Written by Kumiko Toya
My first experience with the emerging new etiquette of eliminating physical contact was at a friend’s house about two months ago. “We aren’t supposed to hug anymore. Air hug,” she said as soon as she opened the door for me. We air-hugged then air-kissed.
Within a few weeks, no-touch greetings became a rapidly growing movement around the world. People are getting creative about saying “hi” with bumping elbows and tapping feet, or adopting one of those many other unique suggestions that are popping up online, such as secret dancing and giving finger guns & a wink.
Japanese culture has always greeted each other warmly, without touching each other, with a bow. Bowing is not only a basic formality in Japan, it is a very expressive body language that is a big part of communication and sometimes speaks more than words. We think now is the good time to introduce the idea to the world!
A bow can take on many meanings. It is used to say hello and goodbye, express gratitude and apology, ask for a favor and convey sympathy. It is seen in the office, in class, in shops, in the street, even from people on their phones. There is a study that shows a Japanese person bows more than twenty times in a typical day!
Family members bowing to the guardian god to purify the building site of their house at Jichin-sai.
Bride and groom bowing to their guests
Though a bow is so commonly used and its motion looks simple, there are unwritten manners and hidden nuances that quite a few people in Japan feel they are not bowing properly. (I am one of them. I tried to improve my bow in front of a mirror after my manners teacher had described my bow as “an odd-shaped cucumber.” After twenty years I still do not feel right about my bow.)
But here in the U.S. and outside of Japanese culture, we can only implement the practical and favorable aspect of bowing. We are sharing four basic rules that make your bow natural and appropriate.
- Don’t multitask. (Put your phone down.)
- Do it with good posture. (Arms on the side or in front.)
- Look at your shoes. (No eye contact with the other person(s) while bowing.)
- Longer, deeper bow means more respect. (But don’t overdo it!)
Knowing there basic rules, you can give and receive bows when you have a chance to visit Japan. Because most Japanese do not expect foreigners to know proper bowing rules, showing you have made that effort will earn you considerable goodwill from the locals!