Why Bowing Went Out Of Fashion In The U.S.

President Obama ruffled conservative feathers when he bowed to the Japanese emperor during his trip to Asia. Bowing is the standard greeting in Japan, as it once was in the United States. Slate magazine's Andy Bowers explains the history of the gesture and why it feel out of favor in the U.S.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Earlier in his tour of Asia, President Obama did something that set his conservative critics howling. At a meeting with the Japanese emperor, the president bowed. That gesture is a standard formal greeting in Japan. It was also once custom in the U.S. So, when did Americans stop bowing? The online magazine Slate found out for its Explainer column.

Here's Andy Bowers with the answer.

Mr. ANDY BOWERS (Senior Editor, Slate.com): While it's hard to trace the history of a gesture, we know from written accounts there was a fair amount of bowing during colonial times. In the 16 and 1700s, Puritan ministers, parents, school teachers, tutors and dancing masters instructed men to bow to women, inferiors to bow to superiors, and equals of higher social rank to bow to each other.

The practice began raising hackles during the Revolutionary period when some considered it a vestige of a less democratic society. Thomas Jefferson liked to shake hands instead of bowing. Bowing took a further hit during Andrew Jackson's populist presidency in the 1830s. An English visitor at the time complained that the lack of bowing made it hard to figure out the social status of people he met.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, bowing signified membership in so-called polite society. Edith Wharton's characters bow to one another. And politeness maven Emily Post included a detailed section on bowing in her 1922 book "Etiquette." By World War II, the bow was on its last legs, reserved mostly for debutant balls.

BLOCK: Andy Bowers is a senior editor at Slate. That Explainer was reported by Juliet Lapidos.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.