Men in farm country, he claimed, have conversations while leaning. They lean on a fencepost, they lean against the fender of their truck. Leaning has a sort of rhetorical function—"Yes, I'm working hard, and I'll soon return to my hard work, but let me rest for a moment and exchange a few words with my neighbor." You might lean there and talk for forty minutes, but the implication is always partial, provisional, ready to move along once the conversation grew strained or the flow of topics trickled down.
I've written about that with teenagers as well. Standing up from a sitting conversation is a clear sign that you're done, which could be perceived as boredom or rejection. But when you're leaning, you're already standing, just with a little assist to help take a load off.
When you sit, you commit. When you lean, you don't mean to convene.
There are other rhetorical moves in the country, all based on the fact that you're not an anonymous face. It may be that I don't know you, it may be that I've met you once and don't remember your name, it may be that we've seen each other at the dump and the post office and Vicky's half a dozen times and never been introduced... but given that we're both inhabiting this small patch of ground, we need to acknowledge one another somehow. Here are some of the acknowledgements that I've learned.
Waving. Nora and I walk in the morning along a busy road. Cars go by six or eight times an hour. And the first rule of walking and driving is that you always wave. When walking, if the car is coming from behind, you slow and turn to face the car, so that you're making eye contact with the driver. The appropriate wave gesture is the simple lifting of the hand and forearm, kind of like you're taking the oath of office but without the rigidity. (If you raise your hand and wave, it means you need help.)
The driver has a broader array of reciprocating options. If the walker is a friend (meaning someone you'd willingly have lunch with), the driver mirrors the raised arm. If the walker is someone whose name is known, the driver raises his or her hand off the wheel briefly. And if the walker is barely or not at all familiar, there is the finger wave, in which the driver (holding the wheel at 10 and 2 o'clock, as they taught us in driver's training) raises the index and middle finger of the right hand while continuing to hold the wheel with the ring finger, pinky and heel of the hand. It's a definite gesture, there's no mistaking it, but it's not an invitation to coffee or anything.
The Weather Sonnet. When you run into someone at the dump or the post office with whom you have no ongoing conversational topics but still need to greet, you can employ the weather sonnet. To wit:
- Can you believe this (heat/rain/snow/wind/etc.)?
- I know, it's amazing, innit?
- If this keeps up, my (garden/firewood/driveway) is never going to (recover/dry/be clear).
- That's the truth. But, hey, at least it's better than all that (recently different weather) we had.
- No, that's true. Count your blessings, right?
- You bet. Have a good day, now.
Blameless Gossip. Instead of being the overt source of interpersonal information, you act as the magnet. So instead of saying "Have you heard about____________?" you ask, "What do you know about____________?" You might get some information, but if not, you'll get "Why, what's up with____________?" and you're now in the position of fulfilling a request for information, which is a communal responsibility and puts you in the ethical clear. And of course, good conversations always involve lateral thinking, so pretty soon, you're talking about someone's grandkids or the VTel guy or the fire company, and the social ties are re-cemented.
Slowing at the Driveway. The road we live on is a little over three miles long and unpaved, and there are long stretches of that road along unbroken woods or fields that have no entries. And most of the houses are considerably back from the road, so the driveways (or access roads) are considerable. When I'm out doing yard work or walking, I've noticed that most drivers slow just a little bit when they see the mailbox or reflectors that signal a driveway. You never know when someone might be backing down to the road, adjusting the trajectory of a trailer, or pulling out suddenly on the riding mower; you want to make sure they have some space.
There are city versions of the same things, too. They all have to do with reading the full range of a place's communication, of being civilized and attentive to others. I'm happy to start to know the ones that root us here.