The Receiving Line

Receiving Lines

Air Force Protocol
from 'Til Wheels are Up'

The word reception means the act of receiving or greeting. A receiving line is a practical and efficient way to accomplish this greeting. In the Air Force, receiving lines are frequently used to greet a new commander and spouse after his or her change of command ceremony, at commander's receptions honoring local civic leaders, or at traditional holiday receptions. Officers' Wives Clubs (OWC) sometimes use receiving lines to welcome or honor the new OWC president or honorary president.

There are a few formal rules governing the formation of a receiving line. However, there are some "rules of the road" for ensuring the receiving line you set up for your commander is successful and accomplishes its purpose—that is, for the commander and spouse, or the guest of honor, to formally greet other guests prior to beginning of some other activity (a reception, formal luncheon or dinner).

Forming the Receiving Line

When setting up a receiving line, restrict the time allowed to a maximum of 45 minutes for guests to proceed through the line. Usually hosts receive for thirty minutes from the time given in the invitation and then join their guests. Guests should be punctual. Otherwise they are not announced and will have to seek out their hosts and apologize. At a large function it may not be possible for latecomers to be introduced to the guests of honor. (This is always a matter of discretion for the host. You'll want to determine his policy on this before you start the receiving line, since you'll probably be the one to seek out latecomers and make the introductions.)

People in the receiving line are stationed single file according to the rules of precedence. The Host (usually the commander) and his/her spouse are number one and number two. Then follows the most important guest of honor, if there is one, followed by his/her spouse, followed by the next honored guest in order of rank. In no case should the receiving line consist of more than five people. The rule of thumb we use is to limit the line to the commander and spouse, or include the most important guest of honor (if there is one). It takes a minimum of 20 seconds for one person to go through the receiving line, and if you're faced with 350 guests, you want to keep the line moving quickly.
  • When a Chief of State is the guest of honor, the host and hostess relinquish their positions and the line forms with the Chief of State, his/her spouse, and followed by the host and hostess.
  • To welcome the new OWC president, the line may consist of the outgoing president, followed by the new president. The OWC vice president may precede the line and perform the duties of the announcer (described below).
  • To welcome the new OWC honorary president (the commander's spouse), the line is preceded by the announcer (again, perhaps the OWC vice president) and consists of the honorary vice president and the new honorary president. You could also limit the line to the announcer and the new honorary president.
  • When the entertainment is of an unofficial nature, it is the prerogative of the hostess to be the first to greet her guests.
Positioning the Receiving Line

Role of Announcer
Receiving lines are preceded by an announcer, whose responsibility it is to announce or introduce guests to the host. Normally, the commander's aide or protocol officer acts in this capacity. The announcer stands just to the side of the host and introduces the next guests in line. Since the announcer is not part of the receiving line, he should not shake hands with the guests. The announcer's grasp of names should be quick and accurate, and pronunciation of names to the commander audible and distinct. His manner should be cordial, courteous and formal -- he's not receiving the guests, only introducing them.

"The Extra Man"
Sometimes another man is added to the end of a receiving line to avoid leaving a woman at the end. However, we've found it more useful to position an additional person just off the end of the receiving line (and therefore not really part of the line) to "escort" or direct guests to refreshments or the lounge. This role is typically filled by a protocol officer or NCO, and the escort plays a valuable role in preventing congestion right at the end of the receiving line.

Staffing the Receiving Line

Just before the appointed hour, the receiving line is formed in the reception lounge. The beginning of the receiving line should be started at sufficient distance from the entrance as not to impede the easy movement of guests. After checking their wraps the guests proceed toward the receiving line. Normally, we place two protocol personnel outside of the reception area to direct guests to the line. They also help reduce congestion by "guiding" additional guests directly to where the refreshments are if the line is already too long. (A good rule of thumb is to prevent guests from having to wait more than 12-15 minutes in line. If you do need to direct guests to the refreshments, ask them to check the line later when it has thinned out. Above all, if guests insist on remaining in the receiving line, let them do so!)

