Head Nod

HeadNodby Steve Lancaster6/12/15
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.” • (1459 views)

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18 Responses to Head Nod

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    That’s a pretty good essay, Steve. Thanks for sharing it with us. And sorry I couldn’t find a “nod” better than Schwarzenegger. You try Googling for “head nod” and see what you come up with. 😀

    • Steve Lancaster says:

      Understandable and I think appropriate, I don’t know if there is an Austrian custom that is similar but those that care don’t matter and those that matter don’t care.

      Semper Fi

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    Yes, I believe that is something of a custom among people our age, and have done that (or very similar things) myself.

  3. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    Growing up in the South, it was common for people to nod and say hi to each other. I even recall driving through small towns and having people give me a quick wave as I passed by.

    Since returning from Asia, I have noticed a marked decline in this custom. It still happens, generally among older people as Steve said.

    When I am out, I still nod to people I encounter while strolling. Most of the time, they acknowledge this with a nod of their own, but sometimes they rudely walk by as if they were afraid of being accosted. Instead of letting this annoy me, I can only shake my head.

    • Steve Lancaster says:

      Among millaimals it just “dude, and dude”

      • M Farrell says:

        Steve– Your essay reminded me of my father who always wore a hat (Humphrey Bogart style Fedora)– It was always worn at that slight angle that gave it an air of style/implied rakishness– The 30s, 40s, and 50’s generation all wore them– In passing strangers, there was not only the nodding of the head, but the touching of the brim of the hat (an implied tipping of the hat) — It was a sign of respect and recognition accorded regardless of whether the person was an acquaintance — Often, if the other individual was a lady, there was an actual tipping of the hat in respect (and, of course, it could also be used as a means of flirtation)– I still remember how handsome he looked decked out in his fedora– I guess I miss the style and the gentler manners (in our present age of vulgarity)– It seemed a quiet echo of a gentility (dare I say chivalry) that is all but dead–

        • Steve Lancaster says:

          I think I was born out of date, I would prefer the early 1800s. I am the product of my father’s generation (born 1910). I do wear a fedora similar to that you describe and in much the same way just as my father did. My children, grandchildren and great grandchildren do not understand, however, those who, like you, do know why its as much a part of wardrobe as pants.

          • M Farrell says:

            Steve– I also often feel as if I was born out of time/ sync/too late– Several years after my father’s passing, I found an old fashioned haberdasher ( I don’t think you could find one now except maybe in a theater costume department) who cleaned, resized, and reblocked my Dad’s hat for me– I wear it with a London Fog rain coat (belted trench coat circa 1945 style/ a very practical garment) three seasons a year– Like you, it’s a necessary part of my everyday gear– The eye rolling from my son is priceless– He’s convinced I’ve stolen Ingrid Bergman’s costume from the last scene of “Casablanca”– But the hat still gets tilted, and Dad would be tickled– As a slightly eccentric older lady, I can be allowed to have a bit of style… And certain styles are simply timeless– I wish I could say the same for people’s manners–

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              What a great story, M. I don’t know what you know about hats, the history of the hat, how to wear them, etc. But feel free to pen an essay on them. To me, the hat is the sign of sophistication. You had me at “Casablanca.”

              • Timothy Lane says:

                I’m shocked, shocked that you would be so besotted over such an old movie. So what if some call it the greatest movie ever?

              • M Farrell says:

                Ah, yes ” Casablanca”– Talk about timeless–

        • Timothy Lane says:

          That reference to the rakish angle of the hats reminds me of the song about style in Robin and the Seven Hoods, in which Robbo *Frank Sinatra) and his friends (basically, the Brat Pack) are teaching Bing Crosby how to look stylish. I think it was Dean Martin who noted that “A hat isn’t a hat unless it’s tilted.”

          • M Farrell says:

            Timothy– I know the movie and the song well–“You’ve Either Got or You Haven’t Got Style”– The movie has got to be one of the best of all time cures for the “blues” that I know of– And Dean Martin was most certainly correct– “A hat’s not a hat ’till it’s tilted”–

  4. Rosalys says:

    I have noticed that, while taking a walk in the neighborhood, that upon approaching another walker, 99 times out of 100, we will nod an say hi. I am older, and the initiation, when approaching a young person is, more often than not, mine; but even the young will return a greeting. It is a way of acknowledging the presence of a fellow human being. And I live in New England, so it isn’t just the South.

    Go into a large and crowded city, and you see very little of it. New Yorkers are famous for ignoring the fact that there are millions of other humans sharing the sidewalk with them. Maybe it’s to avoid developing a stiff neck by nodding a hundred times a day; maybe it’s an attempt to protect one’s own personal space; or perhaps it is dangerous in some places to allow an opening to an unknown entity. Of course, New York is a city of the North. Are southern cities different?

    • Steve Lancaster says:

      You have a point, some Southern cities are more Yankee than others. I suspect that small town New England retains the grace your talking about. Where I live in NW Arkansas our Yankeefied city is Bentonville, home of Wal-Mart. The large numbers of Yankees who deal with the worlds largest retailer. Others that seem to have lost their Southern roots are Atlanta, Miami and Charlotte NC. with Nashville, Memphis and Little Rock following close behind. True Southerners are becoming much more of a rare thing as opposed by those born in the South.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Go into a large and crowded city, and you see very little of it. New Yorkers are famous for ignoring the fact that there are millions of other humans sharing the sidewalk with them.

      My inclinations were surely imparted to my by my gregarious father. The running joke was, we couldn’t make it from the car to wherever we were going without him stopping to say hi to friends, acquaintances, or often just complete strangers. So, for better or for worse (and I’m sure I was quite annoying in this regard), I usually give some equivalent of a head nod, “How’s it going?,” or “Hi” if I pass by someone.

      But this doesn’t work and doesn’t apply to a crowded city. It’s just not feasible. And sometimes when I’m out on a trail hiking or biking, I don’t try to make eye contact because I sort of want to stay in my cone of silence. Plus, I’m so used to be ignored that it’s just not worth it to do it anymore unless it’s (as the theme here suggests) someone older…or particularly women with animals (of any age). They seem to like the nod and the animals give an excuse for breaking the ice.

      The nodding Steve and others are talking about is polite, elegant, and civilized. I, however, could be said to have been brought up on “power nodding” by my father. I hope I’ve found a happy medium, but not always. And I admit to withholding my nod when I see power yuppies dolled up like Lance Armstrong who seem so obviously self-absorbed that I save the nod for another day, perhaps giving it double to some nice old lady. But they do get the eye-roll.

      • Steve Lancaster says:

        That brings to mind a section of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Doc always wears a hat even inside, because he has a fear of his head getting wet. When traveling from Monterey to La Jolia in his Model A old ladies always wave and dogs smile and nod.

        One of the great American novels.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Okay…maybe I’ll give that novel a go. I tried tried tried to make it through Dickens’ “David Copperfield” but the story was just going nowhere. Great writer. Sort of a mediocre plotter, in my opinion.

          When I get done with “Boys in the Boat,” I may give that a try, Steve. Thanks for the recommendation.

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