The great curtsy controversy

We trust that enough time has passed so the etiquette crisis of the decade may be considered in perspective. We refer to that moment when, while greeting Prince Charles, Leonore Annenberg, United States chief of protocol, committed the act "in recognition or respect, consisting of bending the knees and lowering the body." Or so our dictionary defines a curtsy.

What a furor that Annenberg dip set off! A State Department spokesman, David Passage, was forced to explain that the Declaration of Independence had not been revoked. "Mrs. Annenberg's reaction was a gesture of courtesy, no more or less, " he said. "It was a gesture without political implications."

We rushed to "The Encyclopedia of Etiquette," which boasts an introduction by Cleveland Amory --and that's good enough for us. The entry under Curtsy reads: "Women curtsy when being presented to royalty visiting this country, though the deep court curtsy is not appropriate. The more sophisticated American woman makes a slight bob."

A close inspection of photographs suggests that Mrs. Annenberg committed a little more than "a slight bob" and a little less than a knee-scraping swoon. We say it's a judgment call. But on the whole, one sympathizes with Mrs. Annenberg -- only Trying to Do the Right Thing.

As "The Encyclopedia of Etiquette" observes: "It is a hardship on a child if she is the only one in her group who is required to curtsy."

We would point out to the critics of Mrs. Annenberg that greeting is a demanding business. In fact, "bending the knees and lowering the body" may be getting off easily.

Certain African tribes have required those meeting royalty to kiss the ground three times.

In the Sandwich Islands anything less than complete prostration was regarded as just plain rude.

In ancient Persia one could approach royalty only if barefooted.

If Mrs. Annenberg or Prince Charles or both were Laplanders, they would have been obliged to rub noses.

Would Mrs. Annenberg's detractors have preferred that she kiss the prince's feet? -- the minimal show of courtesy among many primitive communities.

In old Ethiopia Mrs. Annenberg would have had to say hello by grabbing a bit of the prince's suit jacket and trying to wrap it about herself.

In certain parts of the Philippines she would have been compelled to bow while raising one foot in the air --casual.

If Mrs. Annenberg were meeting the prince on the remoter islands of the New Hebrides, both parties, according to old custom, would have been expected to lock the middle fingers of their right hands, pulling away with a crackling of the joints to signify pleasure.

The fact is, there are few greeting styles without their political implications. Even the handshake recalls vassals placing their joined hands between the hands of the feudal lord to indicate they rest in his power.

The slightest nod can be interpreted by the body language purist as putting the neck under a yoke --acquiescing to defeat.

But on the other hand, most salutations can be thought of as a kind of truce too. We tip our hats -- we take off our helmets and dare to make ourselves vulnerable. We shake hands -- we remove our hand from our weapon and offer our unclenched fist to each other, in peace.

Prince Charles shook the hand of Mrs. Annenberg in response to her curtsy.

If the curtsy carpers think saying hello is dangerous, wait until they get into farewells. According to our favorite history of etiquette, if Mrs. Annenberg and Prince Charles were Papuans, they would cover themselves with river mud and wail piteously upon parting. Then, when the separation had been accomplished, they would wash away the mud and laugh their heads off.

We recommend that fretters over curtsy protocol take their leave of the subject in the same jolly way.

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