Signing Our Thank You’s

When I was growing up in an increasingly car-packed Southern California, a product came on the novelties market to aid communication between drivers isolated from each other in–and by–their vehicles. Bumper sticker-sized car signs, which could be slipped into the side or back windows before, or flashed during, a drive, opened up a literary medium for communicating one’s general relational availability, for flirting with a particular eye-catching neighbor-driver, or for offering a spirited review of another driver’s navigational choices. The blocking of social interaction by customized steel and glass encasements had been solved, so long as an assortment of two-to-four-word signs (a primitive Twitter?) could convey a driver’s emotional whereabouts.

As angry and amorous drivers well know, this wasn’t the most practical solution to inter-car communication. There’s just not always the time or the correct following distance to select and flash a printed sign to another driver, but a quick gesture usually does the trick.

In a recent “On Language” column in the New York Times, William Safire reported on a poll of physical gestures people use to complete the social gesture of favor + thank you. Grateful drivers have found many ways to thank someone for letting them move into the lane ahead of them. There’s:

·    the A-OK sign, with the joining of first finger and thumb;
·    the thumbs-up, followed by pointing to the other driver;
·    the doffing of an imaginary brimmed hat;
·    the combination of the hat doff with a military-style salute;
·    the Hollywood-Indian “how” sign, of the upraised palm and the mouthing of the word “thanks”;
·    the “toodley-doo,” or wiggling of all five fingers on an upraised hand;
·    the waggling of the pinkie and thumb, with the middle three fingers closed in toward the palm (known in Hawaii as the “shaka”);
·    the prayer position, with a small bow (to be performed only in very safe traffic conditions); and
·    the (relatively safe) raising and waggling of the index finger from the steering wheel.

Years ago, when I was living in Seattle, a driver made room for me to enter the lane just in front of her. I appreciated it, especially as Seattle is one of the hairiest places I’ve ever driven, its popularity outstripping the capacity of its streets to hold the cars that assert a right to drive on them. Gratefully, I gazed up into the rearview mirror and waved my hand in a kinetic-sculpture version of the “Hollywood-Indian” method (above). I thought was an open, friendly gesture: fingers straight, a speedy, exaggerated windshield-wiper motion from my elbow. For myself as much as for her, I mouthed an overarticulated “thank you” into the rearview mirror.

A day later, I picked up the telephone: it was the Seattle Police, calling to notify me that a complaint had been lodged against me for having expressed road rage in an inappropriate manner on the streets of Seattle. I was baffled: when and how had this occurred? My method of handling any negative emotions toward other drivers has been to chide them under my breath: “Monsieur, monsieur, others have seen the benefits of signaling a lane change in advance. Perhaps you too would find the benefits of this practice?”

As the caller gave more details as to where and when my offense had taken place, I recognized what had happened. The woman who had granted me space had thought she’d been dissed by my returning gesture. As he ended the call, the cop admonished me, “We’re not going to pursue this now, but it was suggested you take an anger management course.”

The thank you, socially gestural in its very nature, is an interchange that depends on both parties’ understanding the generous act and the return as such. Either the expression of gratitude must re-establish a form of respectful equality or reciprocity, particularly if the favor cannot be returned directly, or it must answer the bounty others offer with an expression of genuine humility. Failing to bow in humility leaves the circle of that gesture broken. In Dante’s Inferno, Margaret Visser observes, “At the bottommost circle of hell, the ungrateful are punished by being eternally frozen in the postures of deference they had failed to perform during their lifetimes: trapped rigid in enveloping ice, they stand erect or upside down, lie prone, or bow face to feet.”

The gift + thank-you gesture of social life depends on the accomplishment of two givings, two receivings.

“It is a fact of life that people give dinner parties, and when they invite you, you have to turn around and invite them back. Often they retaliate by inviting you again, and you must then extend another invitation.

Back and forth you go, like Ping-Pong balls, and what you end up with is called social life.”

–Laurie Colwin,
Home Cooking