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