Monday, January 26, 2015

A Nod and a Shake: On Cultural Subtleties and Non-Verbal Greetings

Chris Sharp
Whether we're passing motorists, pedestrians, or other cyclists whose presence we wish to mark with friendly acknowledgement, we are all well versed in the art of the silent greeting. It would hardly make sense to shout "hello" across the road after all; it would only get drowned out by the street noise. In its place we employ a set of standard non-verbal behaviours to communicate acknowledgement or recognition. Typically, this will be a wave of the hand, or a nod. A straightforward enough affair.

So you might understand my confusion, when, whilst out pedaling on the roads of Northern Ireland, I began to notice motorists occasionally shaking their heads at me in what I could only interpret as disapproval. It was a very distinct shake of the head, left to right - a gesture that seemed to be saying "tsk-tsk-tsk," or "some nerve you have!" I could not think of anything I was doing to provoke such a reaction. Was I taking up too much of the road? Did they simply dislike cyclists?

This last hypothesis was dismissed when I saw the same shake of the head performed by a passing cyclist. A slow and deliberate left-to-right movement, with a subtle upflick of the chin at the end. The unsmiling expression that accompanied this only reinforced my sense that this was a gesture of disapproval. What was I doing to annoy them?

Thoroughly confused, I asked local cyclists about this gesture. They did not seem to know what I meant. To their amusement I tried to illustrate by imitating it, but couldn't quite get it right.

Finally, I was in a car with a friend when, passing another car on the road, in front of my very eyes he made this very gesture. A straight-faced left to right shake of the head, with an upflick at the end - as if the driver had made some maneuver that displeased him.

"What did you do that for?" I asked.
"Oh, I know that boy."
"You mean you were saying hello?"
"Aye, I was nodding at him. What's wrong?"
"That was a nod?!!"
"Was it not?..."

And I thought that I knew the difference between a nod in greeting and a disapproving shake of the head! Clearly, the distinction is more culture-specific than I had imagined.

As I marveled over this, I remembered other misunderstandings over non-verbal exchanges with cyclists that didn't involve overseas travel. For instance, the "roadie wave." For those not familiar with this form of greeting, it is an exceedingly subtle gesture - a "micro-wave," if you will - that is performed without the cyclist removing their hand from the handlebars, often with just a couple of fingers. When I saw this salute for the first time, it threw me for a loop, as I had thought the cyclist was pointing at something on my bike - perhaps to warn me. Did I have a flat tire? Was my saddlebag flapping open, its straps dangerously close the spokes? I may have actually pulled over to check!

And what of the right-hand turn signal - the one performed by bending the left arm at a 90 degree angle - that gets mistaken for a wave? In Boston I would often see cyclists execute this gesture, and then motorists "wave back" at them in greeting. Well, at least this dangerous gap in education is filled with friendly sentiment!

What has been your experience with non-verbal exchanges while cycling?

40 comments:

  1. Most of my "leisure" riding is usually done on some sort of multi-use path. I usually offer some sort of greeting to about everybody, just because I'm a friendly weirdo. Most of the time, I will say, "hello" to pedestrians. I give other leisure riders a 'sup nod, unless they're going slow enough to actually say "hi" to. Faster riders, or people w/ headphones on usually get the "couple of fingers wave from the hoods". Like the micro-wave that you mention.

    Two things I've noticed with regards to that couple-of-fingers waggle-wave: Most "roadies" that I encounter are usually the group second-least inclined to respond to any greeting, or offer a greeting of their own. The least likely-to-respond group? Recumbent riders, peculiarly.
    Secondly: I think I actually picked up the "subtle wave" from riding a motorcycle. Many riders do a subtle couple-fingers-down-low sort of gesture to acknowledge each other.

    Wolf.

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  2. When driving on remote roads in the Catskills(and other rural areas in the US, I would assume), it's customary to 'wave' at oncoming motorists. It's a lot like the multi-finger salute that cyclists use to acknowledge each other. The hand stays firmly on the wheel, but a couple of fingers point up. It's readily seen through the windshield. Sometimes it's accompanied by a slight down-up nod.

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    1. When I lived in rural NH, my house was up a remote mountain road and motorists in passing would routinely nod to each other. But I've never seen the finger-wave thing.

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  3. In my area years ago seeing another cyclist was a rarity. So a wave of acknowledgement was the norm. These days with the roads filled with cyclists a glare from behind dark shades is more common.

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    1. Sunglasses have a way of making people look mean and scowly. For all you know, they could be winking at you behind that dark glass.

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  4. In the North West of England a little downward nod of the head then returning to normal position is pretty much standard not just amongst cyclists. I think its more an older gentleman generation thing (my Dad used to do it and he'd be 8- this year), but I find that I now do it or else wave by flicking my arm off the bar with my hand upwards about a foot and returning it in one motion.
    On shared use paths I always say hello or morning.

