A lot of pixels have been wasted on President Obama bowing to Japan’s Emperor Akihito last week. The right wing fulminated that the president was being subservient to him, which they say is something an American president should never do, and ignored the history of presidents from Eisenhower to Bush doing the same thing to other leaders, including the Pope and French President Charles de Gaulle…who were not one and the same. (Chris Matthews got it wrong last night on Hardball when he said that the president did it out of respect for the Japanese belief that the emperor is divine. Emperor Hirohito publicly renounced the idea of imperial divinity in 1946.) To some people, especially those who seem to have a problem with self-confidence, it was an inexcusable display of deference to people who don’t deserve it. But what it really was is a simple sign of politeness and respect, and it takes a great deal of cynicism and shallowness to see it as anything but that.
Showing respect for others doesn’t diminish you, and in what is supposed to be an egalitarian society, it’s a sign of class. Not class in the social sense, but class in making others feel as if you respect them and their beliefs as well as your own. As my parents taught me — and still remind me — showing simple signs of respect such as standing to greet people, shaking hands, addressing them as “sir” or “ma’am,” using “please” and “thank you” is evidence of, as my grandmother used to say, good manners. She was right: you do it out of respect for their traditions and sensibilities. If you are introduced to someone older than you, you address them by an honorific such as Mr. or Mrs. until you’re told not to. (I still do that in middle age, and true to my background, I’m a tad offended when people presume to call me by a shortened version of my first name without asking.) When you’re in a country that has different traditions, such as bowing, you make an effort to respect their customs, and if you enter a home where it’s customary to remove your shoes, you do so. Even in our ever-casual society, people still like it when they are treated with simple respect.
What it comes down to is something they teach you in kindergarten: put the other person first, and when you are an invited guest, you don’t make it about you as if you were Sheridan Whiteside. Only a bully and a coward would worry that showing someone else honor and respect is a sign of weakness.
As a sidebar to this discussion, as a convinced Quaker I sometimes find myself at odds with my upbringing. Quakers have a long tradition of plain speaking and not using honorifics; they refused to address royalty as “Your Highness” or “Your Majesty,” and in court would not address a judge as “Your Honor.” (That got them into a lot of trouble back in the 17th century in England.) They prefer to address other people by their name without adding a Mr. or a Mrs. since that’s a sign of social structure and patriarchy. I, however, don’t go that far. I use “sir” and “ma’am” reflexively, both out of habit (thanks, Mom) and out of the idea that to do something else, such as follow the old Quaker tradition of addressing them as “Friend,” would call attention to the fact that I was a Quaker. That defeats the purpose of manners and would be — ironically — an un-Friendly thing to do.