Role of "Gatekeeper"

We station a protocol person at the entrance to the reception lounge, next to a table positioned for guests to place their drinks, food, cigarettes. Euphemistically known as the "gatekeeper," this individual controls the flow of the receiving line, and is usually the member of the protocol staff that best knows key downtown civilians (if they're among the invited guests). Our deputy director, who has 15 years experience, fills this role when we form receiving lines. At your location it could be your Public Affairs officer or the commanders secretary.

We've found the gatekeeper to be indispensable to a successful receiving line. The gatekeeper ensures an orderly flow of guests, helping to preclude bunching up inside the reception area, by holding the line at the entrance until space clears for them to proceed. (Normally, the gatekeeper will allow the queue at the receiving line itself to be no more than 6-8 people.) The gatekeeper also advises all guests to place any drinks, food or smokes on the table provided before proceeding further. One of the few formal rules of a receiving line is that one should not receive guests or go through a receiving line holding a drink or cigarette. The gate keeper also reminds each guest to tell the announcer his/her name, even if the guest says the announcer knows them well.

Procedures for Guests Going Through the Receiving Line
  • Air Force - A gentleman precedes his lady through the line at official functions, ladies first at all others.
  • Army - Ladies first at all functions except at the White House.
  • Navy - Ladies first at all functions except at the White House. Although many senior Naval Officers have adopted the Air Force practice of gentlemen first at official functions.
  • Place drinks, food and cigarettes or other smoking material on the table provided before entering the reception area.
  • When going through the line, do not shake hands with the announcer. Give him/her your rank and last name, i.e., Major and Mrs. Smith, official title (Mayor and Mrs. Tom Jones), or Mr. and Mrs. Brown. Always provide your name even though you know the announcer. Memories fail at times.
  • The announcer presents the guest to the host/hostess, who in turn presents him or her to the guest of honor (or hostess). The guest in proceeding down the line simply shakes hands and greets each person with a "How do you do" or, in the case of a friend or acquaintance, "Good evening, Sir John," or "It is good to see you again, Sir John." Never engage in extended conversation in a receiving line—you'll add to the congestion for those in the line behind you. Do not hesitate to repeat your name to members of the receiving line. Names do not travel well.
Dress for Receiving Lines

Since receptions by nature are usually formal, Service Dress or Mess Dress is appropriate attire for military personnel; business suit or tuxedo for civilians (see the chapter on Forms of Dress for more detail). Here's a few additional hints for the ladies:
  • At luncheons and afternoon receptions, it used to be considered better manners for the lady to arrive with both gloves on, greet the host or hostess, and then remove her gloves. Now gloves are seldom worn, even on formal occasions.
  • At formal evening receptions, when dress requires a long gown, gloves are optional and may be removed. In some instances at the White House, the First Lady has been known to express an opinion as to her preference.
Phvsical Arrangements for Receiving Line

Here are some guidelines you'll want to consider in setting up a receiving line.
  • Pick a location that allows easy movement of guests without crowding. Your Officers' Club typically will have such a room or area.
  • The location should allow formation of guest line outside of receiving line room.
  • Entry into the reception area where refreshments are located should be available from the end of the receiving line and from an area adjacent to the beginning of the guest line (where the gatekeeper is positioned), without disturbing the natural flow of the guests.
  • Space should be available at the entrance to the receiving line room for a gatekeeper and table
  • The receiving line should be placed sufficient distance from the entrance of the room as to allow easy movement of guests in line without crowding people.
  • The receiving line should be positioned so that direct sunlight does not distract either the guests or members of the receiving line.
  • Place a table behind the receiving line. Consider prepositioning a pitcher of ice water and glasses (or other refreshments) for members of the receiving line.
  • Arrange flags behind the receiving line table. The U.S. Flag always precedes any other flag. If a foreign guest is being honored, place his country's flag next, followed by the Departmental or organizational flag, and the general's flag at the end (if the host is a general officer). If the guest of honor is a general or flag officer, and outranks the host, place their personal flag ahead of the hosts'.
    Flag Information
  • Chairs, if appropriate, can be placed in front of the receiving line table. This usually depends on the number of guests expected, time receiving line will be active, the ages of the receiving line participants and their physical abilities.
  • At least one person should be placed at the end of the receiving line to direct guests into the reception area after they finish going through the receiving line.
Receiving Line Room Placement