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Military Etiquette 101

Military etiquette isn’t just for service members to follow, it also applies to the spouses and families as well. Although not every rule applies to the families specifically, it is highly encouraged that you learn their etiquette as your actions could affect your service member. For example, as natural as it may be to run up to your spouse and kiss them, if they are in uniform, they could be penalized for it. Every military branch and installation follows different variations of the overall rule, so some rules may be altered or enforced differently. Here are some common etiquette regulations you should know!






Military Balls

One of the most formal events within the military, usually hosted once a year, is the Military Ball. Service members wear their dress blues or Class A uniforms while guests wear formal floor-length dresses or suit and bow-tie. For women in particular, patterns, bright colors, sequins, and revealing dresses should be avoided.

Cocktail hour

This is the “beginning” of the evening that lasts for about an hour where service members and guests can mingle. This is also the point when the bar opens, so be sure to pace your drinking. There is usually be a photographer available at this time for formal pictures.

Receiving Line

Following cocktail hour, is when the receiving line begins. Before you go to the receiving line, leave all food, drink and extra garments (such as umbrellas and shawls) at your table or at the coat-check area. When walking as a couple, women walk in the front of the men, even if the woman is the service member. The first person in the receiving line is the announcer, where you are introduced by your service member or you introduce yourself. You do not shake their hand. As you continue through the line, short greetings such as “it is nice to meet you” are encouraged.

Dinner Hour

Do not sit down right away. Wait to be instructed. Also women should allow the gentleman seated to their left to assist them with their chair. Also brush-up on place setting etiquette (which fork is used when etc.). Presentations usually occur during dinner, so make sure you are being respectful to the speaker and not talking too loud or too often. It is also encouraged that you do not leave your seat during a speech. Most of the time if dinner is being served during the presentations, you are permitted to continue eating.

After Dinner

Following the conclusion of the presentations, the bar will open back up and guests may start dancing. The dance floor is meant as an informal portion of the evening, however club moves and grinding are highly discouraged.


Promotion Ceremonies

When “Attention to Orders” is called, civilians/family are not required to stand but should out of courtesy. Family members may participate in pinning the new rank on the left shoulder and the presiding officer usually pins on the right shoulder.


Any Event

If an RSVP is sent, make sure to respond even if you are not attending. If you do attend, make sure to arrive on time!


Dining In/Mess Night

A traditional formal dinner for service members within a particular unit. Family members are not usually invited. The event provides an opportunity for members to meet socially at a formal military function and recognize individual and unit achievements.


Informal Occasions

Usually thought of as a “get-together” at someone’s home, if invited, you should never arrive empty-handed. A small expression of appreciation such as a box of chocolates or a bag of your favorite coffee is encouraged. A short thank-you note should also be sent within 48 hours following the event as well.


Coffee Groups

Some units put together a coffee group, occasionally as part of an FRG event. If invited, it is not required to bring a hostess gift or thank you note, but be sure to RSVP and arrive on time.


Hail and Farewells

Usually senior spouses in the unit are welcomed and farewelled separately from the unit hail and farewell. A tea or coffee is usually encouraged for a welcome since it allows the new spouse to walk around more freely and meet everyone. The outgoing spouse does not usually attend the welcome for the incoming spouse.



Usually held in the afternoon and is the most formal daytime function. Traditionally given in honor of a person such as a departing or incoming senior spouse. Formal teas require the use of china, silver and linen. Expect to go through a receiving line. If you are asked to pour, it is considered an honor; it provides an opportunity for you to see and visit with every guest as they as you to pour for them.


Standing/walking with service member

Although this is not necessarily a rule, most spouses walk on the left side of their service member when they are in uniform. This allows the service member’s right side to be open for saluting. Service members are required to maintain professionalism in uniform, therefore It is not appropriate to hold hands or kiss your service member while they are in uniform.


National Anthem

Always stand during the National Anthem. If the event is outside, put your hand over your heart. If the event is indoor, you may put your hand over your heart, by your side, you behind your back. Out of courtesy, no chewing gum, eating, drinking, or smoking during the anthem either.



This can tricky especially for family members. If you know and recognize the ranks, you may refer to someone by their rank and last name such as “Good Evening, General Smith.” Usually only the service member should refer to someone as sir or ma’am.



One of the most forgotten about customs for family members. Reveille signifies the beginning of the duty day and is initiated at 6am by a bugle call and the playing of “To the Colors.” Retreat signifies the end of the duty day and is initiated at 1700 with the playing of “Retreat” and the National Anthem.

During both, all personnel (military and civilian) should stop what they are doing (if outdoors) and show respect to the flag and drivers are directed to pull over and stop. Usually if the service member is in the car, they will get out of the car and stand at attention or salute the flag, civilians are not required to.


Dress Code

Formal: Long dress, suit and bow tie

Semi-Formal: “Dressy,” suit and tie

Business Casual: Skirt and blouse, or knee-length dress, collared shirt and tie

Casual: Dress pants, casual shirt, or simple dress (occasionally dark jeans with no holes and a nice shirt)

Very Casual: shorts, t-shirts, jeans. Nothing too short or showing too much skin.


Other Etiquette Rules

Do not wear or take pictures in your service member’s uniform or PTs, it is meant for your service member only.

Although not heavily enforced, it is frowned upon to wear gym clothes anywhere on post except the gym, that includes the commissary.


Burns, Amanda. “5 Things to Know Before Attending a Military Ball.” Veterans United. 29 Jan 2012.

“Military Dining Handbook.” USAREC Pamphlet 600-15. May 1994.

Powers, Rob. “Air Force Dining-in-Dining-Out Planning Guide.” The Balance. 16 May 2018.

“Etiquette Bootcamp.” Blue Star Families. 2018.

“Reveille, Rereat Etiquette.” Andrews Gazette. 6 Oct. 2017.

“Manners for Milspouses: 12 Must-Know Etiquette Rules of Military Life.” The Military Wife and Mom.

“Here are the basics of Military Protocol and Etiquette for Military Spouses.” Military One Click. 20 July 2017.

“Basics From the Barracks: Military Etiquette and Protocol.” U.S. Army War College.

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