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Ode to the Vermont wave

A woman waves from behind the steering wheel of her car.
Nina Keck
Vermont Pubic
Question-asker Mica Tucker, of South Strafford, waves to a driver in a passing car. She wants to know: "What's up with the Vermont wave?"

Do you lift one finger off the steering wheel or two? When exactly do you do it — and what does it mean? Brave Little State sets out to write the unwritten rules of the road.

Brave Little State is Vermont Public’s listener-driven journalism show. In each episode, we answer a question about Vermont that’s been asked — and voted on — by you, our audience. Today, a question from Mica Tucker, of South Strafford:

“What’s up with the Vermont wave?”

Reporter Nina Keck gets schooled in some Vermont car manners. And she finds out what these gestures — often ephemeral, sometimes legendary — tell us about our communities.

Note: Our show is made for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript. Transcripts are generated using a combination of robots and human transcribers, and they may contain errors.


Burgess Brown: From Vermont Public, this is Brave Little State. I’m Burgess Brown.

Nina Keck: And I’m Nina Keck.

Mica Tucker: Any preferences for where, where we drive? 

Nina Keck: No, this can be the mystery tour. I’m just going to buckle up.  

Mica Tucker: Yeah.

Nina Keck: You just waved.

Mica Tucker: I did. (laughter) That’s, that’s my neighbor and fellow timber framer.

Nina Keck: Oh, wow, that was a full hand wave. Do you know him?

Mica Tucker: I do. 

Nina Keck: (laughter) OK.

So, Mica Tucker and I are heading north on the Tunbridge Road, trying to see who’s going to wave, who’s not, and what sort of stylistic differences we, we see. 

OK, coming up on a pedestrian, throwing the wave — oh, nice wave in return.

Mica Tucker: No wave. 

Nina Keck: No wave, I think this is too fast.

Mica Tucker: Yeah. 

Nina Keck: Yeah, not even a one finger, I noticed you tried the one finger on them…

Mica Tucker: I did. 

Nina Keck: …and it did not work.

Alright so now the speed limit drops to 35, we’ll see if we have any more waves here.

Mica Tucker: Yeah. 

Nina Keck: Two hands!

Mica Tucker: Two hands! (laughter) Yes. That was great! I don’t know him, but he gave me two hands!

Nina Keck: Two hands, one finger — everyone has their own take on the so-called “Vermont wave.” If you live in a rural part of Vermont and have been driving slow enough, you’ve definitely seen it — that little finger or hand flash from another driver.

Mica Tucker: And it makes me feel so at home, it makes me feel so — ahhh.    

Nina Keck: Mica Tucker, who I was driving around with, is this episode’s winning question-asker. She lives in South Strafford, and lived in Norwich for a few years before that. But she was born in Scotland and raised in New Orleans, and she says after growing up in the South, Vermont has been an adjustment.

Mica Tucker: I miss the “darlins” and the hugs and the boisterous sort of friendliness of the South.

Nina Keck: Mica says the one thing that comes close to that in Vermont is the wave people do from behind the wheel.

Mica Tucker: It’s the thing that makes me feel like I belong here.

But when I first saw it, I was like, what are people doing? And I felt like it was immediately recognized as a kind of code that I didn't know how to do. So it was definitely an outsider thing for me.

Nina Keck: Do you lift one finger off the steering wheel or two? Who gets a whole-hand wave and who doesn’t? When exactly do you do it and what does it mean?

Mica Tucker: And since I’m sort of still learning this whole code, I’d love to hear from people who’ve lived here all their life, that “Oh, no, this is definitely how you do it.”

Nina Keck: These are the sorts of investigations, dear listeners, that Brave Little State lives for.


Burgess Brown: Welcome to Brave Little State, Vermont Public’s people-powered journalism project. We answer your questions about Vermont — ones that you vote on and deem worthy.

And whenever possible we bring our winning question-asker along for the reporting — or in this case, along for the ride.

