the United States and in certain European countries. However, these can usually be found in basic civilian etiquette books. Exact protocol is usually observed only in diplomatic circles and at higher level governmental affairs.

In view of the confusion arising among many junior officers' wives from reading various books on Naval Etiquette, which sometimes contain conflicting and even out-of-date information, the Fleet Officers' Wives Committee has compiled this booklet in response to numerous questions submitted to it.


1. Exchanging calls is almost unknown in civilian circles in the United States today. Also, there has been almost a complete termination of the use of calling cards in civilian life except to enclose with presents or invitations. In Navy life, however, calls are still expected and, for very sound reasons, should be made. By means of these social calls, Navy families become quickly acquainted in their new surroundings. In general, we follow the old civilian custom of leaving cards at the first call, but this is not the important thing. The call itself is the important thing; the cards, secondary.

2. Calling cards:

a. Calling cards are usually engraved.

b. The officer's card will have his full name, without abbreviations or initials. For officers below Commander, his rank and service designation should be in the lower right-hand corner of the card.

c. For Commanders and above, the officer's rank usually precedes his name, with his service designation either in the lower right-hand corner of his card or centered in a line just below his name.

d. The wife's card is engraved with "Mrs." And her husband's full name. The use of a joint card is acceptable.

e. When making calls, the husband leaves one card for each adult member of the family not to exceed three cards, and the wife leaves one card for each lady, not to exceed three cards. Never leave more than a total of six cards.

f. Men call on men and ladies…ladies call only on ladies. On your first call, leave cards for members of the family who are of an age you might entertain.

g. When attending "At Homes", it is customary to leave cards. Cards are left once on a tour of duty-not every time you might be invited to someone's home.

h. Cards may be left upon entering or leaving. Usually a tray or plate is provided for calling cards. If a tray is not visible, place the cards on the closest convenient table.

i. If there is a servant answering the door, had the cards to him. Never hand cards to members of the family.

3. Other Uses for Cards:

a. Cards may be sent with flowers, or a gift, or left as an expression of sympathy.

b. Formally, it was customary to leave a P.P.C. card (pour prendre conge…to take leave). It is not generally the custom today, but should you wish to make a departing call, write P.P.C in ink in the lower left-hand corner of your card.

c. You may use your personal calling card for invitations to small teas or coffees and your joint card for cocktail parties.

4. Calls:

a. You are expected to call on your husband's commanding officer and his family, the executive officer and his family, as well as your husband's department head and his family. There is no specific order for making your calls.

b. Generally, it is considered courteous to call upon newcomers whose rank is close to your husband's.

c. It is most desirable to telephone before making a formal call, as well as when returning a formal call. The wife may telephone to arrange a convenient time, or the husband may make an appointment. If a telephone call has not been made prior to receiving a call, don't feel embarrassed if you are not prepared. It is no longer expected that you always remain ready to receive callers from 4 to 6 every afternoon. If you arrive to make a call and no one is at home, you may leave your cards and the call is considered made.

d. When a call is made, a suit or simple afternoon dress, hat, gloves, and stockings are correct attire for you. Your husband may wear either a civilian suit or a uniform, as indicated by the custom of the station. Sport clothes are not acceptable. (There may be exceptions to this rule in hot climates.) If you are in doubt, do not hesitate to ask.

e. Inquire as to the accepted hours for calling on your station.

f. A formal call should be limited to about thirty minutes, or, usually, the acceptance of one drink. In the event that more than one couple should call at one time, a longer stay may be necessary. Never stay longer than an hour.

g. Never take your children with you.

h. It is customary for the wife to terminate the call by standing up and saying good-bye.

i. Return calls should be made within the following month. If this is not possible because of military operations or illness, you are still not relieved of the obligation of calling at a later date.

j. In the event of an "At Home" reception, it is permissible for the wife to attend even though her husband may be away; however, it is not mandatory. In the event you do attend, you leave only your card.

k. In receiving calls, it is customary to offer a beverage. Always have a non-alcoholic beverage available for those who prefer it. Hors d'oeuvres are not expected nor required, but may be offered if you wish. It would be thoughtful to mention what beverages you may have on hand.


1. A reception is a large official party given in someone's honor at which cards are not left. An "At Home" is usually given by a senior officer at which calls are considered made and returned. Cards are left.

2. Upon your arrival, remove your wraps and leave them in the place which is indicated. If your escort leaves you at the door while he parks the car, go in and remove your wrap.

3. The gentleman takes the lady to the receiving line. It is considered discourteous to go through the line smoking or with a glass in your hand. If the receiving line is long, you may decide to have a drink first and go through the line later. This is quite all right at large receptions, but you should go through the line, and you should deposit your glass and cigarette before doing so.

