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A salute is a gesture or other action used to indicate respect. Salutes are primarily associated with military forces, but other organizations and even general populations use salutes.

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Civilian Salutes

While such gestures as tipping one's hat as one passed others on the street could be considered salutes, the most common civilian salute is rendered to the flag. In the United States, civilians salute the flag by placing their right hands over their hearts. (Men remove any headgear and hold it over their hearts, if applicable.) In Latin America, especially in Mexico, a salute similar to the United States military's salute (see below), but the hand is placed across the left chest with the palm facing the ground. (For a demonstration, see the Richard Dreyfuss movie Moon Over Parador.)

The raised clenched fist was popularized by the Communist Party, and in some locations it maintains that association. In the United States, however, its antecedents have been forgotten and it has become a generic gesture of solidarity and determination.

Many different gestures are used throughout the world as simple greetings. In "Western" cultures, the handshake is very common, though it has numerous subtle variations of grip strength, amount of "pumping" involved, and use of the left hand. In "Eastern" cultures, a simple bow from the waist (rei in Japanese, panbae in Korean) is used, with many regional variations seen. The Japanese keep the palms of their hands touching the fronts of the thighs, but Koreans hold their hands in hapjang (or hap-ch'ang): palms pressed together and fingers near vertical, a position similar to that usually associated with Christian prayer. The Arabic term salaam, literally "peace" from the spoken greeting that accompanies the gesture, refers to a low bow performed while placing the right palm on the forehead. Some cultures use hugs and kisses even between two men, but those gestures show an existing degree of intimacy and are not used between total strangers. All of these gestures are being supplemented or completely displaced by the handshake in areas with large amounts of business contact with the West.

These bows indicate respect and acknowledgement of social rank, but do not necessarily imply obeisance.


An obeisance is a gesture not only of respect but also of submission. Such gestures are rarer in cultures that do not have strong class structures; citizens of the United States, for example, often react with hostility to the idea of bowing to an authority figure. The distinction between a formally polite greeting and an obeisance is often hard to make; for example, proskynesis (Greek for "kissing towards") is described by the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who lived in the 5th century BC in his Histories 1.134:

When the Persians meet one another in the roads, you can see whether those who meet are of equal rank. For instead of greeting by words, they kiss each other on the mouth; but if one of them is inferior to the other, they kiss one another on the cheeks, and if one is of much less noble rank than the other, he falls down before him and worships him.

After his conquest of Persia, Alexander the Great introduced Persian etiquette into his own court, including the practice of proskynesis. Visitors, depending on their ranks, would have to prostrate themselves, bow to, kneel in front of, or kiss the king. His Greek and Macedonian subjects objected to this practice, as they considered these rituals only suitable to the gods.

In countries with recognized social classes, bowing to nobility and royalty is customary. Standing bows of obeisance all involve bending forward from the waist with the eyes downcast, though variations in the placement of the arms and feet are seen. In western European cultures, women do not bow, they "curtsey" (a contraction of "courtesy" that became its own word), a movement which one foot is moved back and the entire body lowered to a crouch while the head is bowed.

More elaborate gestures of obeisance are used in formal conditions. The Putonghua (Mandarin) term 叩頭 (literally "bump head") refers to the act of deep respect shown by bowing so low as to touch the head to the ground. It is spelled kou4 dao3 in pinyin and "kowtow" in English. It begins kneeling and sitting back on the heels, with the hands on the thighs. The hands are then brought forward to the floor in front of the knees and the body inclined toward the horizontal. Whether or not the head is bowed as well reflects the degree of submission shown -- in martial arts practices, for example, the neck is kept straight, but in religious ceremonies the forehead touches the ground.

Many religious believers kneel in prayer, and some (Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and, rarely, Anglicans) genuflect, bending one knee to touch the ground, at various points during religious services. During Islamic prayer, a kneeling bow called sujud is used, with forehead, nose, hands, knees, and toes all touching the ground.

Military Salutes

Hand Salutes

A common military hand salute consists of raising the right hand, held flat, to the right eyebrow. In the United States, the hand is horizontal, as if shading the eyes, while in countries with more British traditions, the hand is turned so the palm is visible to the one receiving the salute. In Kosovo, a salute similar to the British, except that the fingers are clenched into a fist and the knuckles pressed against the temple, is seen.

