New Worlds: Greetings and Respect

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

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.

images from Disney's Sleeping Beauty, juxtaposing the good king and queen's throne room with Maleficent's

These suggest rather different courts.

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.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: Greetings and Respect — 7 Comments

  1. I think men standing when women enter the room is leftover from the fact that you cannot sit in the company of your lord (or king) until given permission. It evolved into etiquette: ladies are “above” gentlemen, and so they rise when a lady enters, just as they rise when a superior (such as a judge) enters. Also, you rise when the Host is carried into church.

    • I have also heard that in some cultures rising when a woman enters is the man saying “I have your back.” “I will defend you as a woman worthy of respect.” Which is an interesting twist on things.

  2. When I was writing Sold for Endless Rue one of the things that tied me up for day was what sort of salutations the characters would exchange. The book is set in Salerno (modern day Italy) around 1200. Having someone meet a priest or monk is pretty easy–“Ho, father!” or some Ivanhoe-ish thing will do. But say one non-noble, non-Church-aligned, peasant-type man meets another; how do they greet each other? “Signore,” which means lord, doesn’t cut it. “Ser,” a contraction of “Messer”, generally signals gentlemen. What’s a peasant to do? After researching on my own, I reached out to a couple of friends who have actual degrees in Italian medieval history or literature… and apparently they couldn’t figure it out either. The preponderance of written material from the time came from writers who would use the equivalent of “Hey, you,” when encountering a peasant. My academic resources more or less shrugged and suggested I make something up.

    In the end I skirted the issue entirely. But five years later, it still bothers me.

    • Sympathies, Mad. I have been trying to invent a greeting and a thanks for your whatever/not a thank-you indicating any obligation whatsoever, and cycling through several trying to get the right feel as the culture develops. This culture knows Earth cultures, too, and crosses all of them. ARGH

  3. I’m re-watching Sea Quest DSV and can see some interesting interaction. On board we have a mix of civilian and military. Of course the military salute as you’d expect. Everyone else shakes hands. Except the 16 y/o genius. He’s civilian so he doesn’t salute except in satire. But when introduced to adults with advanced degrees or high rank, he seems non-plussed when offered a hand to shake. That’s something adults do to each other. He’s not an adult, but has adult responsibilities, and the respect of all these awesome people for his genius. And it always makes him uncomfortable. He doesn’t offer to shake hands, but he accepts it.

    And Mad, I read somewhere, long forgotten, that peasants would raise a hand, palm out and call “Hoy,” or ha or yo or whatever to greet another. A signal that “Hey I’m here,” as well as the no weapon thing. It also skirts the who is superior in class, money, and attitude issue.

  4. As a Korean-American who lived in Korea for nine years, I *still* bow compulsively–to everyone, whether or not they’re people I “should” bow to in Korean etiquette–in the USA. And my sister observes that I bow like a student even though I’m now 38, which makes sense–I last lived there in 12th grade. The beautiful thing about this is that I have never, ever observed that anyone feels being bowed to is *offensive*. Weird, maybe, but not actually offensive.

    My husband and I were discussing Babylon-5 and the Minbari War the other night for completely unrelated reasons, and the whole tragedy that the war started because (if I’m recalling what he told me correctly) the Minbari had their gun ports open as a sign of respect in greeting strangers…and the Earth commander reacted to it as a sign of hostility and opened fire, and, whoops.

    • Minbari westerns must be very confusing…
      “You shot him!”
      “He drew his gun on me, that’s why.”
      “He drew his gun so he could point it at you.”
      “I’m not agreeing with you.”