You taught me how to wave when we worked in the fields. The arm is raised slowly, allowing for recognition despite the distance. A dramatic reaching for the sky, a single hand stretches upwards, fingers open. Hold it upright until seen and greeted with a like response, the space between two shrinking with each second. Then turn to separate fields for another pass down a row, workers disappearing back into the landscape.
Over a field, across an irrigation ditch, opposite sides of a dirt avenue, a wave becomes the common language of place. The wave, a moment of recognition between two individuals, each saying, “You matter.”
I’ve tried this wave in big cities and have failed miserably. Perhaps people were moving too fast or they traveled at a pace that encourages anonymity. It’s easier to maneuver if you look past faceless bodies. In the bubble of city life, few looked up from their urban drive. Their stares focusing straight forward, they were travelers intent on reaching their destinations.
Studies like the classic The Lonely Crowd or Bowling Alone warned me: waving in the city doesn’t often work. I could have been invisible. Actually, once in a big city I was noticed or at least misinterpreted. Someone responded to my wave with a middle-finger wave back at me.
But I still expect a wave back. I grew up working outdoors and using my hands. Accompanied by a slow, rural pace, the act of waving becomes second nature. I know that a genuine wave, like a solid handshake, can overcome many differences. Here in our valley, I most often wave to non-English speakers. Our lack of a common language matters little. We are joined by a working-class bond.
There are cultural variations of waving. Asians may wave, but most will perform the head dip, as if bowing from the neck up. This act corresponds with the common practice of not looking at others in the eyes.
Sometimes this sort of greeting can become dangerous. In Japanese culture, the lower the bow, the more respectful. Once, I saw two Asians meet while driving. The younger one, showing the utmost social graces, tried to deeply dip his head and bonged it on the steering wheel. Fortunately they were both driving slowly.
Latinos wave, but more often (and this is true with many men) they just do a head nod. It can be very subtle. You have to be looking for it. The chin is slightly pushed upward as a sign of recognition. Even simpler, sometimes only the eyebrows and forehead are raised. If I hesitate, I’ll miss the opportunity to return the gesture. It requires an understanding of cultural expectations that I have yet to master: exactly when does one raise the eyebrows or nod the head or wave with the hand?
Does gender make a difference? My sense is that men wave more than women do. Does it have to do with how a woman’s wave may be misconstrued? Are there other subgroups and cultural differences? Do gays wave more than others, or is there a gay man wave? Do second-generation immigrant families in America wave more or less than foreign-born parents?
Dad, all this matters because waving is an act of public recognition. We acknowledge each other with a wave, a visible sign proclaiming that the other exists. I find that comforting, something that builds community and creates neighbors. Go to a place where people don’t care for each other, and I doubt if you see waves or head nods.
I know I sound old, but I am struck by the role of technology in relation to waves or head nods, especially with the youth culture and the proliferation of cell phones and iPods. People can’t wave when focused on a cell-phone call. Hooked to an iPod, listeners check out, oblivious to the world around them, escaping into the loud music. And that’s the point.
Individuals remain individuals once they insulate themselves with their headsets and music. They create zones of distance, barriers to the outside, public signs to keep others away.
I believe we’re losing the art of physically communicating. In a high-tech world, the wave or head nod gives way to a text message or becomes ignored and lost amidst two hundred downloads. A digital revolution requires less reading of body language and more scanning of emails and blogs. People pay less attention to the immediate physical world and focus more attention on the virtual world.
So what? Is my wave relegated to a dying, old-world culture, my head nod or bow a remnant of traditions that no longer have a place? Or is it just a matter of aging? With maturity, I have discovered the need for more waves and nods (I include hugs, too — even more “man hugs”). I do know that old folks, because of their declining eyesight and hearing, rely more and more on touch. Waves, handshakes, and hugs mean a lot.
So thanks, Dad, for teaching me how to wave. I will continue to test my theories, even on the youth. I’ll wave and wait for a response. At first, I may get an odd reaction, the other person thinking, “Am I supposed to know you?” Those that are uncomfortable will ignore me.
I trust the majority will smile once they get past “What’s the matter with that guy who keeps waving at me?”
Nothing’s the matter. Just wave back.
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