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Why Bowing Went Out Of Fashion In The U.S.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Earlier in his tour of Asia, President Obama did something that set his conservative critics howling. At a meeting with the Japanese emperor, the president bowed. That gesture is a standard formal greeting in Japan. It was also once custom in the U.S. So, when did Americans stop bowing? The online magazine Slate found out for its Explainer column.

Here's Andy Bowers with the answer.

Mr. ANDY BOWERS (Senior Editor, Slate.com): While it's hard to trace the history of a gesture, we know from written accounts there was a fair amount of bowing during colonial times. In the 16 and 1700s, Puritan ministers, parents, school teachers, tutors and dancing masters instructed men to bow to women, inferiors to bow to superiors, and equals of higher social rank to bow to each other.

The practice began raising hackles during the Revolutionary period when some considered it a vestige of a less democratic society. Thomas Jefferson liked to shake hands instead of bowing. Bowing took a further hit during Andrew Jackson's populist presidency in the 1830s. An English visitor at the time complained that the lack of bowing made it hard to figure out the social status of people he met.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, bowing signified membership in so-called polite society. Edith Wharton's characters bow to one another. And politeness maven Emily Post included a detailed section on bowing in her 1922 book "Etiquette." By World War II, the bow was on its last legs, reserved mostly for debutant balls.

BLOCK: Andy Bowers is a senior editor at Slate. That Explainer was reported by Juliet Lapidos. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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