by Steve Lancaster 6/12/15
It happens most often among men, although I have seen women do it. It seems to be generational — mostly those about 40 and up. When you are out in public it’s almost always at the mall, a restaurant, or bookstore. I believe it is more of a Southern custom than Yankee, or Western. But you see it there also. It is a greeting so subtle that many people never notice or respond.
Two men age 40+ are walking towards each other at about 10 feet. Their eyes catch and each gives an almost imperceptible head nod. Even if you are watching for it you might miss it. In this age cohort the head nod is also an acknowledgement of shared time, a bond of remembrances of shared history.
It is a form of communication that says many things. First of all it’s a greeting, sometimes accompanied by a spoken, “hi or howdy.” But in the South we value the privacy of other people and seldom tarry to talk, unless it seems appropriate or we realize that the other person is known — perhaps from church, school or just looks familiar — then a long conversation may take place about mutual friends, family and each other. Sometimes we talk a long time enjoying the ebb and flow of the conversation. Scratch a Southerner and you will find he is a cousin, three or four times removed on your mother’s, mother’s side.
As a Marine I often notice a brother Marine by the way he walks, and his eyes, like mine, long after the years of combat, still watch for threats. There is a spring in his step learned at MCRD San Diego or MCRD Paris Island. Years after we have put the uniform away, or only dust it off for special occasions, we still wear the brand of the Gunny’s that taught us how to be Marine.
At my age I have learned to value the unspoken more than the spoken. The quiet woolgathering of advancing age is more of a treasure than undue talking. The head nod is sometimes just a nod, but more often than not it is an open acknowledgement that life is something we share with people we don’t know, might know, or just good friends who have not seen each other for a time. Next time you’re in the mall or the grocery store, nod your head at an older man, no need to talk, for you have given a great gift: “I know you’re there, and all your experiences are valued.”