This I Believe

Becky - Pleasanton, Kansas
Entered on March 29, 2007

Small town people believe in waving. I asked my 73 seventh graders to simulate the local Linn County Wave one day in class. Normally, simple directions such as, “Take out a piece of notebook paper,” or “Open your textbooks to page 35,” trigger chaos and pandemonium with a class of kids this age, but this was something they understood.

“Pretend you are driving,” I instructed. They immediately played along by placing their hands at ten and two o’clock on their make-believe steering wheels as I approached in my pretend car from the front of the class. To my delight, they all knew exactly what to do, and I got a variety of waves and smiles.

I followed up with a rural etiquette question. “How do you know when to wave?”

“You wave at everyone,” they answered. It turns out this is the one time it’s ok to “talk” to strangers. You wave whether or not you know the occupants of the other car. It’s the small town way.

Waves seem to run in families. When I asked why kids used a certain wave, they told me it was like Uncle Steve’s or Grandpa’s or that everyone in their family waved that way.

For a week, I conducted informal research on the wave as I drove to and from work. Sure enough, nearly everyone I passed waved. I soon classified various waving styles. The most common seemed to be what a friend calls the Cowboy Wave. To correctly execute a cowboy wave, briefly raise your left index finger tilting it slightly to the side toward the driver’s door. This is the coolest wave. It says, “There you are. Got ‘ya,” in typical, laid-back cowboy style. A variation on the Cowboy Wave is the two fingered Peace Brother Wave—simply raise your index and center finger in sort of a peace sign while still holding on to the steering wheel with your other fingers and thumb.

Waving styles also seem to reflect personalities and moods. Some people prefer what I consider the Regal Wave—fingers together lifted from the steering wheel in sort of a formal salute. Another, hipper version doesn’t even involve hands. For this one, you quickly tilt your head back and a bit to the side for a “Hey, how ya’ doing?” effect. A few of the more gregarious small-towners do an excited, flat-palmed, back and forth wave with a hand clear off the steering wheel, but I usually reserve that one for close friends and family.

Waving is also extended to pedestrians when driving through a small town, although often it will also be accompanied by an offer of a ride or a side of the road chat.

What this waving truly means to me came home last weekend. I was staying in the city with my daughter to help her pack for an upcoming move. I love reading the Sunday paper, so I decided to walk the six blocks to the local grocery store to buy one to enjoy with my cup of coffee before our day began. My walk was relaxing and solitary—no other walkers sharing the sidewalk with me, no cars on the street. Suddenly, a pick-up truck rounded the corner. To my surprise, it was my own brother-in-law who lives in another area of the city. I waved energetically thinking I’d say hello when he stopped, and…he drove right by, not looking left or right and NOT giving the expected wave. “What gives with that?” I thought.

It turns out that I truly do believe in waving and not just in Linn County. I’ll take my waving campaign to the city whenever I get the chance despite the puzzled, blank looks I normally receive in return. Every now and then, a reciprocal wave comes my way.

A wave says, “I notice you. You matter as a fellow inhabitant of this planet, and I acknowledge you.” The wave confirms a sense of belonging and a moment of shared humanity. I’ll wave when I see you whether I know you or not because this I believe.