How we say hello in New England

Bush_moue I just passed my neighbor in the street and he gave me the New England salute: a "moue."

He might have waved his hand, nodded, smiled, flashed his eyebrows, or even stopped to chat.  But, no, what he had for me was a moue. 

This is a small gesture of the mouth.  Lips are pulled back and compressed, as if someone were about to play the trumpet.  it happens very quickly.  If you are not watching very closely, you’ll miss it.  (In the image to the right, President Bush is making what might be a moue.)

It’s the French who call it a "moue."  And in France the moue is defined as an "expression of discontent, disdain, disgust."  But in America, it means something else, I think.  Actually, I don’t know what it means. 

I see New Englanders doing it all the time.  On the train from New York City, I watched a man walking up the isle.  People were spilling out of their seats and talking across the isle.  This obliged him to invade the personal space of these people.  He made a moue. 

So is that it?  An apology?  Well, it might be.  But I’ve also seen it used as an acknowledgment.  Another neighbor of mine passed me in her car.  She made a moue too.  This one can’t have been an apology.  I think it was her idea of hello. 

To someone who grew up in Western Canada, and lived, most recently, in Quebec, the moue feels stingy.  It feels like a withholding.  If I were Hispanic or African American, I would assume my neighbor disliked me for my difference.  But in fact, he and I are white, male, middle aged and middle class.  Two peas in a sociological pod.  God knows how he treats people who don’t share the pod.  (Maybe he’s friendlier!  That would be interesting.)

So, the moue is not (or not only) an expression of disgust, apology or acknowledgment.  I spend the rest of my walk thinking about it and decided finally that it is the smallest negotiable social gesture.  It doesn’t really signify anything except a disinclination to give nothing.

You can’t help feeling that the perpetrator would like to offer nothing.  But that would expose him to censure and the charge of "social noncompliance."  In this little world, you can’t do nothing, however much you might like to.  So you offer the tiniest bit more than nothing.  And that’s the moue.  In this New England economy of gestures, anything more than a moue is too much, and any thing less than a moue is too much, too.  If you withhold the moue, they can get you for non compliance.

Ok, sure, it’s a matter of temperament for some people.  It is also good policy in some cases. Sometimes you just want to keep your distance.  Especially when you find yourself around anyone my father would have called a "rum customer."  And there might be something in me that provokes this fear in my neighbor…despite the fact that I do not wear odd hats, sing to myself, or gesticulate.  (This could change.) 

No, I think there is a deeper motive, a systematic sociological one.  I can’t say what it is but some of my neighbors are so stingy with their hellos that I believe that they believe that if they are more generous I will ask them for a loan.  This might be an enactment of policy created by the founding poet.  It might merely be a performance of Frost’s "good fences make good neighbors." 

Is the moue a good fence?  No, it’s a terrible fence.  It looks like a begrudging gift, like you would rather offer nothing.  Failed reciprocity is worse than no gesture at all and a very bad fence indeed.  But that’s me, the reluctant New Englander, talking.  Chances are  I’ll get over it.  Or there’s therapy and some kind of cultural counseling.  It’s not to late to send me to summer camp. 

I made a note of every hello I got on the walk, and many of them were superb.  The happiest came when I passed a blond woman and her bull dog.  We said "hello" in almost the same way, in almost the same tone, at almost the same time.  Perfect reciprocity.  We had dispatched our responsibility.  And it was kind of fun.  (Simultaneity when accomplished accidentally is always fun.)  More to the point, it made a lovely fence.  We have acknowledged one another and that was that.  This fence made good neighbors of us both. 

It soon became clear to me that the best hello is a "cheery" hello.   A cheery hello is generous, uncomplicated, and closed.  It’s a gift that doesn’t ask for any kind of return.  It’s a kind of enameled bonhomie.  It says, "take this or leave this.  It’s my gift to you.  See you later." 

