Some lesser-known bows
There are many guides to Korean bowing etiquette on the internet. This won’t be another.
(As for those guides, most aren’t very useful. The ones written by foreigners tend to lack detail or be inaccurate, while the ones put out by Koreans tend to suffer from a typical problem: they talk about Korean culture as it ideally should be, or perhaps as it was in the distant past, but not how it is lived today.
However, if you’re not familiar with the basics, this video guide from Seoulistic is pretty good.)
Bowing in Korea is not all that complex. Actually, until I came to write this post I had never looked at any of those guides to bowing in Korea.
Before I came to Korea, I suppose I thought of the East Asian bow (if I thought about it at all) as something a little grovelling and demeaning; something I wouldn’t enjoy. In actuality, it came naturally and quickly, and it isn’t unpleasant. It is no more than a bodily expression of a verbal greeting, not much different to the various word choices and intonations with which you might say “Hey,” or “Nice to meet you” to different people. It soon became as automatic as a friendly smile, and I picked it up by observation and the occasional unsolicited tip during my first few months.* *In fact, it becomes so instinctive that people have trouble getting rid of it when they go home again. I’m sure I’m not the only person to have weirded out shop staff in my home country by bowing accidentally.
I don’t know about other places, but in Korea a bow is in most cases a casual thing: a brief bop of the head to a colleague you know well, a slightly deeper bow to the principal. A reserved bow to someone in a shop, and nothing at all to kids or juniors (it’s not “being polite”, it’s just amusingly weird.)
There is, however, another layer of meaning that can be expressed with a bow in Korea, and it’s something that’s very context-dependent. It’s not covered in those guides. It’s that sort of bow I want to talk about here.
This is about how a bow can mean something different to what it theoretically conveys. It is about how a formal bow can be either a sign of genuine respect, or a way of telling someone to go fuck themselves. And I’ll also tell you about the bow which I still think is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen an elementary student do in Korea.
The importance of context
Here is an example of how the same bow can mean two different things, depending on context.
This semester was my first teaching Freshman university students, and I noticed something interesting. When my students came to class for the first time, almost all gave a deepish, formal bow. It is something I hadn’t seen too often from elementary students, although I think it is more common in middle and high schools.
A language class needs to be informal, so in response I gave casual responses. “Hello, welcome, come in!” with matching, easygoing body language. And by the second or third week, students were greeting me in a similarly informal way, although still with a dip of the head in greeting – that automatized, casual bow I mentioned earlier.
But some students changed to that casual bow more quickly than others, and I noticed a pattern. The ones who were slowest to change tended to be the least confident, lowest level students. Because for them, English was intimidating: it was more comfortable for them to keep things formal.
For the most part, I think I did a good job teaching this semester. I’m sure I will be better next semester, but it went OK. There were, as there always are, some students I couldn’t reach, but a majority of students made progress and benefited from the class. And there were a few students for whom I was the right teacher at the right time; students who made a lot of progress, who talked to me a lot, and got something more out of the class. Students who had given up on English a long time ago and who found a way back into the subject through my class, or students who had studied a lot of formal grammar, and now learned how to use it in a real, conversational way. Or something. The kind of students who make teaching worthwhile and make you feel like you have done something useful.
Now the final exam for English was a speaking test. And when it was over, I noticed something interesting. The students who I had done the best with, as they were leaving, tended to stop and give me a deep bow. It was the exact same bow that every student, more or less, had given me at the start, and which many of the lesser students had continued to give me throughout the semester, but it meant something different. It was a genuine expression of gratitude, and I understood it as such and was moved by it. And the students who hadn’t seemed to enjoy the class, if they gave a bow at all, were far more restrained.
Context is important.
Curb Your Enthusiasm’s “shit bow”
Watch this, if you haven’t seen it: it’s pretty funny. Curb Your Enthusiasm, the “shit bow”, in two parts.
“Wikipedia”. I love that.
Now, I don’t know if Curb Your Enthusiasm’s shit bow is true of Japan. I know almost nothing about Japanese culture, other than by extension from Korea’s culture. So I can make guesses, but the cultures aren’t identical, and I’m never completely certain if I’m right. For example, I have no idea if Japanese people talk about dishonour and shame all the time, like they do in Western movies and books. But, because I live in Korea, I really doubt it. Likewise, I doubt the truth of the Japanese shit bow, as portrayed in Curb Your Enthusiasm. It certainly isn’t true of Korea.
