Here in Korea, there’s a heck of a lot of bowing goin’ on. The deeper the bow, the more respect is being shown.

  • At the end of the newscast, the man and woman announcers make nearly a full bow to the audience, then to each other. (Well as far as you can go without bumping your head on the desk, I guess!
  • After I get out of the taxi, I close the door, then turn to face the driver. I do a small head bow, as I say thank you. He returns a small head bow, then drives off.
  • When you walk into E-Mart or Lotte Mart, the Korean equivalent of a Wal-Mart greeter is there. Usually a man or less often a woman in her 20’s, welcomes you with a hello and bow deeper than a simple head bow.
  • When you leave a sit-down restaurant, it’s common to turn to face the proprietor and offer a thank you and small head bow. This is especially the case if you’re slipping your shoes back on. You have to think about how to get your shoes on, turn around then say your polite goodbye.
  • When you pass an elder on the street, or someone that wants to greet you, you want to be ready with a small head bow, and maybe a hello (ahnyeonhaseyeo) or just ‘neh’ (yes/nod)

I think in the West, we often look back over our shoulder, smile and say Bye, with a little wave. The problem with this form is that is gives the person you’re leaving the view of your backside. When a front bow is most polite, the backside …isn’t.

There are bunches of rules about what politeness form you use with others, and how you bow, depending on age, situation, etc.  I seem to get by okay with lots of little bows all day long, and still just the most basic command of Korean.  (‘command’ seems a bit strong for the reality of what I do!)

(I’m surprised that students don’t bow to teachers. It’s not a problem for me, but I’d heard they probably would! Who knew, you’d get bows at E-Mart and watching the news, but not from student to teacher?)

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