Bowing with Dignity: Greeting in the Time of Social Distancing

Satoshi Ikeuchi, Professor, Religion and Global Security, University of Tokyo

In the time of “social distancing,” number of novel customs are hesitantly introduced in the countries where COVID-19 outbreaks inflicted upon one by one in aggravated scales.

In the late February and early March, I was traveling in European cities, such as Paris, Vienna and Prague, taking part in conferences and giving lectures. I was witnessing the tense moment before the storm to come and clumsily new customs and manners were arising.

European intellectuals who have sensed the seriousness of the situation already started to avoid shaking hands each other, which has been thought to be an essential part of European manners of greeting.

Hugging and kissing during the greeting (notably French “bise” or kissing on the cheeks each other when people departing) were announced forbidden in some of the international conferences I attended.

Actually, I have to confess that I felt a little relieved to see the change. Those European ways of greetings involving intimate body contacts were at times frightening for me who was raised in traditional Japanese cultural settings, in which close physical contacts with each other were neither socially required nor recommended.

What will replace these deep-rooted European customs? Comical scenes of world leaders hitting elbows each other for greeting would be transient and soon disappear, without having much cultural meanings and underpinnings.

For now, some Europeans chose to mimic the gesture in Hindu greetings “Namaste” by awkwardly pressing hands before the chest. Others nod and bow in an unaccustomed way.

All of them are ways of greeting widely practiced in the area stretching from the South Asia and the East Asia. It seems it’s Europeans’ turn to have to acquaint themselves to alien cultures. The Asian Century arrived in an unexpected way.

Middle Eastern people also feel awkward to bow. It seems a common cause of ridicule against the East Asian people who, in the eyes of Muslims and Christians alike in the Middle East, behave like slaves by bowing down to their seniors and superiors as if worshipping them.

I have tried many times to convince in vain my Middle Eastern friends that bowing in Japan is not the sign of weakness or servitude, but the expression to ascertain mutual respect. People are bowing with dignity, without surrendering their independence.

Even the Emperor of Japan would reciprocate when ordinary people bowed to them to show the respect and intimacy, that shows bowing does not deprive one’s honor at all.