In Korea, too, apologizing theoretically involves a deeper bow. I’ve seen this deeper, apologetic bow, for instance, from students who come late to class. There is also the full bow of apology, with head touching the floor, which you see on the news when Korean CEOs and politicians preside over something awful, like Sewol or the Asiana crash. But the bow of apology I see most often in Korea isn’t deep at all. Instead, it is a sort of miserable, repetitive head-bobbing, usually from some underling being reprimanded by a superior.
So, is there no Korean shit bow? I wouldn’t say that. There is, for instance, the formal fuck you bow. This lesser-known bow was taught to me by one of the girls in my first grade 6 class. It took me a while to understand it, but I’ve since found it a useful bow to have in your repertoire.
The formal fuck you bow
I’ve only had one class in Korea that I thought I screwed up completely; one class which still fills me with embarrassment when I think about it. And that was my first ever class of after-school sixth grade girls, in my first semester of teaching.
It would have been a difficult class for anyone. Sixth graders are tricky, and sixth grade girls are particularly moody. And this class was all sixth grade girls. Worse, they were divided into two groups: a group of serious, academic girls who wanted to study, and the alpha girls. And the alpha girls had their own drama going on: that school had two sixth grade classes, and my after school English class contained the lead alpha girls from each class. It was the only class they had together, and they were frenemies. So there were a lot of shifting alliances and resentments and power plays going on in that class, even without me. All of which could have made for a really interesting class, and I’d probably enjoy teaching that class today. But in my first semester of teaching, I had no clue.
I met them on my first ever day of teaching. They were my third class: I’d already taught two lower grades. With those classes, I’d nervously run through the introductory lesson and games I’d prepared, and those classes went great! They kids were funny and cute and loved my games. I was a star! And then I got to the 6th grade girls. I brought out the exact same games and the same nervous, first day, wild enthusiasm…
And they just crapped on the games. They snickered, they were slow to stand up and slow to participate, they rolled their eyes and looked at me, all bounding and enthusiastic, like I was some sort of unpleasant bug. All of which is not atypical for sixth graders, really, and which I can handle no problem these days. Sixth graders can be a lot of fun, so long as you realise the truth about them: that despite their act, they’re all scared, have no idea how to be a teenager or be “cool”, and they’re trying it on with no idea, really, of what they’re doing.
But I didn’t know that, then. And I wanted them to like me.
I tried different games. I tried to be friendly to them. I tried to make the classes easy and fun. I let them do whatever they want. But then, the serious study girls were unhappy – they wanted to learn. But if I tried to teach to them, the alpha girls complained and wanted games. Eventually, the tension got to me and I started snapping at them and yelling at them. When you lose the authority in your class, try everything you can to please your students, then get frustrated and start yelling at them for not respecting you, you’re lost. You have a class full of students who don’t like you very much or think much of you. That’s where I ended up with that class; and eventually, singly and in their groups, most of them stopped coming.
One of the girls who dropped out was a serious, smart girl called Jane, who I actually really liked. She got angry at me for not teaching, and for catering to the alpha girls, and stopped coming to class. After that I would see her around school, and would try to say hi to her, but she’d only bow quickly and walk off.
(Like I said, this is the worst class I’ve ever taught, and I still feel embarrassed writing about this class. But the context is necessary.)
They graduated. They left and didn’t say goodbye to me. The middle school was next to the elementary school, and so from time to time I’d see those students again. Some would say hi to me – I hadn’t alienated quite all of them – and some would just give me a quick bow and hurry on, their eyes averted.
Very occasionally, I would come out of the school as Jane was walking past. And she didn’t give me the quick head bob bow. I would say, “Hi, Jane”, and she would stop and give me a full 90 degree bow and walk on.
It took me a long time to understand that bow. Because a bow like that was supposed to be a sign of respect, and I knew she didn’t respect me. And it wasn’t what I wanted – I wanted her to stop and talk to me, I wanted to ask her how middle school was going, how she was doing. So the bow was hurtful – I would have preferred it if she had said “Hi!” back and smiled.
It was only much, much later that I realised that this was the intended effect. Jane’s bow was actually the only way she had, within the strictures of Korean society, of telling me to go fuck myself.
Jane’s bow said this, more or less: “You are a jerk, but you are my social superior. And so I can’t be rude to you or tell you what I think of you. So here is this perfectly correct, respectful bow. But it’s a formal bow. Because you’re the sort of jerk who wants to think of himself as the ‘friendly, kind teacher’. But then, when it suits you, you turn around and demand respect because of your position. So, here’s your respect. But I won’t have a warm, friendly relationship with you. I will be respectful, but very, very distant.”