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  5. Heh, I've had the right turn signal misinterpreted as a wave. It used to make me annoyed but hey, at least they wave back. Now I just try to take it as mistaken but friendly.

    I have a plethora of signals. The smile, the sharp nod (not a shake aka the Irish nod :D ), the wave (not to be mistaken with turning right), the finger wave from the hoods, etc..

    Close to home I always get a greeting back. Regardless of what kind of bike they are on, or even if they are on one (runners, hikers, dog walkers, roller bladers, snowmobilers, snow shoers, XC skiers).

    In more urban areas I find that people do this much less; probably because if you waved at every single person you'd look like a flightless bird trying to fly.

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  6. I still can do this peculiar nod and it gives me a big smile to remember. Thank you for that. I lived in Derry when I was a foreign language assistant from Germany at Limavady High and Limavady Grammar about 30 years ago. At that time everybody did it any time. Usually somebody working in a shop or pub you'd never seen before would greet you with this nod and the words "Right love?" Even nowadays I sometimes like to put the odd "och" and "aye" into the conversation when I'm talking to an english speaking person - just for the fun of it and for some very fond memories. PS. Whe you went to Dunluce Castle, the Giant's Causeway or the Griannan of Ailach all those years ago you could be completely on your own for hours - just watching the sea or looking at the beautiful skies. It was in 1984/85.
    Love this blog.
    Kind regards
    Eckhard

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    1. Ha. I had to come to the Giant Causeway in the middle of the night, in winter, to photograph it with no people about! And even then, I had to wait my turn, till an Italian photographer finished with his shoot (,... so I did.)

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  7. Interesting greeting typology. The subtle 2-finger "wave" is actually quite common; not only roadies or motorcyclists, but, at least in the Southern US, pickup truck drivers -- 2 fingers raised on the hand holding the wheel. (You wouldn't use *2* hands on the wheel, would you?)

    I myself often use the nod direct: jerk your chin down, then return to normal position. This serves both as greeting and to acknowledge driver courtesy, as when an oncoming car meaning to turn left lets you go on by before doing so.

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  8. Sounds to me quite a bit like the inscrutable and often incomprehensible head bobble of Indians on the sub-continent. Walking into a government office, many with noisy manual typewriters clattering away in the background, and trying to ask even a simple yes-or-no question can be quite the experience for a Westerner. "Um, was that a yes or a no?", followed by a second yes-or-maybe-no-all-included-in-the-same-gesture bobble.

    As for non-verbal communication here in the mountains in Colorado, a subtle head nod seems to be the most common gesture of recognition. Not too much "big city" riding around here other than in Denver, so it's mostly pretty peaceful on the roads or bike paths or single-track.

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  9. Ditto on Bertin 753's observation. Spent some time driving around rural NM with my ex in her institutional green Forest Service truck. Statistical analysis on the two finger salute proved 80%-85% compliance rate. Here in suburbian NC, we pull the chin UP and raise the eyebrows as a gesture of respect (think Mussolini, but with a quick return to normal to avoid neck strain, and, of course, no crossed arms).

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  10. How does gender enter into this exchange? Male to male, female to female, or female to male? Cultural, regional, types of riding?

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  11. I think US cyclists using the right-turn signal of sticking out the left arm with forearm pointing up is a) silly and b) likely to be misunderstood. It's just a holdover from car practice. The only reason the right turn signal is specified this way is that a car (LHD) is too wide to make the signal the intuitive way, with the right arm. I point with my right arm when I am signaling a right turn, and with my left arm when I am signaling a left turn. This has never ever been misunderstood. I think the left arm right turn signal on bikes may be a New England thing, like motorists driving with their high beams on - on a residential street wiith a street light every 20 feet, or backing into parking spaces.

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    1. Yes, yes, yes! I just left an almost identical comment below - should have read through these first. Seriously, what on earth is the point of a signal that almost no one can properly interpret?

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    2. I once had a fellow cyclist chastise me for sticking my right arm out to indicate a right turn. He said it made no sense, was confusing, and is not a recognized signal. Of course I enjoyed explaining that he was the true moron. It seems nobody criticizes cyclists more than fellow cyclists.

