Thursday, February 13, 2014

To Curtsey or Not To Curtsey

Princess Zinaida Nikolajevna Yusupova by Francois Flameng, 1894

The curtsey (or curtsy) is a traditional gesture of an inferior to a superior.  According to Gail MacColl in, To Marry an English Lord,"The court curtsy was very deep, with the head nearly touching the floor, and required extensive rehearsal.  The trickiest part was inching out of the royal presence, since one may not turn one's back on royalty."

King George III by Allan Ramsay, 1762

People in exotic far away lands, such as Great Britain, do it because they are subjects of the ruling monarch, the monarch's family members and others within the hierarchy of the British peerage.

Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutz, 1851

We Americans, one might recall, engaged in a small skirmish commonly referred to as The Revolutionary War, and penned a brief, explanatory document, The Declaration of Independence, precisely in order to free ourselves of royal rule, noble titles and the accompanying customs of subservience.  

Queen Victoria and Her Family by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1846

This is why, as fond or respectful as we may be of them, we do not bow, curtsey, or genuflect even to our own presidents or their family members.

The Coronation of Tsar Alexander III by Georges Becker

"When an American citizen curtseys to a foreign head of state," says Judith Martin, (a.k.a. the brilliant Miss Manners) "I remind myself that they are likely just being silly, not treasonous."

George Nathanial, Marquess Curzon of Kedleston by John Singer Sargent 1914

"When an American official does it," she says,

Prince William Duke of Cambridge; Prince Harry by Nicola Jane Philpps 2009

"we can only hope it was because he was noticing that his own shoelace was undone-- and not that he recognizes the divine right of kings in general, or the authority over us of that king in particular."

The Landing of HRH The Princess Alexandra at Gravesend, 7th March 1863 by Henry Nelson O'Neil 1864

So what then, is one to do when one finds oneself presented to a queen, a duchess,

King Willem III of The Netherlands by Nicolaas Pieneman, 1856

or the President of the United States of America?

Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, Duchess of York by Philip de Lazlo, 1925

The American greeting originates as early as the 5th century BC.

Thrasea and Euandria, Marble, ca. 375-350 BC, Antikensammlung Berlin Pergamon Museum

It conveys trust, respect, balance and equality.

Hera and Athena, The Acropolis Museum, Athens, Greece

Because our official position as a nation is that we consider all people to be equal, and equally worthy of respect, the same gesture, the handshake-- simple, dignified and egalitarian-- is appropriate for all.

General Lafayette's Departure from Mount Vernon, 1784, Library of Congress Collection

President Barack Obama shakes hands with a young cub scout, 2010

Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, 1817

We understand that this is not universal, but as Americans, it is our way.


  1. As an American I think it's perfectly fine to shake the hand as you suggest, and indeed curtseying or bowing (in my case) is not expected by the Queen (Elizabeth II), but I would have no hesitation (as a Brit) in doing so, or indeed to senior members of the royal family in the appropriate setting, (formal, and where one is specifically being introduced). In the case of the Queen I would do it out of profound respect for her as an individual, but also as respect for her office as the head of state. Personally I don't think it's at all anachronistic, as I tend to nod my head to anyone in respect, and not just the "great or good". Here genuflecting is very commonplace, either through the "wai" (the joining of hands in a prayer-like manner, but also curtseying to me by female staff). Prostration to the monarch is still de rigeur by Thais. "Bowing" is of course the "neck bow", not the sweep of the C18th, or the waist bow of the Japanese.

  2. Hi, I am so glad to hear your thoughts, I too have great respect for Queen Elizabeth. And by the way, lucky you to be living in Thailand, one of my favorite places on earth. Outside the customary greetings, the Thai people are subject to their King, and my British friends are subjects to their Queen. As an American, as I am not a subject, it would be inapropriate to mimic one, should I ever have the opportunity of an introduction with these heads of state. Which I suppose is what Miss Manners was getting at. We show our respect through a dignified handshake. I guess I don't have to tell you to stay warm, as you are in the land of sunshine. We are supposed to get 5 more inches of snow! xo, N.G.

  3. N.G.
    As an Anglophile I believe if I were to be privileged to meet the Queen of England I would be tempted to curtsy. I believe I would do that out of respect, and supposing I were in England when I meet her, I'd consider it part of the "when in Rome" thinking. Still, I appreciate Miss Manners opinions on the subject. I believe Letitia Baldrige suggested that it was okay if you wanted to curtsy when the queen visited America, but certainly not required.
    I am always happy to read your posts on what sometimes seems like the dying art of good manners! :-)
    Happy Valentine's Day to you!

