Koreans bow a lot.
(No shit, Sherlock, you're probably thinking.)
In some ways, I should be used to it: at home, I'm accustomed to bowing when my family meets Korean or Japanese friends, and my brother and I also try to rush to the front door to bow when Father comes home from work (a traditional practice that isn't as demeaning as it might seem in the context of a society in which one bows even on first dates). There are also different bows performed on special holidays or when visiting relatives. I'm realizing, though, that bowing is less than automatic for me, and even as a Korean-American who was raised in a fairly traditional Korean household―at least when it came to rules of etiquette―I'm still surprised and humbled by how much people bow here.
The underlying idea is simple enough: bowing is a gesture of respect in many cultures, particularly in Asia, the Middle East, certain religious contexts, and, traditionally, among European aristocracy. But nowhere is the art of bowing more complex, refined, or pervasive than in Korea and Japan. (Somewhat notably, bowing is a much smaller part of the culture in neighboring China.)
In both Japan and Korea, bowing is the standard greeting. In fact, the Korean word insa (인사), which means "to greet," also doubles as the verb "to bow." Whenever one sees a teacher or a peer or a customer, a bend at the waist with the eyes down is nearly always expected.
There are numerous subtleties based on age, rank, and the nature of the relationship between the people who are bowing. The depth of one's bow, for instance, is highly significant and variable, albeit nearly automatic and reflexive for those who live in bowing societies. Depths range from a slight nod of the head―generally performed by elders or superiors addressing those younger than them―to elaborate kneeling bows during which the forehead reaches the floor.
For everyday greeting bows among peers, 15-30-degree bows seem to be standard for informal situations, with deeper bows reserved for more formal events such as business meetings. And unsurprisingly, the proper angle of bows becomes greater when addressing elders or bosses and smaller when greeting younger individuals. (Fortunately, deep bows are not expected every time one runs into a co-worker; the employees of conglomerates certainly do not spend all day walking around bent over at the waist. Generally, after the first conversation or greeting of the day, a slight, silent bend is sufficient, much as a brief "hello" would suffice in American offices.)
Furthermore, in Japanese and Korean society, the role of bowing is not limited to simple greetings. Bowing is also used to express remorse, sincerity, gratitude, and a number of different emotions. Formal bows of apology, for example, are deeper and longer―generally nearly 50 degrees and at least three seconds, though these numbers may vary depending on the severity of the offense. It is not uncommon for even government officials and corporate executives to bow deeply at press conferences to apologize for misdeeds.
There are also more elaborate bows for formal situations or traditional rituals. Bows of thanks, for example, may involve kneeling and bowing deeply. Such bows are an important part of Korean weddings, for example, when the groom kneels in front of the bride's parents and touches his forehead to the ground in a gesture of deep respect and gratitude.
On top of these distinctions, there are more subtle factors that should also be taken into account. The Wikipedia article on bowing states, "There is an extremely complex etiquette surrounding bowing, including the length and depth of bow, and the appropriate response. For example, if the other person maintains his or her bow for longer than expected (generally about two or three seconds), it is polite to bow again, upon which one may receive another bow in return, often leading to an exchange of progressively lighter bows."
Like many other aspects of life, bowing has also been affected, to some extent, by globalization. Many Koreans and Japanese businessmen, especially when interacting with foreign counterparts, perform a slightly modified bow while shaking hands.
So how does all this translate into everyday life? Well, when I leave a store after buying a shirt, the salesperson bows, 20 degrees. 40 degrees if I'm with Mother. When I leave a store without buying anything, the salesperson still bows, though perhaps not as deeply. When I buy a sesame bread roll downstairs for breakfast, bow. Pack of gum from the convenience store, bow, and then I wonder if I'm supposed to bow back(?), especially if the employee is old enough to be my great-uncle. Walk into a restaurant, the host bows. I bow back (deeper if it's Friday night and I don't have a reservation). Our waiter takes the order and bows. Brings the food, chirps "맛있게 드십시요" and bows. Brings more water, apologizes (for interrupting and reaching across the table) and bows again. Meet my grandmother, I bow 30 degrees, then hug.
If this sounds like a lot of bowing, you should see a morning at work. Walking into the lobby, if someone spots a co-worker, bow. Step into the elevator and spot a boss, bow 30 degrees. If I see a secretary look up while I'm walking toward the clerk room, bow. Around the corner, three more secretary desks. Bow, bow, bow. Two junior partners meet on the way to the coffee room, bow, bow. In the restroom, I'm washing my hands when one of the junior partners walks in. I bow; he nods slightly. A few moments later, a senior partner walks in. The junior turns his head and performs an impressive against-the-urinal sideways bow.
As complicated as bowing may seem at first, I think it's pretty fantastic. Above all, bowing is a basic, universal gesture of respect, which doesn't exactly runneth over in any society; it's useful, in my opinion, to have reminders to be humble. And there are probably some physical benefits, too. Maybe the U.S. would have a lower obesity rate if everyone had to perform several dozen bows every morning. Or maybe not. But I mean, who needs yoga when head-bobbing is a national sport? (Though every other street corner here seems to be home to a new hot yoga studio.)
Not to mention the fact that bowing involves far fewer germs than shaking hands does. And we all know how I feel about germs.