The Table of Precedence is a social convention that dictates the order in which people arrive, are announced, are greeted, and may depart. It also governs seating at a table, location on a list of signatories to a document, and other social and political events in which people of differing ranks are involved. Even in nations where most people do not have titles, this convention still determines how people such as heads of state, senators, and ministers will be handled at social events such as dinners and performances.
In affairs of state, the Table of Precedence is extremely important, and it can be easy to cause offense, especially when officials from multiple nations are seated together. Within a nation, a table is usually drawn up annually, indicating, for example, that the president of the United States will be seated at a position of higher honor than the secretary of state. The order also applies to spouses and children of the officials it outlines, and it can get quite complex to juggle, for example, the daughter of a member of the House of Commons and the prime minister, or some other potential combination. For special events where visitors from other countries may be hosted, a new table may be established by government staff.
The Table of Precedence is also important for major social functions, such as gala openings for a city opera or any other event in which attendees are likely to have differing ranks and social status. This special order is not as commonly used in private homes as it once was, except at formal dinners. The convention of allowing people who are older or hold more power to enter a room and be seated first is common courtesy and etiquette in situations for which there is no established order.
If the Table of Precedence is being observed, guests can instantly determine each other's social status. The first indicator of social status is, of course, whether a title is used in referring to someone. But the order can also help to differentiate between people of apparently equal rank, or to make clear the status of a guest who seems ambiguous. Since it is generally assumed that one should speak with deference to people of higher rank, the Table of Precedence also offers hints on how to behave for guests who might be confused.
Configuring the order of precedence can be quite complex. Usually several officials well versed in etiquette collaborate on one for a government. In a private home, a hostess may consult an outside authority for assistance to ensure that she does not cause inadvertent offense by seating, for example, an earl's eldest son above a viscount's eldest son at a formal dinner.