I'm Stumped: Goodbye to the 'Country Wave'

Posted: April 10, 2012

I had no idea that my innocent question about the country wave would be interpreted in so many ways and cause such a reaction among readers.

An “outsider,” as I have been called, can evidently ask questions about local history, but not about Valley habits and customs. Those are off-limits.

Some readers found my question offensive and suggested that I was poking fun at rural people by questioning why they wave; others called me stupid and ill-mannered because I obviously was unaware of why people waved in the first place; or chided me for trying to impose a form of urban-inspired rules and regulations on Valley residents.

I have also been admonished for being too thoughtful (is thinking about why you do something a bad idea?).

And apparently, because I am not from the Valley, I must have come from a city, most likely a Northern one, where I have been frequently  shot at.

None of which is true about me. I have spent all but one year of my long life living in rural parts of the world—where on backroads, people wave at each other.

And yes, all “analysis” aside: the number one reason to wave is just plain pleasantry among travelers.

So if that’s all you ever want to know about waving, just stop reading now.

Here’s what those readers who took my question as lightly as I intended had to say about waving: 

Bridgewater Waver Reports In

Rob Morgan offered a self-analysis of his waving habits. “My waving is limited to my time in Bridgewater,” he says, “until I reach Turner Ashby [High School] and then all waving ceases. I am not sure why I am a Bridgewater-only waver, but I drive the same route every day and my waving is always the same.”

Morgan, who waves with four fingers and grips the steering wheel with his thumb and palm, then supplied his entire route and who he waves at:

—first, his neighbor and her daughter as they wait for the bus;
—then walkers and runners near Bridgewater College and any student in front of the dorms;
—and Dr. Bob or his neighbor, if they’re in their yards.

Bridgewater Retirement Center is a “prime waving location,” he says. “There always elderly folks out walking and they always wave back.”

If you’re a novice waver or out of practice, Morgan says this is a good place to gain some confidence because “you are not likely to offer a wave and not get one in return.”

On Main Street near Dairy Queen and Wells Fargo, Morgan shares his “final and favorite wave” of the day with regular waver Carlyle Whitelow. For those of you who don’t know, Whitelow is a daily fixture on Main Street, trying to buoy the spirits of those heading into work.

Morgan says Whitelow has recently “stepped up his game” by adding the “post-wave thumbs-up.”

Other Uses for the Wave

For Bridgewater resident Bill Wood, the wave comes in handy as a mock-polite gesture. “I smile and wave when someone pulls out in front of me. It’s my way of diverting road rage into something more positive, while letting the offender know I noticed.”

Wood also shared a phrase he says is used by “true old-timers.” Waving is also known as “speaking to someone,” as in “She was in such a hurry that she didn’t even speak to me.”

Put this way, the wave is just as important as a spoken greeting—so not waving is very rude!

The Habit of Waving

On the same note, Steve Eckard, a 63-year-old native of Melrose, says a different population, a paved road and just plain “getting out of the habit of waving” might have something to do with fewer wavers.

Initially, he says Melrose Road was a dirt road with only a few houses and “everyone knew everyone else to some extent.”

“We all waved, whether driving or seeing someone out in their yard,” he said. “They waved back. Now things have changed in that the road is paved, well-traveled by people who do and do not live on the road. They rarely wave. And I don’t wave as much as I used to because of this. People coming from a more congested area and taking up residence on this road probably never were in the habit of waving, hence they rarely wave. And so it goes.”

And what about those tinted windows? he added charitably in a second email. Maybe people just don’t see as well anymore.

'Just Plain FRIENDLY!'

Rachel McClain Wright spent her childhood in Parsons, W.Va., where her father Ken McClain owned the local weekly newspaper. She writes:

“One of his regular habits was to take a ride on the back roads all around the county and surrounding areas when he needed to unwind. I was his faithful passenger on these travels and it was not unusual at all for him to wave every time we passed another vehicle—car, bicycle, tractor or truck. As I got older, I began to wonder why he did this and his answer was ‘Babe, you never know—they might be a subscriber!’

One of the things I have always enjoyed since we retired and moved from the suburbs of Washington, D.C. was getting a wave on the back roads of Rockingham County. And you never know--they might be a subscriber or future customer or neighbor you haven't met or just being plain FRIENDLY!”

A Scotsman on Waving

Mount Solonite Bob MacKay writes, “I always do the country wave, even though some do not respond. Maybe they are ‘incomers’?”

MacKay, who has two Scottish parents and more relatives there than here, also pointed out that in Scotland, it is normal courtesy to greet anyone you pass on the road.

He then paraphrased a bit of information about waving he found in a recent issue of “Scottish Life” magazine.

“For strangers, you lift one finger from the wheel with a smile and a slight nod, a couple of fingers if you are passing acquaintances and a wider smile. For someone you know fairly well, you keep your thumb hooked on the wheel and raise all fingers and smile broadly, and for a really good friend, you raise your hand and offer the full hand, fingers splayed, palm outwards, with a big grin. If you receive no greeting whatsoever, the other person is either not Highland, or possibly is in a grump and best left in peace.”

So they wave in foreign countries, too.

Imagine that! 

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