4. The wife precedes her husband for most social affairs. He gives her name to the Aide or first person in line. No first names are used.

5. The Aide, or the first person in the receiving line, will introduce you to the next person in line. You shake hands with everyone in the line except the Aide. If your name is not clearly passed on, you may repeat your name as "Mrs. Doe" or "Miss Doe" as you shake hands. After you have been introduced and have passed the first person in line, your husband or escort should give his rank and name, and shake hands with all in the receiving line.

6. Upon introduction, it is proper to say "How do you do," not "Hi" or "Hello"! If you have met before, a brief remark such as "It is nice to see you again", is appropriate. If there are other people behind you, never hold up the receiving line by stopping to chat. However, if there is no one behind you, it is gracious to chat momentarily.

7. Gloves may be removed before going through the receiving line, if you prefer, or may be worn. Your attire on such occasions should be conservative, and hats are optional, depending on the hour.

8. If you are in the receiving line, your duties are two-fold…to make the guests feel welcome and to introduce them properly and clearly. Remember the following rules:

a. Names of guests should be passed on clearly and distinctly. If you did not hear the name clearly, it is proper to ask that it be repeated.

b. Even in a receiving line, it is customary to introduce the gentleman to the lady, no matter how senior he is in rank. Junior officers are introduced to senior officers.

c. Those in the receiving line should not receive with drinks or cigarettes in their hands.

d. Those in the receiving line should give undivided attention to the guests they are welcoming.

9. Whether or not there is a receiving line at a social function, you must always greet the senior officers present and their wives. It is always the obligation of junior officers and their wives to seek out and speak to their seniors. It is perfectly proper to join a group, including senior officers and wives, even though they are talking.

10. Before attending a formal function, it is wise to "do your homework"! In other words, discuss with your husband who will be present and, if possible, the duties to which they are assigned. When you meet someone new, it is always thoughtful to identify your self by name and your husband's assignment. If you have met before, remind them when and where.

11. Your arrival at a reception may be at any time during the hours stated on the invitation, but you are expected to arrive before the receiving line disbands. It is definitely required that you greet your host and hostess whether or not there is a receiving line. There is not a set time limit as to how long you may remain at a reception. You may stay a little longer at a smaller gathering than at a large one. However, do not stay over the appointed time unless you have been asked to remain for dinner.

12. It is not necessary to write a thank you note or telephone after attending a large official function. In the case of a large reception, it is not necessary to seek out the host or hostess to say good-bye. If they are not occupied, it is nice to do so.


1. There are a few basic do's and don'ts to keep in mind concerning smaller or less formal affairs.

a. Always speak to your host and hostess upon arriving or leaving any social function.

b. While you may have the best-behaved children in town, it is still an imposition on your hostess to take them to an adult party.

c. If you are not sure of how to dress, do not hesitate to telephone your hostess in advance.

d. When you are invited to a party, you are asked to add to the party. Circulate and make a point of meeting the other guests. You will enjoy yourself more and the hostess will enjoy your presence.

e. "Should I wear a hat?" is a frequent question. For any day-time social affair prior to 6:00 p.m., hats are always correct. Hats have become more or less optional, but remember if you have any doubt-wear one-it may always be removed later. Various areas of the country have different customs, so if you are in doubt, inquire.

f. Gloves and stockings are correct.

g. The following is a basic guide to attire for less formal occasions:

(1). Coffees…A suit or simple dress. Here hats are optional. Shorts, slacks, bobby socks, etc., are never acceptable, unless specifically indicated by the hostess.

(2). Luncheons…A suit or simple dress, stockings, hat, and gloves.

(3). Teas…A simple afternoon dress or suit, hat, gloves, and stockings.

(4). Cocktail parties…Hats are not generally worn. The formality of your cocktail dress will be dictated by the custom of the area. Gloves and stockings are correct.

(5). Dinners…Semi-formal…Would require black tie for men and a short or long formal dress for the ladies. Your hostess can tell you if you are in doubt.

(6). Church attire…A suit or simple dress, stockings, gloves, and preferably a hat-always some head covering-a mantilla or veil.

If a seating board is displayed, consult it for your position at the table. If you attend a dinner where there is a seating arrangement displayed, the gentleman finds out which lady is to be seated at his right, seeks her out when dinner is announced, and escorts her to dinner. At large formal dinners, a "take in" card is often given to each man, showing the name of the lady to be seated at his right.

The guests of honor or the highest-ranking officer and wife are seated to the right of the hostess and host. However, if you are entertaining officially, be certain to consult the protocol officer or Aide at the nearest station for seating arrangements. At official parties, strict protocol must be followed.

At a dinner, the lady seated at the right hand of the host is served first. At a buffet, tea, or coffee, the wife of the senior officer should be served first unless there is a guest of honor.

