|Princess Zinaida Nikolajevna Yusupova by Francois Flameng, 1894|
The curtsey (or curtsy) is the 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 lands far, far away 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, fought 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 American citizens delight in curtseying or other forms of symbolic subjugation to foreign heads of state, Judith Martin, (a.k.a. the brilliant Miss Manners) says that she reminds herself 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 is elegantly simple.
|Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, 1817|
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. We understand that this is not universal, but as Americans, it is our way- so a handshake will be just fine.