In Asia, bowing is a very common way of greeting each other. Like their neighboring countries, South Korea also uses bowing as a form of greeting. While sharing some similarities, South Korean have their own customs for bowing that reflect their cultural and societal standards. As a foreigner, this might cause some problems for you. “When do I bow? What is the proper way to bow? Do I have to get on my knees and bow? Will people be offended if I don’t bow back to them or do it right?” Here is a quick guide on how to bow and when to perform a specific kind of bow.
The custom of bowing is part of Korean social etiquette. It’s deeply ingrained in Korean society for hundreds and thousands of years. Dating back to the Three Kingdoms period (57 B.C. – 668 A.D.), the introduction of Buddhism and influence of Confucianism helped shaped Korean behaviors. More importantly, Confucian teachings on the role of an individual in society and the ethics, that a person must uphold, constructed the custom of bowing as a greeting in Korea. While modern Korea has adapted to contemporary Confucianism, respect for age and seniority still remain as core functions of Korean society. As a result, the custom of bowing is a part of everyday life and a historically significant cultural artifact of Korea.
Different bows are done based on the specific situation with respect to one’s gender, location, level of respect and seniority. Simply put, when bowing, the younger person or the person in a lower social position should bow lower than the higher-ranking person. As previously mentioned, there are different types of bows for different occasions, including apologies or expressions of thanks.
The basic of bowing is to place both arms down along your body; it is important that you remain perfectly still. Then, you bend your upper body forward. Remember to avoid eye contact. From here, the angle you bow at will depend on the situation. Unless you are at a noise-controlled place like the library or you’re simply offering respect, it is disrespectful to be silent during your bow. Make sure you say something that fit the situation like hello or thank you.
When you are greeting a person of higher status like the president of your company or someone you respect like your parents, grandparents, or teachers, the proper bow must be at a 90 degree angle. If you are at a lower position than the other person, you must never bow at that person from a higher level (like on a staircase or on a higher floor). You must either be at the same level as them or lower than them (at the bottom of the staircase).
If you are greeting someone of similar age or status like a classmate or coworker, the proper bow should be at around a 30-45 degree angle. This usually done in a formal setting and/or during the first time you meet each other. When greeting a friend or someone you can do so in a casual manner, a polite bow is sufficient. In this case, bow at a 15 degree angle.
If you have been to a department store or a hotel in Korea, you may have probably noticed the staffs greeting and saying good bye to you with a bow. In this situation, the workers in the service industry will use the belly button bow (배꼽인사). Unlike the normal bow, you place both your hands at the navel position and bow. Depending on the situation, the angle you bow at differs, but bowing at 45 degree is the most common.
Special situations call for special bows or variations to the standard custom of bowing. For example, at a funeral, attendees must bow at 90 degree twice to the portrait of the deceased regardless of the status of the person bowing and the recipient of the bow. They must also give another 90 degree bow to the family members of the deceased.
The big bow (큰절) is performed at holidays (like New Year’s Day), birthdays, weddings, and ceremonies (like ancestral rites). You can also use the big bow when you are trying to express extreme gratitude or remorse. To perform the big bow, you put your left hand over your right hand, kneel, and then bow with your forehead touching your hands and the hands touching the ground (you can hover your head over your hands instead of directly touching them). This is how men perform the big bow. For women, the only difference is that you place your right hand over your left hand instead.
As Korea becomes more accepting of foreigners and foreign influences, the handshakes become more common in Korean society. Nowadays, a handshake is often used in a business setting as well as with friends. Sometimes Koreans use both hands for the handshake, and sometimes they use only one hand. This differs by companies and people, so you should readily adapt to the situation.
Koreans also bow and shake hands at the same time. Like the normal handshakes, you can use both hands or one hand (depending on the situation). As you perform your bow, you extend both arms and shake the other person’s hand(s). When you are performing a bow and handshake with a person of higher rank or status, you can do a 45-90 degree bow at the higher-ranking person while extending both arms. The higher-ranking person will shake your hands as you bow.
Gratitude and Apology
Koreans also bow to show gratitude or remorse. The types of bow you use depend on the severity of the apology or the amount of gratitude. The more extreme it is, the deeper the bow. Of course beyond the 90 degree bow is the big bow (Don’t bow 180 degrees like you are stretching your toes!). If you’ve seen some Korean TV shows or watched the news, you might have noticed politicians or celebrities performing a bow to apologize to the citizens or their fans. Typically, they perform a 90 degree bow to apologize. If you are performing a big bow to show gratitude or to apologize, you can keep your hands separated and directly touch the ground with your forehead instead.
What if I don’t bow or do the wrong bow?
If you’re a foreigner and you don’t bow or bow incorrectly, most of the times, the locals will forgive you. Koreans are very forgiving and aware of the cultural differences, so they often don’t expect you to know about their custom of bowing.
Can you just shake hands with your boss?
In most cases, you should not just shake hands with your boss. If you don’t bow and only shake their hands instead, it might offend them, and you might appear disrespectful or rude to them.
Do I bow back to the service staff?
No. Their bow to you is a form of respect and gratitude for you being their custom. If you would like to respond to their good bye, you can simply say good bye.
When should I bow?
If you are still unsure of the situation, just simply bow back when the person bows at you.