Or, you can offer "how you doing?" as a passing jogger did.  Visiting the US in the 1970s, I used to find this confusing.  It’s not as bad as the greeting "what’s happening" which once elicited from me the information that I had slept rather late, enjoyed an indifferent breakfast, and was off to the laundromat.  Something in the astonished response of my interlocutor told me this was not what he was looking for, and eventually I learned that it’s ok to answer a question with a question.  I said, "how you doing" back to the jogger.

There is the question of who goes first.  The first hello risks more and is therefore more generous.  You can be refused and in this case you feel like an idiot.  A moue is precisely this refusal plus 1 increment of sociality.  You still feel like an idiot, but you can’t call them on it.  But it’s also true that there is something gallant about the second hello.  The first speaker has exposed themselves to risk and when someone replied they are coming to their aid. 

Then there was the guy in the parking lot.  He was in his middle 20s and dressed like that loser-loner that everyone knows from high-school gym class: white socks, ill fitting shorts, give-away t-shirt, an expression somehow both defeated and truculent.  All in all, a pretty convincing confession of athletic incompetence that seemed also, very quietly, to give off an air of menace.  We know what this adds up to: "loner" plus "menace" = someone who someday may go postal or at least Paula.  I kept my distance.  Even a moue was too good for him!

As if to compensate for this, I came across an elderly man with sports cap.  He smiled beatifically at me and nodding his head at the tennis ball in my hand, said, "man on a mission!"  This was wonderful and charming, but I couldn’t think of anything to say in reply, and just grinned idiotically.  I personally love these little phrases said in passing, and, with more time, I would see if I couldn’t work out the  grammar.  We can say they are brief, self-evident, cheery, and if possible witty.  On another walk, I encountered a woman on a bike pulling a tiny caravan filled with children squealing with a delight so audible that you could hear them coming 100 yards away.  This gave me time to think up a little phrase to give her as she passed.  With pretend gruffness, I said, "joy rider!"  She smiled. 

So only some of my neighbors insist on the moue.  And I can only guess on their motives.  The effects of this behavior are a little less mysterious.  When people insist on this stinginess, they damage the social capital in which community consists.  Cheery hellos, and well exchanged greetings, have the effect of increasing the sense of fellowship.  I bet we could establish empirically that communities that exchange greetings are richer in every other respect, in the amount of time, money and interest they are prepared to give one another.  (Whether the greetings are cause or consequence (or both) another, interesting question.)

But again that’s the Canadian in me talking.  New England was an experiment for which we should all be grateful.  The little culture created a stubborn, sometimes aggressive individualism that helped to enable revolutions, military, social, religious, and economic.  So it’s probably wrong for a newcomer to complain.  Especially when he comes from a country that is famous for its politeness, and, increasingly, not much else.  If you have to choose…

References

McCracken, Grant. 2004.  Economics of the gaze.  The blog sits at the intersection of Anthropology and Economics.  August 23, 2004.  here.

17 thoughts on “How we say hello in New England”

  1. This is one of those observations where you say “oh shit, I do that”. I am a moue’er. You touched on a number of relevant likely suspects – culture, regionality, ethnic background, personality, etc. Probably all contribute. In my case, I would say a military base/midwestern upbringing (lots of social formality) and scandinavian ethnic lineage contributed most. Here in Minnesota, there is a syndrome of behaviors that have been called “Minnesota Nice”. I think they represents moue variants in that to the newcomer, they are interpreted as an icy ambivalence if not pure passive aggression.

    I can not think of any overt motive or animosity that drives this behavior. But I think you are right in equating it to a form of “stinginess”. I believe it represents a learned pattern where easy informality is socially “improper” unless a relationship has developed. Ironically, the moue undoubtedly retards the chances of a relationship ever forming. I am sad to say I have ridden elevators or busses to work for years at a time with many of the same people and never spoken a word to them. It really seems silly.

    As I think of it though, I do not notice this trait much among young people. Perhaps the “moue” and all its variants will become another social artifact.

  2. The guy nod: a post I once did (revised a little for you)

    The other day I was walking my daughter and dog down a street in Buffalo. I had her in the baby carriage and Lucy on her leash.