    1. Hi Karen, I am so glad you stopped by! I am taking all of this snow as a clear indication that I should spend more time sitting by the fire with my iPad and Pinterest! I guess what appeals about the handshake is its all-purposeness. It works between father and son, men and women, old and young, rich and poor, government officials and constituents, bosses and employees, priests and parishioners. Plus, it's easier on the knees than a curtsey, and appropriate when a hug, a high-five, or a chest-bump would cause me to dislodge my tiara. :) Stay warm! xo, N.G.

    2. N.G.,
      So true, and I do like a firm, not bruising, but firm handshake. My knees would probably complain if I had to curtsey very often, that's for sure. Ha, ha, ha.
      I think Mother Nature is cranky this year...the east is getting unfairly slammed with horrible weather and the west with this punishing drought.
      Stay warm and enjoy some time by the fire...Pinterest is so easy to wile away the hours with.

    3. Karen you are such a dear! I absolutely loved your Valentine post. Your blog is one of the best parts of the day! xo, N.G.

  4. brilliantly written!, and I am always delighted to shake the hand of others, but would never curtsey.

    1. Hi Maureen, it is probably a good thing we don't curtsey. I would probably get stuck and need assistance getting up! :) xo, N.G.

  5. this anglophile could only dream of meeting royalty but fear my befuddlement would be shameful.
    found this to be a fascinating read combined with the stunning artwork, some of which i sat and gazed at absorbing all details happily

    1. Hi Debra, Oh beans, you would be charming and graceful and perfect! :) xo, N.G.

  6. Thanks for this interesting post, especially the lovely paintings. I am pretty sure it would be a terrible breach of protocol for anyone to shake the hand of the British monarch or touch them at all.

    1. Hi Mary, I'm sure you're right. Although I do believe she shakes hands with her (non-subject) guests and when she is visiting. Have a wonderful weekend! xo. N.G.

  7. Hello Jennings and Gate, Serendipitously stumbled upon your blog while searching for gate pictures. We live in the country in Wisconsin but love to visit Virginia, two of our children attend/attended Washington and Lee University. Thank you so much for the time you put into this lovely blog . At the end of the day, and even in the middle , I look forward to catching up on all your old posts with a hot cup of tea and salted caramels! Warm Regards, Susan

    1. Hi Susan, Thank you so much for such kind words, you really made my day! xo, N.G.

  8. I love your post for the keen ( and true!) observations you make about the curtsey, but also for the beautiful portraits.
    Im English, and as patriotic as can be.
    I have seen HM The Queen only at the races ( Royal Ascot ) where if you stand in line and wait, you can be very close to her. I curtseyed the day I was in one of those was a very proud and poignant moment in my life, and I was honoured. Princess Diana was also there... they very very special times, which touched me deeply

    1. Hi Sally, Thank you so much for stopping in! She is marvelous isn't she? I just bought the book by her assistant who wrote about dressing her for her Jubilee. Beautiful, beautiful clothes, and she wears them so well. One photo had all of her umbrellas (you know, the clear ones that she likes with the colored trim) lined up in every color of the rainbow. xo, N.G.

  9. Very interesting and good to know the protocol - not that I have ever found myself in this situation - but stranger things have happened. I love the portraits you have illustrated this post with;several of my favorite painters are represented here. I have two Francois Flameng portraits of my great-grandmother and her mother painted in 1911. They are lovely but perhaps not quite as grand as the princess.
    All best,

  10. I'm American to the core, but I think a properly performed, deep court curtsy is one of the most elegant and beautiful gestures one human can make. Look at videos of Princess Di, whenever she would see the Queen, or another reigning monarch. Her curtsies were beautifully executed and oh-so-respectful. As Americans, it should never be REQUIRED; nonetheless, I also think it displays good breeding and manners. (But I must add, I am Catholic, and grew up genuflecting at church, so maybe I am just more at ease with bowing and curtsying).

  11. In the book “Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Freshly Updated” by Judith Martin and Gloria Kamen, in the chapter on “Curtsying, Bowing and Kowtowing,” Judith Martin sums up the curtseying to royalty issue thus…"[American women who curtsey to royalty are] in error, not only in the matter of world etiquette, but of geography, physics, and ancient and modern history.”

    Princess Diana curtseyed to the British monarch because Diana was British. If the United States of America had a queen, Diana would not have curtseyed to her because doing so would have indicated subjugation to a foreign head of state. A curtsey may or may not be beautiful, depending on your perspective, but it is a gesture indicating subservience, which is why the British do not expect (since 1776 anyways) Americans to curtsey to their monarchs, and why the British do not curtsey to royalty other than their own.

    Since Americans do not believe that some people are born of higher rank than others, and do not recognize the divine right of one human being to rule over another, we appropriately show respect to human beings of all nationalities by shaking hands.


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