Mica Tucker: I'm Mica Tucker and I live in South Strafford, Vermont and I want to know — What’s up with the Vermont wave?

Burgess Brown: Reporter Nina Keck explores the unwritten rules of the road…

Greyling Van Alstyne: You know, you expect to be courteous when you meet someone, pull over in the right spot.

Margaret Daly:  If you don't wave it's kind of considered rude.

Burgess Brown: …and what these rules can tell us about our communities.

Christine Tyler Hill: There is an added layer of, we got to take care of one another

Burgess Brown: We’re a proud member of the NPR network. Welcome.

Personal flourishes

Nina Keck: So let’s get back to it — to those ephemeral moments on the road when you and a stranger connect.

Tim Curran: The first time I realized that it was a, it was a thing was riding around with my father.

Nina Keck: This is Tim Curran. He grew up outside Bennington, in Shaftsbury.

Tim Curran: And I saw him just waving at all sorts of people. And I remembered asking him, you know, “Who, who is that?” And he said, “I have no idea. I don’t, I don’t know who it is.”

Nina Keck: Tim’s 35 and lives in Thetford now. And like his dad, he waves all the time.

Tim Curran: If you do it often enough, you sort of develop your own little style.

Nina Keck: Tim says he tends to raise one or two fingers straight up from the top of the steering wheel. If he knows the person, he throws in a little extra.

A man in a black hat points out of a car window.
Tim Curran
Tim Curran of Thetford says if he knows the person he's waving to, he'll throw in a little extra — like the point he's demonstrating here.

Tim Curran: My personal flourish tends to, tends to be a little bit of a, a wave, and then a point if I’m acknowledging somebody that I, that I recognize.

Nina Keck: A personal flourish doesn’t have to be ephemeral — some can be legendary. Tim tells me about a wave like that, that belonged to a guy named Tiger Dick.

Tim Curran: He would sit at the end of the road from the dump at Tunbridge.

Nina Keck: Tiger Dick’s real name was Elbert R. Barnaby. And he collected returnable bottles and cans.

Tim Curran: And he would always wave to everybody that passed by, no matter whether he knew you, whether he recognized the car, you know, if there was a car going by his hand was going up in the air, you know, pinky and ring finger down and then everything else right straight up.

Nina Keck: Not only was Tiger Dick iconic in Tunbridge, so was his unique wave — like a half Spock salute from Star Trek.

Tim Curran: He was just so well known by, you know, everybody around town that when he passed away, somebody erected a small memorial to him placed up on a tree, just simply saying the word “Bye,” B-Y-E, and his little signature hand wave was right next to it.

Nina Keck: Elbert Barnaby, AKA Tiger Dick, died in October 2022. He was 75.

A white sign on a tree says "BYE" with a waving hand in black lettering.
Tim Curran
A memorial to Tiger Dick in Tunbridge.

Tips from “real Vermonters”

Nina Keck: Since our question asker, Mica, was asking for tips on how to properly do the Vermont wave, I went looking — and actually found a lesson on YouTube.

Brent McCoy: Hi, I’m Charlie. 

Maya McCoy: And I’m Margaret. And we are, as they say, “real Vermonters.”

Nina Keck: This is Maya McCoy and her husband, Brent, playing a version of themselves in a YouTube skit about “real Vermont etiquette.”

Maya McCoy: And it’s for the newcomers, of course. But it’s also for the locals because we’ve noticed: Some of us are slipping. 

Nina Keck: I called them up to get their thoughts.

Maya McCoy: Dirt roads are really important because you're going slow. So there's time to see somebody, acknowledge and wave.

Sometimes, you know, on Interstate 89, it's really a challenge (laughter) to wave at people.

Nina Keck: Brent and Maya were both born in Vermont and live in Greensboro, in the Northeast Kingdom. They’re vaudeville-type circus performers. They travel all over the world — to fairs, special events, outdoor city celebrations.

