Custom of the Country

rural waving rituals are one way of cutting through the tribalism of our times

Charlie Schaefer

As I walk my two little dogs up the road, I wave at the cars that go by. Often, the drivers wave back. Many are perfunctory acknowledgement; a raised hand, the minimalist but not unfriendly index finger lifted off the steering wheel, maybe a nodded head. Some are tentative and wary as if to say, “Do I know you? I don’t think I do.” Some, though, are full of vigorous enthusiasm. The hand goes back and forth rapidly and I can make out a face with a big smile. Possibly, they really like my little dogs. Some I may have waved at before and consider some sort of friendly relationship has been established. I suppose a few I know personally without realizing it. It’s hard to make out a face through the reflection on the windshield.

Some people don’t wave, but that’s a minority. A widow in her 80s gives her full attention to the road and has none left for me. I have absolutely no argument with that. Some, no doubt, are caught up in their own important concerns. Troubles with kids, spouses, or bosses can leave little emotional room for casual friendly gestures. I’m fine with that too. A few are just not willing to wave at some guy they don’t know. “He’s not a member of my tribe and I’m not in the mood for trans-tribal peaceability.” At least I project that’s what they’re thinking, which could be all wrong. Could be wrong, but probably not.

I live at the disorganized edge of town. It’s residential but there are cornfields just up the road and ragtag industrial facilities not far away. It’s not rural but it has enough rural characteristics so that rural behavior is not a surprise. People out in the country wave at the cars that go by. All you have to do to qualify for a wave is to be there. People value what is scarce, and pretty much by definition, people are scarce in the country.

Once when I was driving on a country road and was waved at by a guy in his yard, I liked the feeling that it left me with so much that I decided to do it myself. I liked that I was important enough to warrant the attention of the wave even though the guy took the small social risk of rejection by my not waving back. I liked that it made no difference who I was or what I was like. He greeted me regardless.

One time, I saw for sale at a gift shop a sign of the sort people put up in their dens that read: “Strangers are friends I haven’t met yet.” It rubbed me the wrong way. I’d like friendship to be more discriminating than that. Friendship should call for shared interests or ways of thinking about things that are not really common. I suspect that the people who operate according to the slogan “strangers are friends they haven’t met yet” aren’t so much interested in friendship as in having an audience for outgoing sociability while they hold the floor for more than their share of the time. Perhaps that’s uncharitable.

Anyway, waving at anyone who comes down the road is a little bit like the sentiment I don’t care for but it does not carry the elaborate trappings of friendship. Indeed, its beauty is that friendship has nothing to do with it. Friendship is the respectable cousin of tribalism which there’s way too much of. When I wave, I’m taking a modest step to try to diminish the tribalism of our times. Heck, maybe that’s what the people who eagerly wave back at me are doing too.