Charles McCollum: How one simple gesture can improve our interactions

(Paul Sakuma | Associated Press) Ben Gleitzman waves his hand over a traffic and navigation app called Waze on his Apple iPhone in a Menlo Park, California.

One building block for a civil society is the simple, friendly acknowledgement of each other in passing. This is something Utahns seem to know instinctively, while people in some other places choose to habitually avoid.

A couple of decades ago, the Herald Journal newspaper in Logan ran an article about a local custom referred to as the “Paradise Wave,” which is a prime example of this social convention that is still going strong today despite all the conflict and ill will that has divided Americans since then.

For those who don’t know, Paradise is a small, picturesque town on the southern end of Cache Valley, and as the newspaper article pointed out, it’s a place where residents commonly acknowledge each other with a little wave of the hand as they cross paths while driving, walking, riding bicycles, pushing strollers, etc.

The Paradise Wave is an amazingly effective way to ease interpersonal tension that requires no talk, just occasional use of a simple hand gesture.

It’s not a big wave like someone hailing a friend across a parking lot or the hearty hello of Gomer Pyle welcoming Sheriff Andy Taylor to the Mayberry filling station, but rather a little flick of the wrist, maybe accompanied by a hardly perceptible nod or hint of a smile. Actually, any single one of these three simple gestures will get the job done. It doesn’t have to be a wave.

Between casual acquaintances, the gestures say “Howdy, neighbor.” Between strangers, they do a more important duty, delivering a message that might best be translated as “Go in peace.”

I am a long-time resident of Cache Valley. Until recently, I hadn’t been through Paradise or thought of that newspaper article in years. Then, while driving through the town recently on two-lane State Road 165, what do you know, here comes the wave through the windshield of one of the first vehicles I encounter, an old-school pickup truck. I waved back and felt that little lift one gets with any friendly interaction, then went on my way – in peace.

I knew nothing about the man in the truck, nothing about his politics, his social status, his genealogy. And that’s the beauty of the wave. It cuts across all differences instantly and doesn’t even allow you time to dwell on them.

Of course, this friendly salute isn’t unique to Paradise — you might even call it the Utah wave — but it does seem more prevalent there than many other places, some of which actually have social mores against such expressions of friendliness and some where you might even get yourself punched.

You don’t do the wave with absolutely everyone you pass, especially on crowded streets and sidewalks or in busy gathering places. It’s more of a here-and-there behavior, exercised perhaps when eyes meet or something else prompts mild interaction. It’s almost a must, however, on lightly trafficked hiking trails and backroads.

One of the big problems in everyday human relations is that we assume a lot about each other based on appearances, and these assumptions can be a breeding ground for hostility. We also assume we know what other people are thinking when they look at us.

The other day, for example, I got in a little stare down with a guy walking his dog past my house in Logan. As he looked my way without any facial expression, I got it in my head that he harbored hard feelings about me, perhaps over the less-than-perfect condition of my yard or the fact that my sprinkler at that moment was hitting the sidewalk as well as the grass.

Well, right about the time I was ready to look away in annoyance, something happened — something that made me feel both stupid and relieved at the same time. This gentleman I’ve never met before gave a little wave, just a tiny bending of the elbow and flutter of the fingers to say hello, and I realized the thoughts I’d placed in his head were all in my head instead.

The disarming, peacemaking power of a goodwill wave takes on even more significance in traffic situations. We flash a hand to thank other drivers for letting us in a lane, but more than that, road rage rarely escalates when one of the two drivers in a near collision offers a conciliatory gesture (involving five open fingers as opposed to one turned backward).

If you aren’t already a waver, nodder or smiler, I recommend you take them up. Their power to create a life elevated might surprise you.

Charles McCollum

Charles McCollum is the former editor of The Herald Journal newspaper in Logan.