Bowing. The Original Handshake.

bowingBowing is the original handshake of greetings.

Growing up I saw my parents bow all the time.  Bowing to their Asian friends, shop owners or pastors.  They would even bow their head while speaking on the phone even if no one could see them.  It was natural to bow in agreement, for respect, or as a greeting.

I was never that comfortable with bowing.  My attempts look more like a bobblehead figure.  Do I make eye contact while bowing?  Do I give just a small head tilt?  Full body?  Fast or slow?  I would try to mimic my parents’ gestures, but no one explicitly taught me how to bow.  I just knew it was something that was expected although not necessarily mandated.

When I refer to bowing as a greeting, I mean arms down at your side and lowering the top half of your body at a 30-45 degree angle with head facing down.  It’s not putting your hands together with palms facing each other and lowering your head while locking gaze with someone – something you may see in a satirized kung fu movie.  And I will add the caveat that Japanese will bow that way (minus the gaze) at the start of a Japanese meal with the saying “itadekimasu” meaning “I humbly receive,” or simply bon appetit.  Needless to say, bowing is confusing.

Yesterday and Today

Bowing was introduced with Chinese Buddhism as a symbol of respect to those whose social status was higher than your own.  Today bowing the head is simply a gesture to tell someone hello or goodbye, thank you, sorry or congratulations.  Numerous reports have been written and YouTube videos made on the do’s and don’ts of bowing.

I find myself over-bowing when we’re traveling to Asian countries.  I’m such a giddy tourist.  I can’t contain my excitement in a little head bow but shake the upper half of my body profusely.

Low and Slow

There are times when bowing is used more formally on special occasions such as burial ceremonies, ancestral remembrances, Lunar New Year or traditional holidays.  Typically the lower and longer you bow, the more respect you show.  My parents weren’t traditionalists but they enforced bowing on New Years.  As custom has it cash is given to children so it didn’t take much convincing to kneel down.  We would lay our hands palms down on the ground with fingertips touching then lower our forehead to the top of our hands saying Happy New Year in Korean “새해 많이 받으세요” (sae-hae bok mani baduh-sae-yo).   Then we’d slurp down bowls of dduk guk, a traditional rice cake soup.  

Modern Traditions

I’ve tried to reinforce the bowing tradition on Lunar New Year with my daughter and send a little video to my dad as proof that not all our cultural customs have gone away.  She won’t grow up watching me bow on a regular basis.  She may, however, think I’ve taken illness when she sees me bowing profusely when we visit Asia.

Bowing is common practice in SJ’s Karate class, and her instructor encourages all the students to bow and say thank you in Korean “감사합니다” as a sign of respect.  I fill up with pride seeing her experience Asian culture outside of the home.  Then we fist bump, turn up the Kindermusik and drive home.

What kind of greetings do you use?  Are there special customs you grew up with and still reinforce today?  

4 thoughts on “Bowing. The Original Handshake.

  1. Emily Wagner

    I enjoy the single cheek kiss greeting with a hug, but it’s so rare to find. I experience it mostly with urban friends/family. It’s such a warm way to welcome someone.

    1. Jennifer | TheInterCulture Post author

      I love that greeting too – I find our friends in Europe tend to greet us that way. Then there’s the questionable 1 cheek, 2 cheeks? I’m always the one to mess it up! Let’s bring the single cheek kiss back here 😉

  2. Joanne

    I learned to bow in my Zen group. At first it was disconcerting. I think western culture equates bowing with subservience. But it’s done as a sign of respect and as a way to honor the teachings, the group and your efforts to be a better person. Personally I think Americans could do with a lot more bowing!


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