Taking a bow

I CAUGHT myself bowing while talking on the phone the other day and realized just how much I've internalized the customs of this country I'm living in. In Japan, bowing is the most basic form of social intercourse. Saying hello, saying goodbye, thanking, apologizing, are all accompanied by a bow. It is done dozens of times every day. The short-term visitor, surrounded by bows from store clerks and business associates, soon begins to bow back. For someone here a bit longer, bowing becomes second nature.

One day I was in the elevator with one of the higher-ups at my company whom I knew by sight but had never met. We made some small talk and introduced ourselves. Later the rumor floated down through the ranks that she had been impressed with how naturally I bowed when giving my name. For me, it had been completely unconscious.

It is a habit that wears well in Japan, where gentleness and respect in personal relations count for a lot. It's respect for their fellow man that marks Japanese behavior, and that respect is symbolized by the bow.

The Japanese start bowing early and do it often. Infants are always carried on mother's back and ride up and down along with mother's bows. The bow becomes so ingrained, so closely associated with the words that go with it, that it is common to see Japanese bow on the phone: office workers nodding their heads as they say goodbye, businessmen at public phones bowing from the waist to their unseen partner.

I had found this amusing. In fact, the Japanese find it amusing if it is pointed out. But I thought it something only a lifetime of practice would instill, nothing I would ever do. One Westerner described the moment he found himself bowing on the telephone as the moment he realized he had stayed too long. I've been here just a bit over a year; I caught myself bowing on the phone.

It would have been completely appropriate in person. I had called a private office for some information. I asked a few questions and got exactly the information I needed along with a few pleasantries and a lot of courtesy. I expressed my apologies for the intrusion, with a bow; and my thanks for more help than I expected, with another bow; and that was when I realized that I was bowing rather deeply.

There was a sudden twinge of feeling silly. Though I was alone in my room, I looked around wondering if anyone was watching, and laughing. But although my first instinct was to cut the bow short, I finished the bow with all the sincerity with which it was unconsciously begun. Because I knew, from the tone of the voice on the phone, from the expressions used and the way they were said, that the woman on the other end was bowing back.

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