Etiquette 102

This informal survey suggests 2 out of 3 students can bow correctly.

The basics of etiquette are things like when to bow, tying your belt, how to sit, and all the formalities associated with training. Most people mistakenly think this is only for traditional martial arts, and that modern ones have no system of etiquette. While it’s true that these habits tend to be emphasized more in traditional martial arts, there is correct and incorrect social behaviour in all types of training. If you don’t believe me, go into an MMA or boxing gym and claim that you could kick the crap out of every single person there. They will line up to kick your ass because you breached their standards of etiquette.

There are lots of books, videos, and other resources on the basics of martial arts cultural practices. Furthermore, there will always be minor differences depending on the style and club. There are some universal principles that vary little (i.e. don’t call out the seniors, as in the example above), but when coming into a new system or cross-training, the environment may be somewhat unfamiliar. We often assume that our usual practices are sufficient, and this is where missteps in behaviour can hurt you in the long run.

There is a question as to whether knowing correct etiquette will make you a better martial artist. On the one hand, the answer is clearly no. Knowing how to bow or how to address the seniors around you will not directly make you more effective at protecting yourself or achieving the outcomes specified in your curriculum.

On the other hand, to acquire skill, you need someone to instruct you, as well as partners who will invest their attention and energy in your progress. Neglecting etiquette, or refusing to adapt old habits to a new situation, can give people around you a bad impression. In other words, if everybody thinks you’re an asshole, it’s not very likely that they will care whether you improve or not. They won’t bend over backwards to help you if you act like a tool. In that sense, practicing proper etiquette is an extremely important step towards being accepted. Demonstrating respect for your teachers, seniors, peers and juniors can, indirectly, be the most practical thing you do.

Here are some blunders in etiquette that I commonly see, and not just among people who are new to practice. While it is hilarious to watch experienced practitioners step on their own dicks, here are some ways to avoid doing so.

Don’t Assume Equality

When you enter a new training environment, whatever else you have done doesn’t matter. That’s not to say all your previous experience and skill is useless. But just because you are highly ranked in another martial art, system, or style, does not mean you are colleagues with the instructor.

I see this assumption very frequently, where it is expected that an instructor will collaborate with someone merely because they have some unrelated rank or experience. Presumably, if an experienced martial artist is going somewhere as a student to train, it is because they want to acquire new skills, not because they want to show off what they already know.

Obviously, having a solid background should benefit you in the learning process when you take on new material, but that does not make you a colleague of the teacher. When you come to class as a student, you are a subordinate. You might be the most skilled martial artist in the room, but it’s not the right context to demonstrate that fact. Instead of trying to convince the instructor that you are both equals, be interested in what they can teach you. That is, after all, why you are there.

Ranks and credentials in martial arts are arbitrary. Most ranks are a reward for loyalty as much as they are an acknowledgement of progress. Not every organization and instructor have the same standards. However, skill always speaks for itself.

Don’t Improvise

This is when the instructor walks past and says, “Keep up the great work!”

Similar logic, but slightly different point. Even beginners have an awareness that there is a wide selection of techniques for any given scenario. However, when an instructor demonstrates one strategy, it is not because it is the only feasible option for that situation–it just happens to be the option they are working on at that time.

Again, it is amazing how often students from other disciplines come into their training and start making up all their own sequences and combinations. To a degree, they are not necessarily wrong. Their improvised sequences may be practical and efficient. The point remains that they are not learning what they came to learn.

In kindergarten, it would be inappropriate to interrupt the teacher in mid-lesson to blurt out, “Couldn’t it be C-A-B instead of A-B-C?” Gold star for creativity . . . Yes, it could be. But it isn’t.

This phenomenon often comes from the desire to impress by showing off how much the person already knows. Ironically, the instructor would probably be far more impressed if they demonstrated the ability to do what was shown with precision and efficiency.

In the end, all Captain Improv walks away with are the things he made up on his own, which kind of defeats the purpose of going somewhere new to get fresh input. The time for experimentation is in your own club and your own classes. When you’re training a specific thing under a specific instructor and you spend all your time creating your own exercises, you look like a moron.

Don’t Record Without Permission

Subtle. So smooth.

We live in a world of cell phones, where ubiquitous recording devices are the norm. Here’s the thing, though: recording anyone without their consent is creepy. It doesn’t matter if it’s a photo or video. It’s creepy.

If you want to remember what an instructor is teaching, and recording is the fastest way of doing that, ask for permission. If the instructor doesn’t want to be recorded while teaching, then record yourself doing the exercises that they taught after the class, when they’re still fresh in your mind.

If this is for your own personal records, don’t share or post said recordings without the permission of the instructor. Their lessons are their intellectual property, and being respectful of that fact means keeping it to yourself. If you are awesome at executing the material you were taught and want to spread it on the Internet, ask for permission before you post. The instructor may not think you are as awesome as you do.

We live in an age of shameless self promotion. That is undeniable. Martial arts are not immune to that reality. While you may have pure intentions when you record or post on social media, a lot of conflicts between organizations, instructors, and students that I’ve heard about recently began with an “innocent” post. You don’t always know how others will interpret your attempts to flatter or promote them.

This is interesting in part because, with social media being a recent development, there is no established etiquette in the martial arts regarding this. We are creating the rules as we go. Generally, silence is difficult to be offended by, so if you’re not sure, I would suggest that as the default.

Don’t Equate

This looks and sounds like the second point above, but it’s slightly different. Assuming equality means thinking that you and the instructor are peers. Equating means taking everything back to what you already know.

Of course, if you have invested a long time in a singular system or style, when you start doing something new, your brain will naturally draw connections. These connections are important–but only to you. Your classmates and instructors probably don’t care how what they do resembles or mimics the actions of whatever else you’ve done. The BJJ professor probably doesn’t care which Karate kata his guard pass looks like.

It gets irritating for a student to constantly be comparing techniques to whatever else he or she studied before. In martial arts, there are going to be a lot of commonalities. Pointing out those commonalities is an interesting water cooler conversation during breaks or after class, but when you’re training, just do the training. Constantly stating that one strategy or technique is like something else you’ve already learned gets annoying very quickly, especially if you are the only person who is likely to get the reference.


While etiquette shouldn’t be the primary focus of training, it is important to get these aspects of martial arts correct. Any instructor knows that breaches in these unwritten rules can lead to conflicts and annoyances within the training environment.

The points above are not as obvious as the typical “Bow when you enter the Dojo” type of principal, but failing to adhere to them can cause you to become the butt of others’ jokes. Being liked is the first step towards accessing the knowledge and skill of superior practitioners. Apply the principles of sound etiquette, and, given enough time and shared experiences, you will gradually earn the respect and loyalty of those around you.

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