Much like the etiquette of names, the etiquette of greeting and showing respect has massively atrophied in the United States. In a society where everyone is equal (at least in principle), we devote much less concern to marking other people out as worthy of particular courtesy. But for a great many of the societies we write about, there’s enough hierarchy for this to be a fairly big deal. In fact, screwing up — whether deliberately or on accident — can get one into degrees of trouble ranging from public reprimand to dueling to execution.
I’m always leery of declaring anything “universal,” because human culture varies so widely through place and time. But if there’s a single principle on this topic that I think deserves that label, it’s the idea that height = power. Therefore, lowering oneself in some fashion is a sign of humility or respect. Bowing (whether European-style or Asian) is one method of lowering the head; curtsying is the skirts version. Kneeling takes you deeper, and prostration is the end-point of this spectrum, short of digging a hole to put yourself in. Touching or gesturing toward the feet of an elder is common in India; I’ve seen it explained not just as a lowering gesture, but as a way of saying the person is so worthy of reverence, even to touch the dust on their feet is an honor. Looking in the other direction, putting someone on a throne or dais asserts their status by physically raising them above everyone else. During my first year of grad school, when I couldn’t turn Anthropology Brain off for love or money, I found myself noting the different architectural styles of the two throne rooms in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty: the good king and queen can be approached in a straight line and are only one or two small steps above their subjects, but Maleficent rules from a high platform that can only be reached via staircases to the side. Did the animators consciously think through the implications of that? I have no idea. But the subconscious impression was likely there, regardless.
Saluting is one of the few hierarchical gestures that still survives in the United States, primarily in a military context. Some historians explain this by referencing medieval armor, saying the gesture evolved out of knights raising their visors to show their faces. Whether or not that’s true, it almost certainly also has a connection to the social etiquette of hats, which lower-class men were expected to remove when in the presence of their superiors. Over time, this became a simple lifting of the hat, or merely touching it, or gesturing to a hat that is no longer there. Tugging one’s forelock may be a related gesture. But conversely, women’s etiquette said to keep your head covered — which is why “Sunday hats” linger in some parts of society that have given up on headgear everywhere outside of church. And, looking back to the height issue, it’s interesting to note the practice of gentlemen standing up when a lady arrives or departs. Is that in case she needs assistance? Or — possibly and — does it also equalize a height difference that would otherwise put her above them?
Not all greetings are about showing respect to a higher-status individual. Some of them are instead about showing friendliness — which goes back to the visor-raising theory. Why do we shake hands with the right hand? Partly because the left hand has often been considered dirty (in some cultures it’s used for sanitary tasks), but there’s also a theory that it communicates non-hostility; given that the majority of people are right-handed, occupying that side with a handshake is a way of saying “I’m not holding a weapon and I’m not likely to draw one right this second.” Since shaking hands requires you to get very close to the other person, you can see where that might be a concern. Kissing also indicates friendliness, whether it’s on the mouth (as in the kiss of peace — not the best for avoiding communicable disease) or, more commonly, on the cheek (as in many parts of Europe, with regional variations ad infinitum). Kissing the hand is an interesting case: in religious or historical aristocratic contexts, the idea was to kiss someone’s signet ring, a symbol of their power, but in a cross-gender context, it’s startlingly intimate. Good manners in one context might be an unacceptable invasion of personal space in another.
These things get really interesting when you look at the ideas underpinning them. Reading the Mahabharata recently, I came across repeated instances of pradakshina (or parikrama), aka circumambulation; looking it up, I came across a story that when the goddess Parvati told her two sons to go around the world to gain knowledge, the younger son, Ganesha, walked a circle around Parvati and declared that she contained the world. The anjali mudra, pressing the palms together as an accompaniment to or stand-in for the word “namaste,” can position the hands at several different heights, corresponding to different chakras in the body, which brings in a host of potential meanings. The hongi, the Maori practice of pressing your nose and forehead to someone else’s, is a way of exchanging the breath of life, which connects you to the other person (and bestows some obligations, too).
People aren’t the only targets of these signals. Those instances of pradakshina in the Mahabharata are sometimes directed at weapons or chariots; Catholics may kneel to the altar in a church before taking a seat in a pew. I bow when entering or leaving the main floor at my karate dojo, which helps to mark off that space as special — a realm where particular behaviors and rules apply, materially different from the waiting room that is just beyond the edge of the mat. Whether it’s removing a hat or bestowing a kiss, nearly any gesture of respect that can be directed at a person can also go to an object, if it carries enough significance.
If you’re writing spec fic, you can make up nearly anything and say it’s how a particular culture greets people and shows respect. In Tamora Pierce’s novel Lioness Rampant, for example, the Doi cover their eyes. But it can’t be random: if it isn’t familiar to the reader, you need to make sure the text conveys the underlying logic, or else it will feel very artificial.