The Accolade, a painting by British artist Edmund Leighton, depicts a a “knight-elect” kneeling in front of a monarch while being knighted. This form of genuflection is presumed to have been adopted by Alexander the Great after he observed its use in Persia.
In the television drama Game of Thrones, Daenerys Targaryen demands respect. She repeatedly directs Jon Snow to “bend the knee” to acknowledge his subjugation to her authority. That story, still unresolved, has had unexpected twists and turns.
Yesterday, players in the National Football League protested by kneeling instead of standing during the pre-game renditions of the national anthem in defiance of U.S. President Trump. A survey by The Knot and Men’s Health claims that 76 percent of men believe they should propose on a bent knee, which many women also find appealing.
In Japan, people greet each other by bowing to show respect, extending from a small nod of the head to a gesture that requires a deep bend at the waist. In Thailand, you will be greeted with a wai, which is a slight bow accompanied with a person’s palms pressed closely together.
Culture matters. Is kneeling a mark of deference or disregard? When should one kneel and when should one stand? When is a wave a greeting and when is it dismissal? What about the extent of the bend at your waist when you bow?
Students at global institutions, such as McMaster University, must routinely overcome such cultural challenges between themselves and with faculty members. For instance, there’s a contention that our expectation of students to produce and rigorously defend original research is contrary to prevailing norms in some parts of the world, where it could be acceptable to reiterate widely accepted truths. While Canadian culture largely accepts that rules should be followed, this may not be the case for students from countries with totalitarian regimes, where program regulations might be often circumvented.
Cultural differences are merely challenges that can be overcome. If we are willing to understand our differences, we become empowered to finds ways to overcome them. Thus, outcomes are no longer destined to be problematic.
Understanding requires respect. Simply listening to one another can lead to hopeful outcomes. As I tell my family, friends, colleagues and students, why go to war, why purposely seed discord when you can try to work things out? War and discord have consequences, more often than not ones that are undesirable.
When we are able to overcome our differences, we kneel when we must, stand when appropriate, and bow when suitable. No one loses, whether it is a monarch, president, knight, scholar, or Daenerys Targaryen or Jon Snow.
All of this begins with humility. It’s as simple as that.