Carried along by the wave

As the school bus drove away with my daughter this morning, both the driver and the monitor waved to me. And I waved back. I live in a part of the world where people wave.

If three or more cars meet at a four-way stop, chances are pretty good at least a couple of the drivers will wave to one another. When I drive through a neighborhood, even if it’s not my own, I wave to anyone I see along the street. I wave at people I see passing by the house when I’m outside; if they’re not in a car, we usually exchange a word or two as well.

We’re not talking big, showy gestures here, a great flailing of arms or flapping of fingers. More often than not it’s a simple raise of the hand, palm facing out, with a slight movement of the head and maybe a smile

I hadn’t really given this much thought until a couple years after we moved here. I was running an errand on the other side of town with my sister, who was visiting from out of state. As we came to a stop sign, I waved and nodded to a man walking his dog. He waved and nodded back, and we drove on.

“Do you know him?” my sister asked, sounding surprised.

“No,” I replied.

“Then why did you wave to each other?”

I shrugged, a little puzzled myself. “It’s just what people do here,” I finally offered, rather lamely.

Some of the reason for these mysterious exchanges, often between strangers, dawned on me later that summer. We live on a corner near a small neighborhood park. I was working in the yard near the street early one evening when I heard a vehicle approach. Looking up, I saw a sleek black sports car stop at the intersection. I raised my hand in greeting and stood as the car turned the corner and passed me, but the driver didn’t acknowledge me. Suddenly wary, I made a note to report the encounter to the neighborhood watch when I saw the car turn toward the entrance to the park.

For all I know, the young man driving the car wasn’t a drug dealer or scofflaw and had a perfectly legitimate reason to go to the park that day. But his failure to make eye contact or in some way recognize me rendered him instantly suspicious in my mind.

At least one of my college professors described greetings and other social gestures as the oil that keeps the wheels of society turning. A willingness to see others and be seen by them indicates you have nothing to hide; an open hand, extended or raised, shows that it holds no weapon.

It amazes me how warmly I feel toward another driver who lifts a hand to notice my yielding the right of way, even when it was most clearly his to begin with. I marvel at the sense of community such tiny gestures generate, the feeling of belonging that arises from acknowledging another person and being in turn acknowledged. It’s a miraculous kind of shorthand, a way of saying, “Here I am, there you are: everything is just as it should be,” with a single, concise movement.


I leave you to ponder this, dear reader, with brief flash of my hand and slight nod of my head.


18 responses to “Carried along by the wave

  1. I totally agree with you on all accounts. It was an adjustment moving up north from Texas. It was common to stand in line at the grocery store and chat with the people in line with you, just to be polite. I tried that once here the first week we moved – everyone looked at me like I was crazy. It was a little unnerving to be surrounded by a community that was clearly so guarded. I still wave every chance I get and sometimes people wave back. Big wave to you too!

    – Emily

    • Jennifer Barricklow

      I had a similar adjustment — if you can call something that feels like a major shift in tectonic plates an “adjustment” — when I moved from the Midwest to the Northeast a few years after college. I hadn’t grown up in a wave-y part of the world, per se, but folks had been a far sight more relaxed around one another than my new neighbors seemed to be. Moving from the Northeast to the shallow South was a MUCH easier transition!

      Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for the wave!
      P.S. You can talk to me in the grocery line ANY time. 🙂

  2. lovely post, Jennifer. Our family took a trip east of the mountains a couple years ago, and the small town we went to…well, everyone waved. My kids, shocked at first, and self-conscious, soon got into the habit of waving to each and every car and person walking on the street.
    how jaded we are, and insular…
    I long for more of this…
    maybe I’ll start “the wave” here…and see if it can bloom again.

    • Jennifer Barricklow

      I was HOPING someone would be inspired to start “the wave” in their own community…I’m not at all surprised that you were the first to think of it. 🙂
      Let us know if it catches on! (Sounds like you may be able to enlist your kids to help.)

  3. I think that’s very nice. Years ago, it was like that, before life became so frantic. People used to know their neighbors, too. Thank you for the post. I like knowing that there are still places where people acknowledge one another’s existence. Blessings to you, Jennifer…

    • Jennifer Barricklow

      It’s surprising how very nice it is, both to be on the receiving end and the giving (waving?) end. Even if that connection is rather superficial, it generates a disproportionately large sense of well-being. We are, indeed, deeply social creatures.
      Blessings (and friendly waves) to you, too, Carol!

  4. I didn’t realize my little wave was so profound — but you’re right! I’ll never take a wave for granted again. Thanks, Jennifer.

    • Jennifer Barricklow

      Thank YOU for being one of the folks who does it without thinking! To give such a gift without thought — for what it might cost you or what it might get you — is a genuine blessing.
      Keep on wavin’!

  5. When we moved to our small town from Chicago, people pretended we did not exist. But they would wave to us. So we waved back. Now when I walk my dog, people pass and wave to me. I have no idea who is doing the waving but I wave back. Loved the post.