During the pandemic, when they couldn’t do any of that, they produced some short videos for Hardwick’s public access television station — you just heard a snippet of one — about what it means to be a Vermonter. And you guessed it: There’s a lesson on waving.

Brent McCoy: I'm a huge fan of the Vermont accent. And I can turn it on real thick on the drop of a hat, you know, cause that's where my roots are from.

More from Brave Little State: 'Cow' Or 'Ke-ow'? The Past, Present And Future Of The Vermont Accent

Nina Keck: I asked them to give me a little sample in character.

Brent McCoy: Alright, well, picture this: You're driving down the road, it's a beautiful day, sun is shining.

Maya McCoy: Uh, but then you see a car comin’. OK? You've never seen that car before in your life. So —

Brent McCoy: Well, what do you do?

Maya McCoy: Well, good question.

Brent McCoy: You take your forehead and it goes down about four inches down. And simultaneously — which means at the same time as, I just recently learned — your finger goes up. Make sure it's the correct finger. That would be your index finger. If you're in Massachusetts, it's the next one down, and that's the kind of wavin’ they do there. But if you're in Vermont, it's the index finger. (laughter)

Two people in orange hats point their fingers and mime holding a steering wheel.
Beana Bern
Maya and Brent McCoy demonstrate the car wave in character as "real Vermonters" Margaret and Charlie.

Nina Keck: It’s fun to poke fun, Brent tells me. But this wave thing, there’s something deeper there — a nonverbal colloquialism that’s just part of how things are done in Vermont, and have been for generations.

Brent McCoy: It's like, you want to borrow your neighbor's wood splitter, and you want to have that ongoing, you know, support infrastructure that goes on between rural neighbors, you know, check on our house if the power goes out kind of thing. Keeping those little degrees of connection alive, it's just one little method for doing that that costs nothing and feels good along the way.

Maya McCoy: It's the original “like” button where you get that little bit of dopamine, of “I was seen,” and that’s pretty cool.

Your thoughts on the wave

Nina Keck: Speaking of “like buttons”, when the question about waving won, we went to social media and asked for your input — on Reddit, Instagram, even the BLS hotline — and we got an earful.

Tess: Hi, my name's Tess. I’m calling in about the waving question, because, you know, not only is it friendly, but if you walk a lot, like I do, like I go out and walk my dog, I feel like when I wave at all of the cars and I get them to notice me a little extra, then they'll remember that there's pedestrians on their road and maybe drive just like a little bit safer.

Nina Keck: Some people mentioned how a wave can help you get out of an actual conversation with someone, which can be handy.

A mail carrier in Vermont said waving to everyone can sometimes be a pain. But he called it essential to his job for the support and trust it symbolizes.

So, maybe there’s utility to it — but maybe it’s just the nice thing to do.

Greyling Van Alstyne: Well, you always wave at someone else usually, when you meet someone. Especially in this neighborhood. I mean, you know about everybody.

Nina Keck: Greyling Van Alstyne is someone I met while working on another story. He grew up on a farm in East Barnard and still lives close by today.

A bright blue sky on a clear day, with tree-covered mountains in the back. A red barn structure stands to the left, with other structures further back on the property sit in the shadows.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public
The Van Alstyne farmstead in East Barnard.

He considers the wave Vermont car manners.

Greyling Van Alstyne: Yes, it is. It's umm, no road rage. You know, you expect to be courteous when you meet someone, pull over in the right spot.

Nina Keck: Which is important when you’re on a dirt road that may only be wide enough for one car.

But what about paved roads in larger cities? A lot of people who reached out to us on this topic wondered about Burlington. We heard over and over that the waving stops when they hit city limits.

So are people in the state’s bigger cities just not friendly? Do they not know about Vermont car manners?

Christine Tyler Hill: When bus drivers drive by, we tend to sort of give one another like the two fingers or the nod.

Nina Keck: That’s after the break.


Sidewalk signals

Nina Keck: Welcome back to Brave Little State. I’m Nina Keck.

