Saturday, July 4, 2015

Doing the wave

September 1994

When I was in college, I brought some friends home one weekend to see the sights of rural America. As we drove through my hometown, they would frequently look and ask who someone was, and seemed increasingly puzzled when I could identify by name only about half of the people.  Finally, I asked why they thought I knew all those people.  "Well, you waved at them", they pointed out. For the first time I realized that most people don't habitually wave, especially with the style and protocol of rural America.

Waving is one of the first social skills we learn. I can still remember our son as a toddler standing motionless as a neighbor drove by, while Jan and I urged him to wave, and then frantically pumping his arm after the car was far down the road. Waving "bye-bye" is an early triumph when mastered, and I think we never lose the enjoyment of seeing a response to our wave.
Different personalities find expression in different waves. The Standard Wave- hand open, palm forward- can be modified by folding one or more fingers slightly for personal expression.  n addition, the number and intensity of wrist movements can make even Standard waves a message as expressive as a carefully selected T-shirt. I personally favor the first finger erect with neighboring digits drooping increasingly with faint boredom. This formation is given one, and at most two, sharp wrist twists before freezing in a dignified salute. It is a wave that says at once "I Do Too Know What I'm Doing!"  

Rarely seen among men, but popular among women, especially those with names like Melanie or Trish, is the Bye-Bye Wave. It starts like a Standard, but the fingers remain together and are bent in unison like a chorus line of frantic actors taking a bow. The effect of this wave can be made even more syrupy by cupping the fingers, making the movements smaller and/or faster, or (max sweetness) executing the wave beside the face. Women who adopt this style should remember, however, that there is a hazy line between "cute" and "come hither" in the minds of many farmers.   

Waving while driving requires a degree of sophistication.  A higher plane of social status can be expressed by the Wheel Wave, in which the hand does not leave the steering wheel, and only those fingers interested in being friendly stand up and say hi. This technique reaches its utmost aloofness with a single index finger at half-mast, while the rest of the body remains absolutely still. Such provocative waving caused the introduction of the Head Wave, in which the head is jerked up sharply and returned slowly to position. This is a "Power" wave and can be mildly challenging. It should be used only when you can back it up. Another variation is the Shooter, index finger pointed with thumb raised, not unlike our first simulated firearm as a child. Given the current social climate, use of this form can get your head blown mistakenly off.

In many social situations, correct choice of wave can speak volumes.  Downgrading a neighbor from a 3-Shake Standard to 2-Finger Wheel Wave lets him know, without unpleasant verbalizing, that it's time he returned the chain saw he borrowed three years ago. Not waving at all, even after eye contact, or worse yet, failing to return an obviously seen wave is a singular affront and can only be interpreted as the greatest displeasure.  Once during planting, I was staring off into the distance with the pained look of a farmer trying to remember something important, and a good friend passed waving cheerfully. He was down the road before it registered on me. It took me four years to cajole him back into good relations. Conversely, I have a friend who uses a Full-Open Standard with Quintuple Twist, and it's impossible not to smile back after such an energetic display of friendliness.

Equally important is knowing when to wave.   Beginners can use these simple rules of thumb:
1.   Wave every time. (The "Early and Often" Rule) If you're hauling corn and pass a neighbor building fence every 25 minutes, wave each time. If you make eye contact and don't wave, he'll wonder what he did.  Combining close to a busy road allows use of the No-Hands Wave as necessary, but waving is still expected in polite communities. The most difficult situation occurs when working in a field next to a neighbor, and your rounds synchronize with the neighbor to cause repetitive meetings at the end. This can be tricky- it's hard not to wave.  Compounding the problem is timing- waving when your neighbor is looking and vice-versa. To save time and energy, I always pretend to fix a chain until we are out of sync.
2.   Wave in the rearview mirror when passing. Passing someone on a country road can be seen as a put-down and a wave can prevent hard feelings.
3.   Waves are non-discriminating. Everyone, especially strangers, deserves a wave. Besides its fun to watch them turn to see whom you are. Even though it marks me for a farmer, I love to wave in cities. It drives the urban paranoids frantic. 

All of these things are, of course, second nature to well-bred rural citizens.  But I think that, with gentle persistence, we could set an example for the rest of America. Such an effort would raise the amiability of our urban colleagues. Furthermore, it is my belief that taking time to wave politely would also make them better drivers.

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