    So there I am, walking down the street when I pass this guy. I give and receive something I am basically powerless to prevent. I make eye contact and nod my head once, often furrowing my brow a little at the same time. This is the guy nod (my added variation is the furrowed brow). It’s always a nod accompanied by a smirk, a frown, a furrowed brow, or simply a knowing look. When I give it, I get it back. When I get one, I send it back without even knowing why.

    We humans are pack animals. As pack animals, I think we have a need to acknowledge the other animals around us. Especially the guy ones.

    The guy nod is a throwback to times when we didn’t have language. If you’re a guy, think about how much is communicated in the guy nod, and its accompanying frown, smirk or look. It’s the equivalent of: I recognize you, and I recognize what you are doing. In the cases where I get a guy nod when walking Autumn and Lucy, then an additional paternal recognition might be found in the nod as well. He’s acknowledging that I am walking a new baby and a dog.

    That’s a lot of stuff communicated in that gesture. We could debate all that’s in a nod, or a frown or a moue. But the interesting thing to me is that it’s virtually impossible, if you’re a guy, to not give back a guy nod.

    As a copywriter, the guy nod means something more to me, and this might be a leap, but I’ll make it. The guy nod is throwback proof that certain communications are inherent in our DNA. Also inherent in our DNA is also the notion that we’re a social, pack animal. As any marketer knows, we humans can be moved by invitations to belong. Deep down, we want and need someone to exchange guy nods.

  3. Grant —

    I have experienced the-greeting-you-call-moue, or a version of it, all over the world — and, indeed, several times just last week on the streets of Vancouver. I have never understood it as disdainful or lacking in generosity. Rather, it has always struck me as very respectful. The person greeting another this way is saying to that other: “I respect your right to privacy, to your own thoughts, and to silence, and so I will acknowledge you in the least intrusive way possible.”

    Cultural differences in communications are always very interesting. White southern Africans think the loud talking and laughing of complete strangers together on public transport is intrusive and annoying. Black southern Africans think the refusal of white southern africans to join in loud talking and laughing with complete strangers on public transport is a sign of snobbery or racism. I have seen the same difference of opinion, over the same loud-talking-in-public issue, between southern and northern English people, between English and Irish people, between Hamburgers and Bavarians, between northern and southern Italians, between northern and southern Chinese, and between Japanese people and Korean people. There must be a PhD thesis in there somewhere!

  4. I’ve noticed a similar gesture of the mouth, a subtle variation on the moue you describe; using the same muscle group, but coloured by a different attitude. This might be described as the apologetic or inhibited smile. While the attitude behind the moue is one of dissatisfaction at being required to acknowledge someone else, and of begrudging compliance (“Oh, if I must…”), the apologetic smile indicates a desire to make contact, inhibited by a sense of awkwardness, by a feeling that one has no excuse for smiling and that one’s smile might therefore be inappropriate; and so it is delivered with a built in apology. It’s basically a would-be cheery, open smile which has been flattened out, “kept in check” at the corners of the mouth, and sometimes accompanied by a sort of upward nod of acknowledgement. The smiler would really like to be giving an open smile, and this is their best shot at it. It’s the social smile of shy people and awkward youths; and is also sometimes exchanged between strangers (on a bus or commuter train, say) who have a moment of spontaneous sexual attraction, but who feel a mild embarrassment at the obviousness of the fact that that’s the reason they’re smiling. Delivered mutually and spontaneously, this can be quite charming.

    I also recognise Matt’s “guy nod”, described above. In Scotland, where I live, there’s an extreme, and comical, version of it, which always makes me laugh (inwardly). It’s given between hillwalkers, usually after walking for several hours without seeing another human being. When passing another walker, one assumes a grim expression, gives a terse nod, and says “aye” in a clipped tone. For some reason the breath is often stopped momentarily in the throat after the “aye”, followed by a short audible release of breath, such as one might give after lifting a heavy weight onto a table. The implied message seems to be: “We are both indomitable and intrepid men of the hills who have no need of mere words and small talk. I acknowledge you as such and move on.” And so you walk on without a backward glance. The air of deathly serious machismo, and the mutual willingness to give affirmation to those pretensions in the other, always creates a comic effect- but one which could never be acknowledged in the moment.

