Friday, March 12, 2010

Bowing: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

If you ever go to Japan or spend a lot of time there, you will find yourself beginning to bow at all sorts of times: meeting new people, accepting projects from your boss, even while on the phone (it was always interesting to watch some poor businessman getting chewed out by his boss through his cellphone, making small bows frantically and repeatedly as he answered).

Bowing goes beyond good manners in Japan and is a core part of social interaction. Moms will gently push a young child's head over and down at appropriate times, and some businesses have instituted bowing training for young recruits, concerned that young people don't know the correct angle and way to bow.

My culture tip for today is this: don't worry about if you're doing it exactly right, as if you watch those around you you can pick up fairly quickly what to do and when.

However, don't ever put your hands together like you're praying, palms flat against each other and fingers pointing at the sky, and then bow to someone. At some point, this sort of fake bow became ingrained in many American minds as how the Japanese bow. I can tell you after several years there that no one bows like that, the only exception being when they're at a shrine bowing and clapping to the deities.

I'm not sure where this fake bow came from, but my Japanese friends and coworkers were always either annoyed or amused when Westerners did that to them, sometimes asking me later what the person was doing when they did that.

The Japanese way of bowing is either arms hanging straight at the side, with hands flat against the side of your legs, which I always saw to be a more masculine way, or arms straight and hands clasped and hanging loosely in front, which most of the women I saw did. Keep your back straight and lower your eyes, breaking eye contact, when you bow. How far you bow and how long you hold it changes with the situation and people involved too, of course: your peers get a quick nod of the head, basically, while the prime minister would result in you bent over quite a bit for a longer time.

Most Japanese I met did a handshake-bow hybrid when I met them, which covered all the bases. :)

Bowing is also one of the hardest habits to shake once acquired: when I got back to America it took a full six months to quit doing it regularly, and to this day three years later I still subconsciously drop back into it in high-pressure business situations.

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