The Culture of Waving

When I was first out on my own and began driving to work each day, there were instances where I would see the same cars periodically.  One guy would see me in my car and wave each time.  I dubbed him the “weird waver” and made a mental note of the license plate, make and model of his car.

Out here, there isn’t a lot of traffic except during the motorcycle rally when the population of the state doubles.  Even then, it is manageable.   The opportunity for eye contact while driving is much greater as a result.

One cultural difference that I noticed immediately was the wave.

I’m not talking about the mass stadium wave. I’m talking about the driving down the two lane gravel roads and meeting someone driving toward you wave.  A variation of this also holds when you are walking and pass someone on the street.  Everyone smiles, waves, acknowledges in some form. Everyone.

I think it is mandated somewhere.  And it absolutely befuddled me at first having come from the big city.  Those of us from urban areas know intrinsically that waving is the last thing you do while driving unless it is someone you have know for at least a decade and they have been properly vetted.  Hell, in certain areas you don’t even make eye contact.  Here you wave or get chastised publicly the next time you stop in at one of the town’s coffee shops.

“I saw you yesterday and waved and you didn’t wave back.”


If I was going to assimilate here,  I recognized that I would have to come out of my little bubble on wheels.  In true pioneer spirit, I learned to wave back.  I learned to smile and say hello whilst perambulating in town.

There are subtle rules.  If you miss waving in town, it is only a venial sin.  But it is mandatory outside of town on two lane dirt roads, very few exceptions on paved roads.  The wave doesn’t require your hand to leave the wheel unless you are feeling particularly enthusiastic.  A mere straightening of the fingers as you waft by.  The seasoned veteran can just straighten the index finger in nonchalance. The enthusiasm isn’t important.  Acknowledgement is.

You know what?  I have come to like this cultural anomaly.  It moves to recognize each other’s humanity even if only for a second; a moment of connection.  Moments count.  Moments add up.

A few years ago, I went back to Chicago for my high school reunion.  My daughter came along to visit her friends.  She wanted to see our old neighborhood.  We drove past our old house and did the loop around our little lake.  The country club and the beach looked the same.  The swans were still there.  But we also took note of three new McMansions where lovely oaks and mere 6,000 square foot homes had been.


As we made the loop, there was a couple walking down the road enjoying each other and the panorama of fall colors.

Without thinking I waved, though I did not know them.

You could see the disconcerted look on their faces, followed quickly by a guarded glare.

“Who is that?!  We don’t know her.  Maybe we should note the license plate.”

I have to adjust back into my bubble whenever I travel “east river” as we say out here. But I immediately miss the connection moment.

It happened again when I took my daughter to her university on the east coast.  I’m pretty sure she is the only gal from our state attending there.  It is a distinction each of my kids enjoy when they experience it.  As she and I walked around campus, we said hello to everyone we passed.

They would not meet our gaze or mumbled and passed quickly.  I understand.

I like where I live.

About marysigmond

After four generations in Chicago, a big city transplant to the "wild west" of western South Dakota in 2004. Mom, domestic goddess, CEO of my world and fond of musing about what is becoming the second half of my life. It's a big old goofy world.
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2 Responses to The Culture of Waving

  1. Reggie says:

    My dear Mary, oh how I can relate to this! It’s odd isn’t it that a simple gesture can be received with such dismay? When walking into or out of the Y, I have noticed others walk with their heads down. What could they be looking at I wonder? What is so important on the pavement that they aren’t able to look up and say a greeting, give a nod or a two finger wave? I think I have blown some minds when they approach my path as I will look them in the eye and simply say ‘good morning’. In shock they will say it back at which point I smile and look up…always up.

    Thank you, Mary for your fine writing as you have a gift. I enjoy reading your blog that will someday turn into a book.

  2. My husband is from a small town in Ohio. The first time he took me home to meet his family when we were dating, I was introduced to “the wave”. About 50 miles out of town he bagan to wave at every single car that passed. I thought to myself, ‘Great sign!! Friendly sort, this guy is…”

    After about 42 cars, I commented on his friendliness. He said, “What? I’m not going to wave to all the people I know?”
    “You KNOW all of these people?”
    “Who else would be driving through these cornfields?”

    Having grown up outside of NYC, I was incredulous, and in love with that beautiful introduction to small town life~

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