  5. very nice reflection, grant. personally i associate the “moue” more with the southern states of the us – but that is just due to not very representative experience i guess. definitely a very middle class / upper middle class thing not wanting to be mistaken for lower middle class.
    the german equivalent comes in the form of biting on your teeth, nodding slightly and not really looking the other in the eye. – it is a very territorial gesture. you usually find it where the houses and cars are a little bigger – but not big enough as to regard life as one pleasureful game – and too big already for pretending one has got nothing to lose.

  6. and then, as you all said, the moue also carries the notion of a peer gesture. – not something that one would exchange with anyone.

    the cheerful hello, as grant says, comes as a ‘gift to the world’ and in this way it also steps out of this silent exchange of peer signals. – it is for everybody to hear. – “take it or leave it. – have a nice day” — it says: i am not actually talking to you in particular – i am talking to the world – and you are invited to celebrate life with me…

    in a way the cheery hello can have something of a slightly disrespectful gift – and i think that is what i love most about it.

    a spontaneous comment — “man on a mission!” — is an even higher form of this wonderfully disrespectful gift. here again a meeting is turned into something extraordinary. somebody sees something, grasps that and takes the time and energy to turn it into a picture. — “man on a mission!” — how nice is that. wonderful. and wonderfully disrespectful again. — “see, i am a poet. you too?. show me next time. good bye.”

  7. and then, as you all said, the moue also carries the notion of a peer gesture. – not something that one would exchange with anyone.

    the cheerful hello, as grant says, comes as a ‘gift to the world’ and in this way it also steps out of this silent exchange of peer signals. – it is for everybody to hear. – “take it or leave it. – have a nice day” — it says: i am not actually talking to you in particular – i am talking to the world – and you are invited to celebrate life with me…

    in a way the cheery hello can have something of a slightly disrespectful gift – and i think that is what i love most about it.

    a spontaneous comment — “man on a mission!” — is an even higher form of this wonderfully disrespectful gift. here again a meeting is turned into something extraordinary. somebody sees something, grasps that and takes the time and energy to turn it into a picture. — “man on a mission!” — how nice is that. wonderful. and wonderfully disrespectful again. — “see, i am a poet. you too?. show me next time. good bye.”

  8. “Simultaneity when accomplished accidentally is always fun”

    I like that. But I would widen it: simultaneity accomplished *deliberately* is also almost always fun, as well.

    (I wonder why?)

  9. I was raised in New England, and I can often tell when I’m doing this — and sometimes go so far as to wonder, “Would it kill me to smile and say hello?” Then my next thought is “Yes.”

    Why? Who knows.

    My relatives soften their voices to whispers when they talk about certain topics, even if we’re the only people in the room and there’s no one else around for miles. Another one of those weird things.

    1. k.h., if you are getting notices four years after the fact, would you contact me at grant27@gmail.com. I want to use your comment on this blog post in the book I’m working on. Thanks, Grant

  10. Yup –every culture seems to have a gesture that’s their version of “the smallest possible social acknowledgement” signal.

    It’s usually displayed when you enter somebody else’s space (as defined by that culture — that can mean you’re 100 ft away or 3 ft away, depending) and it shows respect and general recognition of the other’s presence. It doesn’t usually mean that the person wants to interact.

    A few that I’ve seen:

    – the eyebrow flash (not as a flirtatious thing, which it’s also used for, but purely for acknowledgment)
    – brief eye contact before glancing away, usually combined with either a brief slight smile or a slight nod
    – while driving in rural areas in the US: the raising of a couple of fingers from the hand that’s on the steering wheel, or (if the person is feeling more effusive) a vague wave

  11. The vebal moue in Maine is ‘ayuh’.

    I love the country road practice of waving with 1 finger from the steering wheel,
    def. happens a lot in Maine.

    Also interesting to look at how these types of acknowledgements work between
    people who are in the minority within a larger group setting.

    1. Michael, totally, I have seen English people look at one another and widen their eyes fractionally, which means, apparently, “will you get a load of these Americans!” Thanks.

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