Full-bodied greetings

Sometimes I reminisce about the good old days in the old country (i.e., the United States of America), and I marvel at how easy it was to know how to greet someone. A subtle nod of the head or a wave of the hand would do for just about anyone you met. Unless you happened to perform on stage, run into the queen of England, or move to Korea or Japan, as an American you would probably never once in your whole life have any occasion to bow or curtsy. Greeting someone was quite simple and straightforward—until somebody started the hugging craze, that is.

Not that I have anything against hugging. The problem is knowing when you should hug and when you shouldn't. You find yourself looking for little signs, such as the hands and arms bending outward and forward ever so slightly. You don't want to offend someone who's not into hugging, by wrapping yourself around him or her too aggressively. On the other hand, you don't want the other person to think you think he has the plague, either.

Between a man and a woman, this situation is a little easier, since it is generally up to the woman to indicate by her body language whether she'll take a handshake, a hug, or one of those European touch-cheeks-and-kiss-the-air things. But between men, especially men who haven't seen each other since their pre-hugging college days, figuring out what to do requires a little ritual. First you shake hands with a firm grip, placing your left hand lightly on the other guy's forearm near the elbow. If you still appear to be friends, you can then allow your left hand to make a couple of friendly pats on the fellow's right shoulder. If by this point he hasn't backed off or called you a politically incorrect name, it's safe to go ahead for the full hug. Don't forget to slap him on the back two or three times: it's important to appear to be burping each other so anyone who happens to see you won't misconstrue the hug as something romantic.

It wouldn't be so bad if we had stopped at hugging, but then the sports people went and invented high-fiving, the inner-city kids started dapping, and Sylvester Stallone popularized "yo," so now when two Americans meet, they have to size each other up instantly and decide whether to shake hands, shout "Yo!" and raise their hands in the air for a high-five slap, hug each other, go into a hand-dance, or any combination of the above.

I once met a young Korean-American from Southern California who greeted me with "Hey, man!" and tried to do one of those hooking-thumbs handshakes with me. Having seen such things only in the movies, I fumbled clumsily and apologized for not knowing how. He gave me this look as if to say, "Geez, what kind of American are you, anyway?"

I gave the only excuse I could think of: "I've been in Korea a long time." Then, hoping to make up for my embarrassing deficiency, I added, "I know how to bow." He didn't seem impressed.

Korea's complicated bowing customs

Well, he should have been impressed, because in Korea knowing how to bow means being able to do two different kinds of bows for men and four for women. Even the little bow that is done when greeting someone casually is not easy for newcomers. It has to be done with just the right look of modesty and deference, and yet at the same time it has to have a certain natural nonchalance about it. It shouldn't be done too lightly lest it appear impudent, but it mustn't be too deep, either, lest it appear Japanese. People from overseas almost always feel awkward the first few times they try it.

Female deep bow

A female deep bow

The women also have to know how to do what is called a half-bow. This is performed seated on the floor with the right leg upright and the hands held out to the sides with the palms pressed against the floor. Their deep bow is performed seated, too, but with the legs crossed. They hold their hands in front of their forehead, right hand upon the left, palms outward, with the forearms making a straight line parallel to the floor. Then they bend at the waist until their hands almost touch the floor. The fourth kind of bow done by women is the same as the men's deep bow. They use it when bowing before a Buddhist image at a temple. (This religious bow differs in that at the deepest part of the bow the hands are separated and the palms are turned upward.)

Male deep bow

A male deep bow

The proper hand positions

The proper way to hold the hands while standing

The men's deep bow is the hardest of all to carry off with dignity. You start by putting the left hand over the right, palms inward. Then, raising the hands to about shoulder height, you kneel. The kneeling motion must be smooth, with the knees touching the floor almost simultaneously. You're supposed to continue down till you're sitting on your ankles and then, keeping your butt in contact with your ankles, you put your hands down and bend over till your forehead almost touches the floor. Then you're supposed to stay down long enough to inhale and exhale slowly once.

The male bow at its beepest part

A man in traditional clothing at the deepest part of the bow

I'm always the most entertaining thing at a wake, because not only do my knees crash to the floor about half way down but my behind also pops up in the air at the bottom of the bow—and you have to do three deep bows, two to the deceased and one to the head surviving family member.

Ah, well, the nice thing about such bowing customs in Korea is that it is always quite clear which sort of bow is called for by the etiquette of the situation. We don't have to guess whether to shake, hug, slap, or dap.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in the Korea Herald on 6 March 2000.