And in this episode, a look into the Vermont wave, which seems to be alive and well in rural Vermont.

But what about in Vermont’s biggest city? My colleague Sabine Poux in Burlington takes it from here.

Sabine Poux: It’s 8 in the morning on the corner of North and Rose streets, in Burlington’s Old North End. I’m here to test a theory: that people in Burlington don’t wave when they're driving on the main roads. There are just too many other cars to do that.

But outside of their cars…

Christine Tyler Hill: Hi, Edwin.

Pedestrian: C’mon. Honey!

Sabine Poux: …it’s harder to hide. And this seems to be where the waving happens.

Christine Tyler Hill: Good morning.

Pedestrian: Morning.

Christine Tyler Hill: Yeah, and it’s funny. Cause like, if I were to stand here with no job to do for 45 minutes every morning, I’d probably get arrested, you know what I mean? But it’s my job to be here. I have this dayglo jacket on. And so nobody really questions it.

Sabine Poux: Christine Tyler Hill is a crossing guard for the City of Burlington. Waving is a big part of the job.

And in the early hours of the morning, her corner is a great place to watch pedestrians wave to her, and to each other. Many of them are kids walking to school.

A woman in a dayglo jacket stands in front of a corner store, at a crosswalk.
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
Christine Tyler Hill stands at her intersection in the Old North End.

Sabine Poux: Do you get to talk to them? Like what’s your, what’s an interaction like? 

Christine Tyler Hill: Not here. No. It’s all business.

Sabine Poux: It’s all—

Christine Tyler Hill: You know? They’re on their way to work, if you will.

Sabine Poux: All business. It’s true that this close to the start of the school day, kids seem too hurried to give much more than a quick nod.

Pedestrian: Ezra, go! Go, go, go, go, go! Bye sweeties!

Pedestrian: Bye!

Sabine Poux: But, there’s definitely still a typical wave Christine exchanges with pedestrians as they cross her corner.

Christine Tyler Hill: It's kind of the, like, slight tilt of the head, smiling eyes thing? Like, just an acknowledgement of another person on the sidewalk being like, “Hey, we're out here.” You know?

Sabine Poux: If in rural Vermont, a wave between drivers is a way to say, “Hey, I’ll pull you out of a ditch,” or, “I’ll check on you when your power’s out,” here, maybe it’s more a gesture of solidarity between two walkers or bikers who are a bit more exposed out in the open.

Christine Tyler Hill: There is an added layer of, “We got to take care of one another.”

A note on a sign reads, "We love you Christine!"
Sabine Poux
Vermont Public
An anonymous note on a sign near Christine's corner.

Sabine Poux: City roads have to accommodate all kinds of traffic: cars, pedestrians, bikers, even buses.

And each time a bus passes through Christine's intersection, she nods, and the bus driver puts up a hand.

Christine Tyler Hill: To compare it to that sort of back road, two cars passing, drivers kind of give each other what I would call the Vermont wave — I think that the interactions I have with bus drivers is the closest equivalent. Because, I think what's happening on back roads is people are acknowledging, like, “We're out here, I see you.”

And I think with bus drivers, there's a shared sense of like, we're out here, keeping things moving. When bus drivers drive by, we tend to sort of give one another like the two fingers or the nod, just to be like, “Hey.” (laughter)

A universal sign

Nina Keck: Bus waves. Pedestrian and biker waves. You also told us about Jeep waves, pickup truck waves and motorcycle waves.

A woman stands next to her car.
Margaret Daly
Margaret Daly, of Pittsford, says the car wave was a thing when she was growing up in Texas.

The one I see most is where bikers extend one arm straight down as they pass another motorcyclist. But styles vary.

And I rented a convertible many years ago to drive up to Montreal with friends and afterwards, driving it back to the rental shop in Rutland, I was shocked and thrilled to realize there is a convertible wave — and I was briefly in the club.

A number of you wondered if waving to strangers was just a Vermont thing, or at least a New England thing.

