Waving “hello” or “goodbye” might seem a natural, friendly thing to do to attract notice. But what are the origins of this distinctly human gesture?
Desmond Morris, the brilliant anthropologist and author of The Naked Ape, notes in his 1979 book Gestures that a wave can be a beckoning signal and that it differs by region and manner (number of fingers used, position of the hand, direction of the palm, etc.). A “palm-show” wave is the most common used worldwide, but in Italian-speaking regions a “palm-hide” wave is de rigeur and often confused as a “C’mere” signal.
Anyone who has lost track of one’s parent or spouse in a crowd or parking lot can attest to the beckoning wave — how embarrassing when they’re waving like a banshee* not seeing that you already see them, jeez!!!!
It occurred to me recently, though, that a wave, like a kiss, might be interpreted as a cue that you intend no harm to the other person. Like “hands up” or a “put your hands where I can see them” sign — a promise you won’t attack, just a friendly, non-aggressive gesture.
That thought made me sad, considering that the default would mean we are all naturally out to get each other, that we must signal peaceful intent before judging someone or being judged suspicious. It made me wonder whether there could have been a different outcome if Trayvon Martin had waved to George Zimmerman, or vice versa.
It also made me think of my daughter, a rape survivor, who these days is more aware of male strangers who approach, like the creepy guy on the bus who seemed to be stalking her and then waved, like a come-hither beckoning that felt like a potential attack.
A kiss, meanwhile, is among the most defenseless postures we can take — the teeth are not bared, there’s no chance we’ll try to consume the person, our eyes are closed, etc. The reason it feels good, I suppose, has to do with the sensitivity of the lips, the intimacy of proximity, as well as the psychology of it — that blissful feeling of surrender, of trusting another human being, defenses down.
I pray my daughter can feel that way, not preyed upon. Someday. Soon.
The “kiss” of betrayal by Judas of Jesus mentioned in the Bible referred to a physical embrace — it wasn’t as if Jesus and Judas were making out. Back in those days a “kiss” was a “hug,” a defenseless posture to show you wouldn’t strike or kill someone. (Combative wrestlers often seem to be hugging, but somebody’s always likely to get hurt!)
You don’t need me to tell you that Saturday Night Live has sucked lately. But on last week’s show, if you stuck with it, there was a redeeming bit, a short film called “Sad Mouse” starring Bruno Mars in which he took a job as a Times Square panhandling-style mouse in a Disney-esque mascot suit and was told to wave to strangers.
Filled with anxiety, he asked: “What if they don’t wave back?!” Sure enough, given it was New York and all, he suffered serious rejection throughout most of the tender-hearted, bizarre scene.
It got me thinking. About how I want to hug my daughter today, though she’s 700 miles away. About a dear friend of mine who offers frequent, quick, shy waves as a sweet expression of his love. About how the time I last saw another friend two years ago, as he lay in a hospital bed, he dismissed me with a wave, meaning “no worries,” before entering a coma and dying. About how a stadium of people can become synchronized in a mega-“wave” (OK, different geophysical origins) of support for their flailing team and move mountains, or at least a lot of hot air. About the hopefulness inherent in a wave.
And how sometimes we wave off the waving people — like in Times Square — as crazy when they might merely be trying to connect … or, for once, be noticed.
AND HERE IS THE “SNL’ CLIP:
(*To all haters: I’m well aware a “banshee” is more audible than visual, but I liked the image and the way it sounded.)