33. The Wave

This is such a simple thing.  It’s used as a greeting, a salutation, a parting gesture, and sometimes even an epithet signifying the owners’ ignorance.  But we all wave at people that we know and don’t know as a way of being friendly.  Well, perhaps not all, but most of us.

Of course I was born on Cape Cod and I’m most often referred to as a “New Englander” and in some cases a “Yankee.”  Contrary to popular belief, Yankees are from New England and New York is NOT in New England, but that’s another story.  Anyway, when I was growing up in my small town I was largely ignorant of the art of waving and also the art of saying good morning, good afternoon, good evening, etc. to people I didn’t know.  In the finest traditions of Puritan New England you just didn’t do that.  I think it was the earliest incarnation of you don’t talk to strangers.

Because of this 400 year-old tradition, New Englanders have a small circle of friends that are expanded only through the formal introduction.  This was how I was brought up.  We didn’t think anything about it really, because that was just how people were.  But if someone new moved into town from a state outside of New England, you would see this weird person walking around town waving at everyone and saying “good morning” to everyone he passed.  “Who was that guy?” someone would say.  “I don’t know, but that was kind of weird,” was always the answer and you would walk away chuckling to yourself about people from other places.

Now when I left Florida and entered the Tabor Academy community everything was different.  There were boys from almost all 50 states and 6 foreign countries.  Everyone was glad to meet new people and start conversations with total strangers.  Then when I went to Boston for college the same thing happened.  The melting pot effect had largely diffused the old traditions but I think generally many of the kids thought I was a little unfriendly.  Things that you learn in your first 10 years of life don’t fade very readily, I was still unsure of myself, and perhaps their assessment was fair enough.

I lived in Boston for another 5 years and then moved to San Francisco for 2 years.  Once again I was around people who waved and said “good morning” and “how are you today?”  They weren’t blatant about it, and it was a little weird but I got used to it.  I could usually melt into new situations easily or at least hide my discomfort enough for people not to notice.  Then, when I moved back to New England for the next 15 years I readjusted back to the old traditions quite readily.  I went back to the Congregational Church and reclaimed my comfort zone once again.

Then I met the woman who would become my wife.  As I have mentioned before (see The Cows) she was from western Maryland and before we were married I had several occasions where I visited her parents and extended family.  On the first such visit, my future father-in-law invited me to go for a ride through the countryside so I could get a better look at the area since this was my first visit.  “Great,” I said and off we went.  Before long he would see someone along the road, lean forward and wave at them as we passed.  After a few of these I asked him, “Do you know all these people?”  “Some of them,” he told me “but it never hurts to be friendly.”  While I didn’t say anything to him, I was thinking that either this guy is a nut case or this part of the country was just completely different from anything I had ever known.  It turned out that everyone down there was just like he was, always waving and always saying hello.  So we were married and lived in New England, attended the Congregational Church together, and she acclimated to the New England lifestyle for the 7 years we were there.  Then I was transferred to the National Capitol Region and we bought a nice house in Virginia where we still live.

The other day my wife and I went for a walk around the neighborhood as we often do.  Of course people would drive by, and everyone waved and we would wave back.  With a chuckle we would look at each other and ask, “do you know that guy?”  “No, do you?”  And we would just laugh while remembering those days in New England when we would never do such a thing.  Not all of the old traditions are good ones; sometimes you can learn to be a better person.

© J T Weaver

About J T Weaver

The author of "Uphill Both Ways," a thought provoking series of stories about life, family, and growing up.
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15 Responses to 33. The Wave

  1. Nice story. I would not make a good New Englander by “no wave” standards. I like the last sentence best.

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  2. I was going to write almost the exact same comment as Carl above! My parents grew up in rural towns in southern Wisconsin and everyone does the lifting of the finger on the steering wheel. It’s unreal. When I became a teenager of driving age and we would go visit there I really should have been more careful about maneuvering the twisty back roads but instead I concentrated on doing the “finger lift”!!

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    • J T Weaver says:

      🙂 When I was growing up no one would have called the FBI (as Carl suggests) but in a town of 1500 people, any non-standard happenings were noticed. I wonder, did they even have the FBI then?

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      • Carl says:

        Perhaps I was a bit extreme, but we can be certain there’d be gossip for days amongst hundreds about that furiner who doesn’t wave. Don’t let me fool you with my sarcasm, I would like living there.

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  3. Carl says:

    Come to think of it, I’ve worked for some companies where the general practice is to greet co-workers in the hall, even when you don’t know them, and yet I’ve worked at other companies where people think you’re martian if you greet them without having been introduced.

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  4. Carl says:

    In the small towns in Colorado, if you drive by another person either walking or driving the opposite direction and you don’t do the traditional lifting of the fingers off the steering wheel from the traditionally-held 12 O’Clock position, in a slow wave, the other person might call the FBI and report an illegal immigrant or a terrorist in the neighborhood.

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  5. jaschmehl says:

    I know Northern New Jersey isn’t New England – but in the town I grew up in, we never waved or said good morning to strangers. I never really adapted to the custom during my college years in Minnesota. Always made me feel uncomfortable. Now in Philadelphia, and I know this will sound strange to people not from here, most people make eye contact and at least nod to strangers we walk pass on the streets in my neighborhood. It just feels right.

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  6. Here in Texas we wave to everyone and hope they wave back. It’s one way to see if the pistol is still in the holster.

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  7. Cindy Wayland says:

    Yep! I grew up learning to wave and smile at people. My dad, especially, was one to greet others. As I became an older teen and young adult, though, I started rethinking that notion a bit….especially if it was a guy I was greeting. If I smiled at a guy as I passed him on the street, would he think I was “interested” in him? Or would he take it as an invitation to “meet” me, when that was not my intention at all? In my case, growing up took me out of my “comfort zone” of being friendly to everyone…

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