hand signals

It was a nice run while it lasted.

Do you remember the end of March and beginning of April when the coronavirus was new and mysterious? Once-busy highways looked like East Montana two-lanes and city sidewalks were vacant with a “where-did-everybody-go” eerie quality.

And everybody waved at each other.

On the rare occasion when you would see another living soul outside your family, everybody waved. Now, we all know in our circle of acquaintances there are wavers and non-wavers. But even the non-wavers were waving. It was signal. “Hang in there … keep the faith. I’m alive … so are you.”

Agreed, waving is probably more of a small-town phenomenon. Mankato, Minn. is in the 50,000 population neighborhood and you don’t see much waving. Many times people looked startled if you wave at them; but with a puzzled look they do often wave back. I suppose they’re thinking, “Am I supposed to know that person?”

I’ve lived in towns where you’re considered a snob if you DON’T wave. All forms of waving seem to suffice. There are the hearty wavers who look like they’re trying to hail a taxi. These are mostly men. Women have an almost-coy way of waving — always friendly, nothing demonstrative.

I like to use the parade wave on occasion. There are two. In one form the waver moves their hand almost horizontally in a figure eight motion. Not much wrist action, mostly arm movement. The other parade wave points the forearm in an upright position while only the hand moves … pivoting on the wrist like you were screwing in a lightbulb.

Then there’s what I call the Hitler wave. To describe it in a more socially correct manner, this wave is similar to the response when attendance is being taken; or you’re volunteering with the correct answer in class. No hand movement, no real arm movement either. But if the hand and fingers are stretched out enough, it looks like the person is saluting the Third Reich … well, you get the idea.

People driving a vehicle will often give the finger wave. With their thumb hooked around the steering wheel, the driver will lift one or sometimes four fingers to fashion a wave. This is a very subtle wave and should not be confused with the other one-finger salute drivers will often distribute in less-friendly situations.

Another vehicle driver wave involves little hand movement at all. It is usually an arm thrust out an open window as the vehicle fades down the block. In fact, in my town, if this action involves vigorous arm movement, something is probably wrong and the driver is trying to get attention — not being necessarily friendly.

At any rate, I’ve noticed a definite diminishing of waving — certainly the enthusiastic kind. Are we so Covid-jaded we’ve gone from, “YES! I’m alive!” to “Ugh .. I’m bored.”?

We can’t shake hands, let alone hug each other. It seems at least we can still wave. And with masks in place, people can really wonder, “Am I supposed to know that person?”


All of this came about as I received an interesting email last week. To enhance communication and promote farm safety, the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) has developed 11 hand signals. 

“When working around large equipment or machinery,” the e-mail stated, “verbal communication between employees often is not possible. Workers must rely on hand signals to communicate. Training workers how to use hand signals could be especially useful for non-English speaking workers”

Perfect for these socially-distanced times.

Some of the hand signals looked familiar: “This far to go,” “Stop the engine” and “Increase speed.” “Stop” is eerily similar to the Hitler wave (but we’ve already gone there).

While the other seven signals definitely have their place in working situations, they may generate a look of bewilderment to the untrained. (Perhaps flash cards would be useful to learn them by heart.) “Raise equipment” and “Lower equipment” are logically opposites; but “Come to me” seems a little frantic in nature. And does it matter if the hand moves clockwise or counter-clockwise when signaling? Is the opposite direction telling people to “Stay away?”

One signal I didn’t see on the list was one my father often used: Hands clenched in fists to the temples of his head, simulating pulling out tufts of hair. If that hand signal wasn’t clear, the colorful language accompanying the action spoke volumes.

North Dakota State University Extension has created a variety of resources to share these hand signals. Posters featuring the signals can be downloaded, along with a video of Oliver County Extension Agent Rick Schmidt demonstrating how to properly use hand signals; and what to be aware of when guiding drivers of tractors, trucks or other equipment.

Paul Malchow is the managing editor of The Land. He may be reached at editor@TheLandOnline.com.