What is it with guys and hand signals?
The other day I was driving along Sheridan Lake Road at exactly the speed limit, minding my own business, which at that moment happened to be a trip to the grocery store. Up ahead on the shoulder on my side of the street, I spotted some orange construction cones, a couple of utility trucks, and a Bobcat.
Not being exactly the slowest gear in the transmission, I instantly concluded that some kind of construction was going on. I slowed down and moved into the left lane.
One of the trucks began pulling out from a side street into the right-hand lane. A guy in a hard hat and a fluorescent vest was out in front of it, presumably to serve as a guide rather than a target. As I started past, safely out of the way in the left lane, he made a hand gesture. No, not that gesture. It was sort of a cross between pointing at me and waving.
I had no idea what he was trying to tell me. The gesture certainly didn't look like the upraised palm that would have meant "stop." I might have assumed he was signaling me to slow down and move into the left lane, except that I had already done both. Confused, I slowed even more but kept moving. This seemed to be the correct choice, since as I crept by another of the workers came trotting up with a "slow" sign. I charitably chose to believe this was a message for the traffic and not an assessment of the first guy's communication skills.
Or maybe the gesture only seemed obscure to me because I'm not a guy.
Any time there is a need to perform some complicated operation involving large machinery—backing up a long trailer, say, or parking a big truck in a small space—the guy in charge immediately begins communicating with a complex system of hand signals.
For some reason, maintaining a poker face is part of the secret code. A slight Clint Eastwood narrowing of the eyes is the only facial expression allowed. God forbid anyone should sully the purity of the hand signals with any other form of communication, especially if it might accidentally clarify the message. This is why the guy at the car wash always looks so bored as he motions you closer and closer till the magic conveyor belt has secured your front wheel.
Is this hand-to-hand, man-to-man language something human males are born knowing? Is it genetic? Or is it a secret code that is passed along at puberty? Perhaps the details are shared during a coming-of-age ritual conducted in private, after the initiate has sworn a solemn oath never to disclose them.
Whatever the reason, other guys understand these hand signals instantly. Women, generally, don't. This can result in misunderstandings. In extreme cases, the cool impassiveness of the sign language even gives way to strong emotion, communicated loudly in strong Anglo-Saxon words of four letters.
If the recipient of the language is a hapless female who hasn't ever been taught how to back a 20-foot trailer up to a loading chute but who is still expected to know, this is not fair.
I don't mean to imply by this that women can't handle large machinery. They can. My mother used to haul grain to town during harvest season, and as the manager of the elevator once told my father, "Lots of women bring grain in, but she's the only one who backs up her own truck." Once, at a truck stop, I saw a woman back her semi into a narrow slot in a row of trucks, perfectly straight on the first try, with a casual ease that was downright elegant. And I've been told that a lot of the drivers who operate those enormous trucks in surface mines are women.
I bet nobody gives confusing hand signals to them.