Why do we wave?

I like listening to BBC Radio 1 online (not too much, since that would seriously mess up my carefully built up Last.fm profile), and one of my favourites has always been the item ‘Carpark Catchphrase’ from the Chris Moyles show, which also features the character ‘Mr. Fish’. At the end of the item, the presenter shouts out: “Say goodbye mister Fish…. He’s wàààving!”. Slightly bizarre indeed, but that’s the charm of it.

Jumping like maniacs
This morning, I saw someone dressed up as a clown waving at tourists in a bus. Which was also slightly bizarre, but -for me- missed the charm. It did however, get me to thinking: Why do we wave? What do we get out of this activity where we raise our opened hand to strangers and swing it sideways? It’s a form of greeting someone else. You acknowledge someone’s existence with it… but why ‘wave’? Why not just ‘nod’? Or why not ‘start jumping up and down as a maniac’?

My guess would be, and please anthropologists/sociologists out there: correct me if I’m wrong here, that we wave to strangers, to show them our empty hands. ‘Look, no weapon! I mean no harm!’ That sort of thing. Wikipedia tells us the following: The orientation of the hand varies by culture and situation. In many cultures, the palm is oriented toward the recipient of the wave. This would back my (is it mine?) theory of ‘showing that you do not hold a weapon’ up. I’ve also noticed that some of my colleagues wave as they walk by my window. They don’t even go through the trouble of moving their entire arm anymore. They merely raise their forearm and show me their palm. A bit like an office worker who’s been walking past security for years and years and very casually and briefly only flashes his (or her) ID card. The idea is: ‘I know of my colleagues they have no weapon in their hand’.

I say goodbye, you say hello
But then; why do we use the same signal when we say goodbye to people? Your loved one sits on a train while it slowly pulls out of the station while you stand there and wave. Perhaps you even run along as the train accelerates. Separating the two of you as you gaze at each other with tearful eyes, shouting “I love you” and “I won’t forget you”… and you wave. There does not really seem to be a point to want to show the other person in this situation you are not holding a weapon. Unless you’d like to show that you have not intention of slicing your wrist as you are overcome with grief. Or that you do not hold a bazooka to blow up the train or something…

The eye of the beholder
I guess this waving may have something to do with the way our eyes work. At a greater distance we can no longer distinguish the other from their surroundings if they’re standing still. However, if the other person is moving (like: ‘waving’) we can see them from a much greater distance. Which means that we have bit more time to come to mentally part form each other. Again, I might be totally wrong (not about the eyes part though) but it would seem that we show the same behaviour in two really connected circumstances (saying ‘hello’ and saying ‘goodbye’) for two very different reasons.

Say goodbye mr. Fish…. He’s wàààving!

For those of you who are extremely interested in waving…. watch this clip of The Onion in which they predict that the British Queen will leave beahing the long legacy of waving…

If you think this post is interesting you might also like to read: Why do we kiss?


5 thoughts on “Why do we wave?

  1. hey, I typed the question “why do we wave?” into google and stumbled upon this blog. I found your ideas really interesting. Thanks. I never thought about those ideas. I have a theory of my own that I am doing a little research on that relates to visual perception. I was thinking about why we wave in contrast to why we salute? I’ll post the link here when I get a clearer write up done.

  2. I’ve thought about this too, so when I searched for it, I saw your ideas. I’ve too wrote a bit, about I went to my saved waving. So i went to my saved files and pulled out my typed thoughts.

    Here they are:
    By waving we’re consciously taking our time to send the primitive message “I can’t possibly sneak up on you. I’M telling you, that I’m here. EVEN if I was bluffing and actually did wanted to attack you, you still know I’m here”. There seems to be alot of acknowledgment that attacks are a danger. I mean, knowing that they’re people around you is different than THEM letting YOU know, they are there.
    Think about it, to attack anyone, you MUST hide. You must not move. In primitive times NOT moving was responsible for OUR killing and eating of our preys, and therefore IMPORTANT for our survival. So when someone ruins THEIR chance to kill you and for THEM to survive on YOUR death, we’ll acknowledge the primitive gratitude (the subconscious acknowledges. It doesn’t analyze) That warm feeling, of “wow, he just did that?”.
    It’s a nice bond to create. We won’t know why we feel like, but the subconscious has a brilliant way of making us believe that it’s influence is for our own good and that it’s only neccessary, and because the subconscious IS working in our own interest, we just give into it. And that’s why you’ll feel that you and that individual are now friends, and that’s why you get this feeling of certainty, this gut feeling that he’ll be the last person to hurt you, but the first to help you.

    I’m a body language expert, so my knowledge comes from a slightly different angle.
    Tell me your thoughts, folks.

    1. Thanks Kallel,

      Great to read a different theory.
      I think there’s probably a lot of truth in the assumption that we wave to be seen. (I guess that’s why prents wave to their babies, to attract their attention and be seen, since their vision isn’t fully develloped yet). I am not convinced by the argument that to attack someone you have to hide. That’s usually the case for hunting prey, but not when it comes to dominance or hierarchy within a group (at least, based on what I’ve read on apes). What do you think about that?

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