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    3. I tend to make my right turn signal this way too, just extending my right arm and pointing, and everybody seems to get it. I notice that a lot of the cyclists who make the right turn signal with the left hand pointing up around here tend to do it in kind of a brisk gesture with a clenched fist, like you see soldiers do on commando raids in the movies. Possibly it's more about the fantasy of having a special "secret language" rather than practicality. :-p

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  12. I've never heard of the roadie wave, time to look a bit closer. Motorcyclists seem to always have a clear connection and acknowledgement when on the road but I've not experienced the same level with those on a bicycle. For years, when only riding a motorbike, the wave was clear whether in the city or riding a loop around the U.S. With bicycles, though, there seems to be a different culture. Almost like there is some sort of hierarchy of riding, some deserve waves, others don't…I dunno…And as far as cars go the only way I can communicate with them is nonverbally, a look in the eye, a point, a nod, an 'okay' sign and go. It's interesting to think about how different continents/cultures communicate and what is understood vs. misunderstood. A female friend cycled around the world and I must now ask her this question.

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    1. In this area I find that cyclists who ride for transport (very few of us), will always acknowledge one another when in close proximity, with a 'nod'; when passing recreational riders and walkers on shared paths greetings may be a 'nod' and/or "hi" - exceptions are those of the 'Lycra Brigade' who never acknowledge other cyclists other than to shout instructions as they approach - quite rude.

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    2. When I rode a motorcycle regularly throughout the 90's giving the "subtle wave" to a fellow biker was almost universal. Almost without exception if a wave was not offered or returned the rider was on a Harley Davidson. When bicycling I've had the same experience as spokeswoman with the Lycra Brigade. Transport cyclists and casual cyclists are much more friendly on average. This may well be one of the reasons the only time I've ever ridden in a group was when I was mountain biking. It seemed like out in the woods everyone I met was friendly, helpful and accepting no matter what level of skill I was at.

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  13. I often put a thumbs up on the end of my left or right turns, particuarly if a motorist has slowed to let me join a lane, or has held back a little on a turn. I'll nod and do the two finger wave if they're waiting at a junction without traffic lights whilst I'm passing on the road. Nine times out of ten I get a nod back. I think it's easy to forget we're not on the road in our own little bubbles and it's particuarly reasuring that getting a nod of recognition from those in the steel bubbles that they see you.

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  14. The rural Yorkshireman, never inclined to waste words, has reduced the Irish "nod" you describe down to a barely-perceptible rotation of the head which brings one ear briefly down toward the shoulder. If he's feeling talkative and intimate the gesture may include a tiny twinkle about the eyes or the merest suggestion of a wink. The greeting may be exchanged by any combination of motorists, cyclists, or pedestrians. I find it singularly endearing.
    ~ David Miller

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  15. I like to communicate with drivers in cars. I want to make sure they see me. My biggest problem with motorists is when I have the "walk" sign and begin to cross the intersection. Drivers often mistake their ability to make a right turn on a red light for a God given right to make this turn without first stopping or yielding to pedestrians. This is a fairly common practice in my area of Florida. I therefore seek to make eye contact with a car in the right hand turn lane. When it is clear they see me and are stopping, I make sure to give them a nod AND a wave. My hope is that by clearly acknowledging their attentiveness they will be even more alert to cyclists in the future. Oh and when a driver blasts through his turn I yell at them....it makes me feel better.

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    1. I am SOOO with you on this one! I always wear my neon yellow "armor" and am sure to make eye contact before proceeding into an intersection. I usually wave thanks to the driver and mouth "thank you" as well. Part of me thinks that extra acknowledgement shouldn't really be required for not mowing me down when I have the right of way, but I figure that it's always best to bow to the guy in the 2-ton machine regardless of what the law says. And maybe if I take the "killing them with kindness" approach they'll be more likely to look out for bikes in the future.

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    2. Motorists failing to give way at intersections is also an issue here - I also make eye contact and in addition give a 'stop' signal with my hand, where I believe the driver may still proceed I 'push them back' with my hand quite energetically while maintaining eye contact. Where obnoxious drivers are concerned, the gestures I use are those one may not be particularly proud of upon reflection.

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  16. I definitely remember "the nod" from my youth in Northern Ireland although I wouldn't be surprised if something similar happens in lots of other rural locations. Whatever the mode of transport, when encountering someone along the road, the chances are you'd know the person, or recognise the face and if not, well just nod anyway.

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  17. When we first moved to New Zealand years ago, I was also perplexed by this. Why were people waving NO to me? Then one day we saw a friend pedaling toward us and he did the same thing, so we asked him what was wrong. He told us it was the way THEY did a friendly greeting. Maybe it goes with driving on the left! I don't think I ever got used to it, even after knowing that it wasn't a sign of disapproval.

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    1. Interesting that they do the same in NZ. And even more so, that John was not familiar with the gesture. Must be an Ulster and not an all-Ireland thing.

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    2. After asking John about this last night, he said the head shake was familiar to him, but whatever I described at the time - the disapproving no, no, no thing - must not have translated. Still I've never seen HIM do it. And maybe I've just taken such off the beaten tracks in Ireland, that I rarely see other cyclists to have noticed the same greeting there

      It is still strange to me that the same people will nod their heads side to side to say no, but this nod is seen as a distinct and friendly greeting! The importance of learning the local ways!

