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The Problem with Theresa May's Curtsy

We spoke to an etiquette coach and a body language expert to find out what Theresa May is doing wrong.
Photo: Darren Staples – Pool/Getty Images

Listen, I don't want to alarm you, but it has happened again: Theresa May has met with a member of the Royal Family.

If you've been following her journey with monarchy – or indeed, almost any event that involves her having to interact with the outside world and the people who live in it – you will by now be familiar with the strange shapes and faces she seems to inadvertently contort into. The pinnacle of these is her curtsy, so low to the ground you wonder if she'll be able to get back up; limbs flaying in every direction, knees moving mad, generally looking more like a Victorian chimney sweep with rickets than a Prime Minister.


We were once again forced to endure the horrors of this curtsy on Wednesday, when May met with Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and balding heir to the throne.

To those of you who did not attend etiquette lessons in your youth (AKA didn't watch The Princess Diaries), a curtsy is the female equivalent of a bow. Traditionally, it involves the girl or woman bending her knees while bowing her head, a move that derives from a "traditional gesture of an inferior to a superior".

Personally, I believe myself to be inferior to absolutely no one and would like to think I would just stare out the Queen and tell her to give back the Koh-i-Noor if I ever came face-to -face with her, but I think it's safe to say Terry May doesn't have the same political leanings as me; her curtsy is so low it comes off as a grovel.

In light of all this, I decided to speak to an etiquette expert and a body language expert to find out what exactly is up with her curtsying and how she could do better.

William Hanson, British etiquette coach

VICE: Hi William, what do you think of Theresa May's creepy low curtsy from an etiquette standpoint?
William Hanson: Theresa May's curtsy is far too low. You don't want to ever go that low, or you may never come back up – especially if you're a tad nervous or have had one too many gin and Dubonnets prior to a royal arrival. Mrs May needs to just do a gentle bob at the knees, only going down a few inches or so. Less is more. Her back should remain straight, her hands by the side – unless shaking hands at the same time.

What does good curtsying look like?
Ladies curtsying should also bow the head, from the neck, at the same time. For men greeting royalty, they just need bow at the neck, although I am sure in this day and age there is nothing wrong with a man curtsying if he wants to. Similarly, ladies have always been able to bow to royalty if they would rather not curtsy. Maybe until Mrs May refines her technique she should adopt a bow?


What do you think Prince William thought of the curtsy?
I am sure HRH Prince William would not have made any visible or verbal comment on Mrs May's rather low curtsy. He and his family will have seen many weird and wonderful versions of the royal greeting, so will be used to it. Privately, however, it may have drawn comment.

Blanca Cobb, Body Language Expert

What does the body language in this curtsy say to you?
Blanca Cobb: Sometimes a sign of respect can be taken a bit too far that it looks awkward. Look at her wide stance. The exaggerated move makes May come across as unpolished, which I'm sure isn't the message that she wants to convey. A curtsy is a slight bend in the knees, not one of a 90-degree angle.

What message do you think May was trying to give with this curtsy?
I believe that Theresa May gave a deep curtsy to show her deep respect for Prince William, but in the process she made herself look awkward and unpolished. Some may wonder if May might have been trying to impress William. Prince William didn't seem bothered by the curtsy. He gave her a polite smile and even bent over a bit since the curtsy was so deep.

Any other thoughts on the chemistry here?
Even though the curtsy was a bit off, their handshake was on point. The handshake indicated that Prince William and May see each other as equals. Notice how their hands are vertical, which indicates equality. Although I can't tell from the photo, the grip might have been a little tight in case May needed help standing up.