The origin of this salute is unknown, though one theory suggests that it probably originated first by showing that the right hand (the fighting hand) was not concealing a weapon. Another suggestion is that when men-at-arms wore armor, a friendly approach would include holding the reins of the horse with the left hand while raising the visor of the helmet with the right, so that one could be identified.

The Roman salute is the oldest known hand salute. It consists of holding the right arm straight out from the shoulder, elevated about forty-five degrees. It was widely used throughout the world until World War II. In the United States, civilians gave the Bellamy salute[?], based on the Roman gesture, while reciting Francis Bellamy's Pledge of Allegiance. It wasn't until 1942 that the United States Congress abolished the extended-arm salute in favor of the current hand-over-the-heart gesture. That decision was in reaction to events in Europe; Benito Mussolini and the Fascist Party of Italy, seeking to revive the spirit of the Roman Empire, had adopted the Roman salute in the early 1920s. Adolf Hitler copied it, and it developed such a close association with Nazis that it has never been used by any organization not specifically linking itself to the Nazis since then.

Small Arms Salutes

When carrying a sword (which is still done on ceremonial occasions), European military forces and their cultural descendants use a two-step gesture. The sword is first raised, in the right hand, to the level of and close to the front of the neck. The blade is inclined forward and up 30 degrees from the vertical; the true edge is to the left. Then the sword is slashed downward to a position with the point close to the ground in front of the right foot. The blade is inclined down and forward with the true edge to the left. This gesture orginated in the Crusades. The hilt of a broadsword formed a cross, so if a actual Crucifix was not available, a Crusader could kiss the hilt of his sword when praying, before entering battle, for oaths and vows, and so on. The lowering of the point to the ground is a traditional act of submission.

When armed with a rifle, two different levels of formality are available when saluting. The most formal method is called "present arms"; the rifle is brought to the vertical, muzzle up, in front of center of the chest with the trigger away from the body. The hands hold the stock close to the positions they would have if the rifle were being fired, though the trigger is not touched. Less formal salutes include the "order arms salute" and the "shoulder arms salutes." These are most often given by a sentry to a low-ranking superior who does not rate the full "present arms" salute. In the "order arms salute," the rifle rests on its butt by the sentry's right foot, held near the muzzle by the sentry's right hand, and does not move. The sentry brings his flattened left hand across his body and touches the rifle near its muzzle. When the rifle is being carried on the shoulder, a similar gesture is used in which the flattened free hand is brought across the body to touch the rifle near the rear of the receiver.

Heavy Arms Salutes

The custom of firing cannon salutes originated in the British Royal Navy. When a cannon was fired, it partially disarmed the ship, so firing a cannon needlessly showed respect and trust. The British, being the dominant naval power, compelled the ships of weaker nations to make the first salute. At first ships were required to fire seven guns, and forts, with their more numerous guns and a larger supply of gunpowder, to fire twenty-one times. Later, as the quality of gunpowder improved, the British increased the number of shots required from ships to match the forts.

As naval customs evolved, the twenty-one gun salute came to be reserved for heads of states, and lower numbers of guns were used to salute lower ranking officials.

From United States Field manual FM 22-5

The rules of saluting are as follows:

  • When you meet someone outside, salute as soon as you recognize an officer (when about six steps away).
  • Salute all officers (recognized by rank) in official vehicles identified by special plates or flags.
  • Salute only on command when in formation.
  • If in a group and officer approaches, the first soldier to recognize the officer calls the group to attention and all personnel salute.
  • If you approach an officer while you are double-timing alone, assume quick time march and render the hand salute. When the salute is returned, execute order arms and resume double-timing.
  • The salute is always initiated by the subordinate and is terminated only after acknowledgment by the individual being saluted.
  • Accompany the salute with an appropriate greeting, such as, “Good morning/afternoon, sir/ma’am.“
  • Salutes are not required to be rendered by or to personnel who are driving or riding in privately owned vehicles.
  • It is not customary for enlisted personnel to exchange salutes, except in some ceremonial situations.
  • Never render a salute with a noticeable object in your mouth or right hand.
  • If you are on detail and officer approaches, salute if you are in charge of the detail. Otherwise, continue to work. If you are spoken to, then come to attention.

See also the one-finger salute and three-finger salute.

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