More as a matter of practicality than a matter of etiquette, it is almost a universal custom, certainly in the English-speaking world, to signify when one has finished the main course of dinner by placing the knife and fork together in the center of the plate. This lets the waiter or waitress know when one is finished eating so the plates may be removed.

For further information on formal dinners, see any good etiquette book.

(7). Informal buffets…An afternoon or simple cocktail dress is appropriate with gloves and stockings.

h. Never eat, drink, or smoke with your gloves on.

i. It is always appropriate to have on hand non-alcoholic beverages when you are entertaining. If you are offered an alcoholic drink and do not wish to accept it, simply say, "No, thank-you, I would prefer a Coke or Ginger ale if you have it." No further explanation is necessary. Never insist that someone accept an alcoholic drink if he or she does not care to accept it.

2. For further rules on entertaining, consult your book on etiquette.


1. All invitations should be extended and accepted by the wives. Written replies are always addressed to the wife.

2. The form of a written acceptance or regret should always follow the form of the invitation. You may reply by telephone, if indicated.

3. On all invitations you must always specify the day, the time, and the place. Uniform or dress may be included.

4. An oral invitation may be followed by a telephone or written reminder.

5. An R.S.V.P. on an invitation means "Respond if you please." You must reply whether or not you are able to attend. You should reply within twenty-four hours.

6. It has become customary to ask for "regrets only" on printed or written invitations.

7. If your invitation is extended orally, it is thoughtful to indicate the size and formality of the party.

8. If you are inviting guests of honor, consult them first, offering alternate dates for their convenience. Don't hesitate to invite senior officers and their wives. They should be invited, and they will be happy to come if possible.

9. It is desirable and acceptable to reciprocate when you have been entertained by others, and in a manner which you can afford. You are not expected to match an expensive dinner party dollar for dollar, but the genuineness of your desire to repay the obligation will be appreciated. Don't always expect the senior officers and their wives to do all of the entertaining. In military as well as in civilian life, you are expected to repay your obligations.


1. Senior Officers' Wives:

a. When the ship is out, the commanding officer's wife and the executive officer's wife should initiate activities for the younger wives.

b. The executive officer's wife should be of assistance to the commanding officer's wife on all social occasions.

c. The senior officers' wives should try:

(1). To put the junior officers' wives at ease on any social occasion.

(2). To set a friendly tone for their group.

(3). To accept and return official calls

(4). To feel a responsibility to newcomers in the area and to brides, welcoming them with a telephone call, and helping them to feel at home.

(5). To remember that they are often "pipelines of information" regarding activities in the area, and must be sure that their group is informed, and is represented when it is part of a larger organization.

2. Junior Officers' Wives:

a. If the ship is not in port when you arrive at a new duty station, you should telephone the commanding officer's wife and let her know that you are in the area. Do not hesitate to entertain the ship's officers' wives even though you are a new arrival.

b. Do not address senior officers' wives by their first name until you are asked to do so.

c. When you entertain, do it in a manner which you think that you can afford. A cocktail party, informal luncheon or dinner, an act of kindness, or a favor done sincerely and without ostentation-all are perfectly acceptable ways to return hospitality shown you.

d. Do not hesitate to invite the commanding officer's wife to social affairs. Someone should be asked to look after her upon her arrival.

e. Take your turn in hostessing group activities, remembering to include the senior officers' wives.

f. When asked by a senior officer's wife to take on a responsibility, do so if it is possible. A senior officer's wife often has many responsibilities which must be delegated. You will be helping her if you are able to accept, but it is not obligatory if you have a good reason not to do so.

g. If you are seated when an older lady speaks to you or is introduced to you, rise. It is not necessary for everyone to rise when an older person enters a crowded room.

h. The wife of your husband's commanding officer has no rank. A certain courtesy is extended to her, however, regardless of age, because of the position her husband holds.

3. Correcting a mistake:

a. When you have made a mistake, apologize in a simple fashion…but don't overdo the apology. If you are late for a luncheon, or dinner party, or a reception where the receiving line has broken up, go directly to the hostess and briefly apologize. If you fail to keep appointment, you should telephone or write an explanation.


1. It is a privilege to be invited aboard a ship! The wardroom of a ship is like a man's club, and you are expected to dress and behave accordingly. Under no circumstances are shorts or slacks proper on board ship. Slacks may be worn, when indicated, for a dependents' cruise.

2. When you are in the wardroom, you are the guest of all the officers who live on the ship.

3. Children are definitely out of place in a wardroom except on specified family occasions.

4. Be on time for all shipboard functions, especially for meals. You should wear the same attire on board as you would at the officers' Club.

