Politics of Waving (if in doot, wave and toot)

When I was a grasscutter we noted a suite of social phenomena we termed the “Politics of Waving”. It manifests itself in several ways – when driving in the van ‘round Lerwick, we noted a tension as to whether to wave and/or return waves to other motorists and pedestrians. Surely it’s quite simple – if you’re waved at, wave back. Obviously, a mutual wave between friends, family and acquaintances is customary, and a thumbs up to someone who lets you out at a junction is simple courtesy.

But what about waving to the guy from the petrol pumps, or the taxi driver who took you home on Saturday night, or the lass from the cafe? Do you know them well enough to wave? What happens if you instigate a wave and the wavee doesn’t do likewise? They peer in your windscreen thinking “Whaa is yun” and awkwardly ignore you, or give you an unenthusiastic nod. Is it worth taking the risk of being shunned?

Worse still, when you wave at someone only to realise it’s mistaken identity and it’s not who you think it was. If they ignore your your unrequited social advance, the humiliation is palpable, if they wave back, the guilt is consuming.

It seems that while there’s no accepted waving etiquette in Lerwick, things are generally more affable in the country. “Wave at will” is the order of the day.

Waving is part of the culture in some areas of Shetland. A polite index finger raise is de rigueur whilst passing a fellow motorist in Whalsa. Compare this to mainland UK where a not so polite middle finger raising is likely to be your only communication on the roads (my ex-boss in Glasgow had a claw hammer which he used to wave our his window should someone’s driving not find favour with him).

Perhaps the most complex set of waving conventions, and attendant tooting, is that of the single track road passing place. Shetlanders seem to be born with an innate understanding of this almost ritualistic set of rules and customs; if you pull in to let someone pass, you offer a wave as they proceed; if someone pulls in to let you pass, you offer a single toot, a wave and a smile; if someone has to reverse to clear the way for you, you offer two or more short toots, a thumbs up and big smile. Of an evening, a headlight flash can be substituted for a toot.

There are regional variations of these consuetudes, but the above should be considered as the minimum standard.

However, failing to observe these conventions can result in a single track road rage – a condition caused by nescient motorists unconversant with the decorum of the rural thoroughfare.

For example, I recall being a passenger in a car which met another car on the single track road above Rerwick that had just, rather irritatingly, driven past a convenient passing place and was now sitting expectantly a few feet away in the middle of the road. After a moment of friendly gesticulation, my coachman had to reverse a considerable distance to allow the egress of the insistent peerie car. We settled in to our passing place ready to return the toot/wave/smile but were enraged to be completely ignored as the buggers stoored past. So enraged was my driver that he followed them to Sumburgh and gave the hapless tourists an austere introduction to passing place etiquette as they stood in the check-in queue.

If in doot, wave and toot.

Article for Shetland Life magazine – March 2012