    • Jennifer Barricklow

      I think your anecdote just goes to show the tremendous value of social waving: it allows people to make connections without transgressing personal boundaries.
      I’m so glad people wave to you! (I think having a dog with you helps somehow, too; we seem to be deeply conditioned to find dogs reassuring. What weird beings we are!)

  6. Hi, Jennifer! Thanks for the post. I remember being on a road trip through some Pennsylvania or upstate New York town. It was summer and there were people out on their lawn in lawn chairs waving to every passing vehicle. It seemed odd at the time, but now it makes me sad that that was my initial reaction. When I let cars slip in front of me during a traffic jam, I enjoy the little wave that appreciative drivers give in their rearview mirror. Unfortunately, those waves seem to be happening less and less often. I sometimes think people are so afraid of road rage that the try to avoid any interaction at all. And now, my friend, I wave to you from snowy Connecticut!

    • Jennifer Barricklow

      Hi, Lynn! I was delighted to see you had subscribed, and now I find you have commented as well! Thank you! 🙂

      I understand what you mean about drivers being afraid of road rage. I have to admit that I get a little peeved when someone CUTS ME OFF and then gives me a little wave of thanks, as if I had any choice in letting them in! In the rare grace-filled moment I’m able to think kindly of them for creating an opportunity for me to at least appear gracious (I could always run them off the road, I suppose), but more often than not I fume a bit instead.

      I believe I see your waving hand protruding from a five-foot-high snow bank — stay warm and safe, my friend!

  7. Absolutely! On the one hand, can you imagine Pam Phares and me waving as high school nuts to everyone we passed driving around with the great flailing of arms as you so correctly say!? Now THAT was fun! I did that into my early 20’s. I received all kinds of funny looks!

    My son asked me the other day why I say, “Good Morning” or “Hi” to each parent that we pass as we enter the school courtyard on our way to childcare. I told him I like to smile, look people in the eye, and greet them. Not only is it the right thing to do, but you may just make that person’s day. It gets back to the song, “This little light of mine….” Let’s shine! Yes, we’re friendly in California, too. Make it a great day!

    • Jennifer Barricklow

      Oooh, I love what you told your son about why you smile and greet people. (The rest of us chalk it up to your naturally sunny disposition.)

      Your reminiscence about you and Pamm driving around makes me think of a recent development in our car travel. My kids, especially when they have friends or cousins in the car, have discovered that most people cannot resist waving back at kids in cars who wave as they pass. They can while away an amazing amount of travel time with this activity, and the shrieks and giggles that fill the car keep the adults in the car in a constant state of amusement.

      By all means, Anne, let’s shine! 🙂

  8. Hi Bubbles! What a great post. I have the exact same attitude. A funny experience. As you know, I lived year round for 15 years on Leete’s Island, a tiny community with many residents who have been going there for generations. EVERYONE waved to everyone. I was wonderful. I got so used to it that I just assumed the rest of the world was like that. I moved to Middletown to an old, really nice and friendly neighborhood. NO ONE waved unless they knew you. It was shocking. I decided to WAVE ANYWAY. At first, no reponse. Now I am waving to people I don’t know and they are waving back. It is such a simple gesture. I also send good thoughts people’s way, something I remember reading in Norman Vincent Peal’s book (I think). Sometimes if I do that, they turn and look at me, even if they haven’t waved. The only problem is when I go to New York City. That openness in a place like that could make you vulnerable, I guess so I try to turn it off. I LOVE reading the Daily Compost and I miss you! By the way, why don’t you compose a post that explains why I call you Bubbles… 🙂 I would love to read how you would explain THAT!

    • Jennifer Barricklow

      Hiya, Nancy!

      I love your story! If persistence can make a bunch of suspicious New Englanders change their ways, it can work anywhere! I bet if you lived in NYC, you could get folks in your neighborhood to come around. Today the neighborhood, tomorrow the whole borough! 🙂

      Thanks for reading, and for the post suggestion. I’m up to my eyeballs in stuff right now (I can’t believe I found time to write this reply) but I hope to be back to blogging next week. Say hi to everyone for me!

  9. Love this entry Jen! (and Tom would too!) When my parents lived in rural Maine, everyone would wave to one another as they traveled back and forth along their long gravel road. Well, Tom seemed to like this so much that he started doing it here in our Ct neighborhood. Occasionally I’ll say, “Who was that?” and he’ll say, “I don’t know, just being friendly.” There is a nice fellow that has been waving and smiling at us ever since we got Riley, almost 11 yrs now. (I’m guessing he’s nice, since he always waves….even tho we’ve never met. 😉

    • Jennifer Barricklow

      Maybe that’s the origin of the expression, “passing acquaintances”: people who pass on the street and acknowledge one another. Thanks for offering another testimonial that waving is contageous!
      As for your “nice” neighbor: even if he is a grade A jerk the rest of the time, in that moment when he smiles and waves at you, he truly IS nice. That is grace, in my humble opinion.
      (Betcha never thought you’d get to be an agent of grace, eh? ;-D)

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