While watching K-Dramas or Korean movies, have you ever noticed the characters bowing to one another? Maybe you’ve seen it when two people meet each other for the first time, or when a child says goodbye to someone much older than them.
Bowing is such an important part of Korean culture and etiquette, but it may seem a little strange for non-Koreans. It can be even harder for foreigners visiting Korea to know about the proper etiquette surrounding bowing.
If you’re ever planning to visit Korea, or if you’re just curious about this custom, then read on. We’ll tell you everything you need to know about why do Koreans bow below.
Why Do Koreans Bow?
Like in many East Asian countries, bowing is a huge custom in Korea. It’s considered a respectful greeting. Bowing can mean many things depending on context: it’s a way to say hello, thank you, or even goodbye.
According to experts on Korean culture, the practice of bowing has very deep roots in Korean society. It can be traced back to the time Confucianism first entered Korea.
Confucianism is a philosophy that emphasizes the duties of people towards each other. Many of Confucianism’s values–filial piety, honor, respect for seniority–are still seen in a lot of Korean customs today, including bowing.
Think of it as the Korean version of shaking hands, only with more attention to age and hierarchy. In general, the older person is expected to initiate the bow, but the younger person is expected to bow lower.
Even with all of this background on the importance of bowing, it can still be hard for foreigners to know when to bow or who to bow to. In the next section, we’ll unpack the different kinds of bows depending on the situation.
The Different Types Of Bowing
To foreigners, all bowing may seem like the same. In reality, there are different kinds of bows depending on the occasion.
It’s important to know about these distinctions so you know what kind of bow is appropriate for different contexts.
1. Simple Bow
The simple bow is the most informal type of bow. You can do it whenever you meet someone who is close in age or rank to you. In this kind of bow, you only need to tilt your head slightly.
A casual bow is also used in different kinds of situations, such as when you’re greeting someone you’ve already met many times that day. You can also perform this bow if you are in a crowded place and cannot do a deeper bow at the moment.
This kind of bow is also used to show gratitude. For example, you want to thank the worker who served you your lunch. You can simply tilt your head at them and say 감사합니다 (“Kamsahabnida”) as a simple and polite way of saying thank you.
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2. Belly-button Bow
The next bow is used for situations that are a little more formal. To do this bow, you must clasp your hands near your belly button and then tilt your torso at a 45-degree angle.
This is usually done if you are meeting someone much older or of much higher rank than you are. For example, you are meeting your partner’s parents or one of your higher-ups at work. Such a situation would require you to show more respect, and therefore a more formal bow is needed.
3. The Big Bow
This is the most formal kind of bow, which is also called 큰절 (“keunjeol”). This is usually done during important family occasions.
Big bows have slight differences according to gender. But in general, you form a triangle with your hands, lower your hands to the ground, and then followed by your knees.
Your forehead should touch your hands. You should also hold this position for a few seconds before carefully standing back up.
Koreans will typically do a big bow to show respect to their older family members during holidays such as 설날 (“seollal”) or Lunar New Year, and 추석 (“Chuseok”) or Harvest Festival.
In another occasion called 제사 (“jesa”), big bows are also performed. Jesa refers to a memorial ceremony done in order to honor one’s ancestors.
Maybe you’ve also seen this kind of bow during funeral scenes in K-Dramas. It’s customary for guests to perform two consecutive big bows to the portrait of the deceased. Then, you must turn to the deceased’s family members and give them one more keunjeol.
Read More: Korean Funeral Customs And Etiquette
But in general, big bows aren’t often done in day-to-day life. They are considered very formal and reserved only for special occasions.
As you can see, it’s a general rule that the lower and longer you bow, the more respectful it is.
How To Bow In Korea As A Foreigner?
Now that we know about all the different kinds of bows, it’s also important to learn what you shouldn’t do when bowing.
You shouldn’t stay silent when you bow. You can say 안녕하세요 (“Annyeonghaseyo”) which means hello or goodbye. Or you can also say 감사합니다 (“Kamsahabnida”) if you’re bowing to say thanks.
You also shouldn’t bow while you’re walking. It’s important to take the time to stand still and do a proper greeting.
It’s also important not to maintain eye contact when bowing because it can be considered very rude, especially during more formal bows. Instead, cast your eyes downward when you bow.
All these rules may seem a bit overwhelming, but don’t worry. Locals will be more forgiving of any mistakes you make because they know you’re a foreigner.
Nevertheless, learning about these customs will definitely enrich your experience and help you know more about Korean culture.
I hope you like this article about why do Koreans bow!
After going through all of our tips and guidelines, what do you think? Are you ready to hop on a plane to Korea without worrying if you’re coming off as rude? Or maybe now you can appreciate bowing scenes in K-Dramas and movies better.