Every expert on cross-cultural communication I’ve run across warns Westerners NOT to bow to their Asian friends and colleagues. It’s a deeply felt, nuanced form of communication in Asia. How low, how long, to whom – all are thickly layered with meaning. Westerners, the authorities warn, will simply never get it right. It’s a bit like cheek-kissing in Spain. “How do you know when to kiss twice, instead of once?” I once asked a friend. “You feel it,” she said. That wasn’t enough for me. “But what if you feel it and the other person doesn’t?” She shook her head, as if explaining to a 5-year-old, “No, no – both people know. How could you feel it if they don’t?” Of course.
What I’ve just noticed is how it feels to be on the receiving end of a significant bow: profound. And presencing in a way I wouldn’t have expected. At the end of a recent workshop day, a participant from mainland China shook my hand. He graciously described what had been valuable for him about the two days. His participation had truly been a delight and his comments helpful to the group, I told him.
And then he bowed.
Deeply – almost half-bent at the waist. Slowly – he really created space around it, like he had nowhere on earth he needed to be but here. Intentionally – which drew my own attention like a magnet. My mind couldn’t be anywhere other than right in that moment. I felt washed with a sort of intimate, heartfelt gratitude.
Are the experts right? Maybe, maybe not. But whether I can make a real bow myself or not, I certainly can feel it.
(For anyone working cross-culturally, here’s a tasty snack: Cultural Intelligence, by David Livermore et al. There’s a bigger game than knowing the norms of a specific culture. The authors describe that a more potent type of cross-cultural IQ – one that enables one to move effectively between multiple cultures – comes from the intersection of three circles: knowledge (an understanding that there are cultural filters on both sides – your culture, and of mine), mindfulness (the skill of noticing individual reactions, actions, etc., in the moment), and behavior (the ability to improvise – to quickly translate what you see into action in an experimental way, notice what happens, then adapt further). This core concept is a high-impact gem for anyone working in this area.)