5. You should never go aboard ship for any occasion without being invited. This is true even when the ship is returning from a long cruise.

6. Use discretion about going aboard ship every time your husband has the duty.

7. Ship ceremonies such as christenings, commissionings, and change of command ceremonies are always daytime affairs. Attendance at these functions is by invitation only. Hats, gloves, and stockings should be worn.

8. Promptness is important, especially if a boat is waiting.

9. When boarding a ship's boat, deference should be given to older members of the party. Therefore, younger members enter the boat first in order to assist those who follow. Those boarding first are expected to sit toward the bow of the boat, reserving the more comfortable seats aft for the older members of the group.

10. When boarding the ship with your husband, you precede him, stepping aside at the head of the gangway to facilitate his saluting the ensign and the Officer of the Deck. Do not stop to talk to people you know when going aboard ship. Keep the passageway clear.

11. During ceremonies, a Master of Ceremonies or a printed program will inform you when to rise, etc. When an Admiral or high-ranking dignitary arrives on board, ladies do not stand, but during rendition of personal honors, ruffles and flourishes, or gun salutes, ladies stand at attention as long as the men are saluting.

12. If your husband is away, you are not expected to represent him at official functions except at the change of command of a personal friend when you are invited.

13. It is customary to allow the commanding officer's wife and executive officer's wife to go abroad first.

14. It is best for wives not to get involved in shipboard business.

15. If you have received a wedding gift or baby gift from a wardroom mess, address your thank-you note to the senior member of that mess. All gifts should be acknowledged promptly.


1. At the first sound of the National Anthem, you should rise, face the flag (or in its absence, the music) and stand silently.

2. When driving a car, and Colors or Retreat are sounded, you must stop the car and wait until the ceremony is completed.


1. It was formerly the custom to introduce officers below the rank of Commander as "Mister". Now it is the custom to introduce all officers by rank, but you may speak to them or of them as "Mister" when they are below the rank of Commander.

2. Medical and Dental officers of the rank of Commander and above are addressed and introduced by rank; below the rank of Commander, they are called "Doctor."

3. Chaplains are always called Chaplain except when they hold the rank of Admiral.

4. Marines are introduced by rank as are members of the Air Force and Army.

5. A gentleman is always introduced to a lady regardless of his rank, except in unusual cases, such as the President, etc.

6. A younger lady is always introduced to an older lady.


1. A thank-you note is always addressed to the hostess alone. Personal notes are never signed "Mrs. John Doe," but always by your own first and last name. For further details, check your etiquette book.



Your attitude will make a great difference in your husband's job, his career…in short, his happiness. The more you give of your time and your efforts, the more satisfaction you will receive. Realize your obligation to the community of which you are a part as well as our own Navy and Navy Relief Society. Many Navy wives take an active interest in PTA, Scouting, Church, or welfare work, keeping in mind their responsibilities to family, health, and finances.

You will help yourself to grow by keeping informed on national and world affairs, by reading and sharing your opinions and knowledge with others. Ask your husband to define Navy terminology with which you are unfamiliar, but do not use the terminology in everyday conversation. Above all…BE YOURSELF!

The Navy is steeped in tradition. You will enjoy the Navy even more as you learn about it, and the Navy becomes a part of your life. However, the most important tradition of all for you is the one that is handed down by the wives, and if you who are now in the Navy will preserve it and "pass it on", the "Navy family" will always be a happy one. For that is it…the Navy is a family. When you arrive at a new duty station and move into a new neighborhood, Navy tradition decrees that you will be welcomed on moving day by other service families in the area with such pleasing gestures of kindness as, perhaps sandwiches and coffee, or iced lemonade, sent over at lunchtime. Navy wives rush to each other's aid whenever there is any illness or tragedy in the family, and they offer to care for each other's children when the need arises. We are never really alone. We have our roots in the "Navy family" and all other Navy people are our friends, we have, in fact, friends in all corners of the world, and we are secure in the knowledge that wherever we go, friends will welcome us. (They may be friends we haven't met yet, but they are friends, just the same.) This is our "family". This is our security. These are our roots.

But this feeling is a precious gift, given to this generation by the last. You must preserve it by accepting the friendships and kindnesses and passing them on. You may never again see the neighbor who sends a casserole dinner over to you and your tired children on the day you move away, but you must repay her by doing the same for someone else. In this way, it will keep coming back to you, and you will find Navy life and Navy people wonderful indeed.

If by chance, you should not receive the kind of consideration you would like, start the ball rolling yourself. Perhaps the group you joined never learned about this wonderful custom. You show it to them. They'll all be better Navy wives when they know it.

Note: Although undated, this publication probably dates to the 1960s or earlier. It was still being reprinted as late as 1985.


Published: Sun Dec 06 22:20:01 EST 2020