It is the perfect bow to give to a Korean superior who has that attitude – who likes to think of themselves as friendly and reasonable, but then turns around and demands respect and obedience when it suits them. It is a bow that nobody can object to – it is formally respectful. But by being formal, you make it clear that you don’t regard them as the friendly, benevolent person that they like to imagine themselves to be. (And every boss likes to imagine themselves as friendly and benevolent.)
I’ve since learned that this is a very useful bow to know about. I’ve had a couple of Korean superiors who have taken the same attitude with me; who initially try to come across as friendly, but then pull out the authority when it suits them. I’ve used this bow twice, and both times to full effect. To one person I just did it a couple of times, then got over it. In the other instance, I used it relentlessly, and never stopped. It is a pretty devastating move to such a person. They say hi to you in a friendly way, you give them the formal bow. And their face almost crumbles. It distances them, and tells them you will only have a formal relationship with them. And it hurts.
So that’s a Korean shit bow, of sorts. Still, it is quite a different one from the one portrayed in Curb Your Enthusiasm. Isn’t there something closer? A shallow bow, when a more formal bow is demanded, that tells someone to go fuck themselves?
Let me tell you about Gi Won’s shit bow. The coolest thing I’ve ever seen an elementary school kid do.
Gi Won’s shit bow
Gi Won was one of my all time favorite students. She was really bright, a little reserved, and had great English. She had a partner in crime, Hyo Jeong, who was the more extroverted of the two, and they used to talk to me quite a lot.
Despite our limited store of mutual language, those conversations were hilarious, and so when I had to make an English promotional UCC (A Konglish acronym for “User Created Content”, which basically just means a video) for some MOE competition that my co-teacher was stressing about, I suggested that I make it with Gi Won and Hyo Jeong. I got my co-teacher to video the three of us having a conversation, which I then edited down to a snappy and hilarious 3 minutes, and we ended up getting a “Gold Prize” (which apparently wasn’t the same as first prize, for some reason, but we did pretty well and everyone was pleased with us.)
They were cool kids, but most of the other teachers didn’t think so. They had a reputation for being rude.
This is something you see from time to time. They weren’t by my reckoning rude at all. To me, they were always extremely respectful. But that was because they actually respected me. What they were was smart. Smart enough to see through the system and have their own opinions on things, and not be blindly dutiful because they were told to be. Gord Sellar once wrote a post about this phenomenon on his blog:
In our experience, the disobedient kids are actually the ones with a greater capacity for self-discipline, and a greater capacity for learning. They’re more defiant, disobedient, and so on, because they’re smarter. Smart kids resist, they push back, and they’re bright enough to see when their parents are being unreasonable, illogical, and so on. Getting such kids to work thus requires more effort from the parent or teacher: it takes explaining consequences, and it takes giving the kid a little freedom so they can develop (or redevelop) that intrinsic motivation to learn. An intelligent kid within the Korean cultural system … is very likely to resist, to rebel, to push back against everything that seeks to cram their square-peg minds into round holes.
When I read that post, I immediately thought of Gi Won and Hyo Jeong.
Anyway, on their graduation day, they got up at their final assembly to collect their certificates, and they were supposed to bow to the principal.The head teacher of the sixth grade was organizing the students before they went up to collect their certificates: making sure they lined up in the right order and so on.
This teacher was a real piece of work. I knew he hit students. He also cheated. He once got me and my co-teacher alone, seperately. First he asked me where his class of students ranked, and I told him honestly that they were about the middle. Then he asked my co-teacher for a copy of the forthcoming test paper, which he then used to coach his students so that his class would come out best.
Apparently this teacher took exception to Gi Won’s bow to the principal. Later, she had to go up again for a second award – she had come first in a subject. So, while she waited to go up on stage a second time, this teacher made her practice her bow, over and over again. Dissatisfied with her practice bows, he actually grabbed her head and forced her down lower, quite violently.
The time came for Gi Won to go back up onstage. She went up, collected her award, and bowed. It was a movement of no more than a few degrees, barely perceptible – the shallowest bow possible. And she walked off stage, and out of elementary school.
I wanted to stand up and applaud. It was a classic, perfect shit bow – an elegant fuck you to that asshole teacher, the principal, and the entire school, in front of everybody. She knew she was done with elementary school, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. She was a pretty cool kid, Gi Won.