Margaret Daly: It's definitely not.

Nina Keck: Margaret Daly lives in Pittsford, Vermont, and is originally from Texas.

Margaret Daly: It's something that I encountered my entire life growing up in West Texas and kind of North Central Texas.

Nina Keck: We heard similar reports from people in Missouri, the plains, Arizona and other southern states who told us waving is more a small town thing than anything else.

So — sorry Vermont we’re not that special.


In researching this episode, I came across a cool article about a 2,000-year-old stylized human hand made from a sheet of mica.

It looked like it was doing an ancient wave, if you will. So, I called the guy who wrote the piece, Steve Nash.

Steve Nash: I'm president and chief executive officer of Archaeology Southwest in Tucson, Arizona.

Nina Keck: Steve Nash told me Native Americans who were part of the Hopewell culture in Ohio crafted the now famous 11-by-7-inch cutout. And it’s stunning.

Steve Nash: As an archaeologist, we work with the material that preserves really well in the archaeological record. But I always think about the intangible aspects of it. And waves don't preserve, hand waves don't preserve in the archaeological record. But every — as far as I know — every human society waves.

Nina Keck: In fact, there’s a fundamental message that an empty raised hand conveys.

Steve Nash: Yeah, demonstrating that you're not holding a weapon in that hand. So it is a disclosure mechanism.

It’s just a wave to us, but if you don't know what it is, it looks like a signal of some kind. But if there's a different wave out there, and you do it incorrectly, it immediately identifies you as somebody else, as not somebody who is from Vermont. And so there, there certainly is an aspect of group identity, group inclusion, in all of this.

Nina Keck: Steve Nash got me thinking. Since I started working on this episode, I’ve thought a lot about when I wave and when I don’t and why. I live on a dirt road in a tiny town, and when I first moved to Vermont and still had Virginia plates on my car, waving felt awkward and just kind of wrong. Like I was at a party in the wrong clothes.

So there is a clubbiness to it. Which is probably why humans wave when they’re driving or out walking. Many of us even do an awkward side-to-side wave during Zoom calls. Once you start to do it, and start to belong, it feels good. Maybe question-asker Mica Tucker got it right.

Mica Tucker: Becoming part of Vermont takes work.

Nina Keck: Shoveling out your neighbor after a snowstorm and showing up at community dinners and town meetings.

Mica Tucker: At your school, at your PTA, at your church, wherever.

A woman with a scarf stands in front of a grey house with flags out front.
Nina Keck
Vermont Public
Question-asker Mica Tucker outside her home in South Strafford.

Nina Keck: Mica thinks the wave is just another part of that effort, another part of belonging.

Mica Tucker: I wave at the people who came out last week to fix all the downed power lines, and, you know, saw up those trees that were across the road. It's, “Hey, you know, you're making it through the hard winters, you’re making it through the houses that have burned down, through the floods, through all those things.” It's like, it’s like, “I recognize you, I see you, I'm gonna be there for you. And, and I know you'll show up for me.”

Nina Keck: Or, as Brent McCoy would put it:

Brent McCoy: It ain't that important. But it also kind of is.



This episode was reported by Nina Keck and produced by Burgess Brown. Editing and additional production from Sabine Poux and Josh Crane. Angela Evancie is Brave Little State’s Executive Producer. Our theme music is by Ty Gibbons; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.

Special thanks to Sophie Stephens, Brittany Patterson and John Delgadillo.

As always, our journalism is better when you’re a part of it:

Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public and a proud member of the NPR Network.

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Burgess Brown is part of Vermont Public’s Engagement Journalism team. He is the associate producer for Brave Little State, the station's people-powered journalism project.
Sabine Poux is a reporter/producer with Brave Little State. She comes to Vermont by way of Kenai, Alaska, where she was a reporter, news director, and on-air host for almost three years. Her reporting on commercial fishing and energy has been syndicated across Alaska and on NPR.