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  18. This may be slightly off topic, but the whole right turn signal thing strikes me as a bit crazy - I mean just the fact that people misinterpret it as a wave tells me that they don't know what it means. So how useful is a signal that people can't interpret? I know, I know, I know... people "should" know what the signals mean, but honestly, I'm more concerned with drivers being able to predict what I'm gonna do than being "correct" on the road. So I always just point with my right arm - like a left turn signal only with my right arm. That's actually considered acceptable by Colorado law, but I know that's not the case everywhere. I realize it takes my hand off my right breaks, and perhaps is slightly less visible than signaling with the left arm, but it makes vastly more sense to me than using a signal that almost nobody can interpret. Just wondered what y'all think about it...

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    1. Totally agree, EcoCatLady, (and with Anon 4:37 above). I had to unlearn the left hand/right turn signal ingrained from driver's ed way back, and from years of motorcycling, where it's the only possible way to signal a right turn (you CAN'T take your right hand off the throttle). Like you say, when we point to the right, everybody knows what we mean!

      Charlie

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    2. Systems of signs and signals, like spoken language, evolve to reflect everyday use and usefulness. The left-armed righthand turn is likely on its way out. A shame though, because I rather like it.

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  19. Local lane signalling round the steep,deep banked single track lanes which pass for entertainment round here gets to be a single finger imperceptibly raised as an effusive gesture of thanks for reversing a hundred yards round corners to a passing place. The sideways nod is equally parsimonious in its movement. Cycling acknowledgement is normally non vocal and restrained - roads of sufficient gradient that either breathing or grimly clinging to the brakes is the over-reaching activity. If one meets a fellow cyclist on the flat, broad smiles, as shared by survivors of a calamitous event, are exchanged, just before the next plummet or lung bursting ascent hoves into view.

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  20. Lots of debate in Oz about whether one should lift just the index finger or the index & middle finger when acknowledging oncoming motorists on rural roads. No consensus other than, the more remote the road, the more important it is to wave in this way.

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  21. My experiences as a driver, pedestrian, and road/urban cyclist on the US west coast encompasses all of these acknowledgement types except the side-to-side nod. That one would have thrown me off badly. At minimum I will do the drop chin nod and a two finger wave to other cyclists or courteous drivers. I do the same while behind the wheel.

    I think we ought to start a trend of roadie cyclists giving each other Harpo-esque "Gookies"as greetings.

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  22. My son went to college in Boston and navigated the city via bicycle. On his return, while riding with him in our home city, I saw that he acquired many non-verbal communication skills which were not so needed here. He firmly looks motorists in the eye and points, not to say 'hi' but to say I'm here and sharing the same space. That's intense.

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  23. Being an admirer of minimalism I'm a big fan of, and often use, the "roadie wave"; one, maybe two, fingers raised form the handlebar. Sometimes when using the two finger version I wonder if people interpret it as a peace sign (not a bad thing, but out of character for me). My favorite variation on this was when driving through a sparsely populated part of New Mexico a motorist passing in the opposite direction made eye contact, lifted one finger from the steering wheel and moved it in a small arc from right to left.
    The nod is also quite nice...

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  24. I remember seeing this a lot when I visited Ireland years ago, and it was a bit confusing at first. In the time since I have noticed a lot of regional variation in what I have always thought of as the "guy nod" (I know women do it too, but it seems more common in my experience between men, possibly because solitary women out cycling or walking are less likely to engage with random men). My favorite variation is the one I've encountered in the Pennsylvania Dutch regions of Eastern Pennsylvania, which involves cocking the head to one side, sometimes fairly sharply, so one looks like a curious dog.

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  25. Ah, hand signals. One evening I was headed for a party at a colleague's house. The driveway was on the right, as I rode toward it; meanwhile, a car approached in the oncoming lane and signaled to turn left into the driveway. I used the straight-right-arm-with -finger-pointed signal to indicate that I was turning right. As I did, the driver (who had clearly seem me) turned as well, so I had to make a sudden stop to avoid a low-speed collision. Since we were both headed to the same party, I then asked him what happened. He thought that my right-arm-pointing-right signal meant that I was giving *him* the go-ahead to turn. Since then I've always signaled with a flat hand, rather than a pointing finger.

    Also, pretty much nobody who drives a car knows the stop signal (left hand pointing downward). They often seem to think I'm telling them to stay far back at a red light -- which wouldn't be a problem, except that they then stop so far behind the signal that they're not on the magnetic detector strip, and I have to motion them to pull up in order to get a green light. Sigh.

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  26. " Sure anod is as good as a wink to a blind horse" as we say in West Cork.

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