Some of us use sign language all the time, but who can read it

Published 2:50 pm Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Have you ever sat where you could watch someone at a distance talk on the telephone without hearing the conversation and tried to figure out what they were saying with their waving hands?

I do quite often and one such occasion was last Saturday.

I was sitting in the delightfully smoke-free atmosphere of a coffee house in Slidell when I noticed a Slidell police officer talking to someone in a sports utility vehicle in the parking lot. I could see the officer clearly but I couldn’t see the driver to whom he was talking. The back of the vehicle was towards me.

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The conversation went on for quite a while. He was fooling with something in his hands that initially looked like a ticket book, but it soon became clear that it wasn’t. It was a small pamphlet of some kind.

Oh, well, I figured, he was just talking to a friend for the conversation dragged on and on. I hoped they would end their conversation before Genie and I decided to leave, because I really don’t like to ask a police officer if he would please get out of my way. The SUV was stopped in the traffic lane right behind where I was parked.

Finally, the SUV pulled up to the end of a line of parking spaces and parked in the last space available along that line. The officer walked back to his car, which I had not noticed before. It was backed into a space with only the big, black crash or push bumper, or whatever they call it, sticking out.

Hmmmm, I thought. That was not a friendly conversation. The officer walked back towards his car still messing with the pamphlet. A man came out of the coffee shop and the officer and the man talked briefly, with the man making a short call on his cell phone while going to his car and getting something and handing it to the police officer.

The officer looked at it, appeared to hand it back, and the man got in his car and drove off.

The police officer got in his patrol car and disappeared from sight. I can only guess he was on the radio because he was there for a while.

The driver of the SUV that the officer had been talking with for such a long time, a woman, obviously was most agitated. She was on her cell phone and her free arm was waving this way and that, making this gesture and that. Being inside the coffee shop and probably between 30 and 50 yards from where she was parked, I couldn’t hear a word, but someone was getting an earful on the other end of the — do we still call it a line even though it goes by airwave, I’m going to — line.

Whew! I thought to myself, I hope whoever she’s talking to doesn’t need to see the hand signals to understand what she is saying. I don’t know if she was talking more or gesturing more, but a lot of both was going on. There were very few pauses for anyone else to get in a word edgewise, and even then she was continuing to talk with gestures.

Another person got out of the other side of the car and came around to talk to her, and I guess she then ended the call. The other person blocked my view, but most of the gesturing appeared to stop.

Finally, the police officer got back out of his car and came over and talked to the woman again, and again for quite a while. Finally, he gave her what appeared to be a ticket and she drove off.

The officer returned to his car and also drove off.

I have no idea what was going on, but if I could read the sign language so many people use when they are talking to one another or on the telephone, I have a feeling it would be most interesting.

I have noticed this phenomenon before. Some people gesture an awful lot when they talk, while others don’t. The officer simply played with this pamphlet in his hands. The second man used a few muted gestures when he was on his cell phone, and neither man appeared to use gestures when talking to one another.

Now some might say that women are the ones who get all excited and use a lot of gestures while talking, especially if they used this story for arriving at that conclusion. That’s not so, though. I have seen much such gesturing converesations by both sexes and between the sexes.

I recall in particular a conversation I witnessed in a pub in Ireland where Genie and I stopped for lunch one day on our first trip there.

Two Irishmen were discussing sheepdogs. They still use them there. I could hear this conversation but could understand little of it because they were talking in Irish. Where there was no Irish word for what they were saying, English words would be used.

That’s how I was able to conclude that they were talking sheepdogs, that and the universal language dog men use for casting and retrieving a dog, or telling it to circle, or give it other directions. Working sheep with dogs isn’t much different than directing dogs hunting birds or casting a retriever. The signs are very similar for similar movements you want the dog to make.

I wish the sign language of other people was as easy to read as most of the sign language of the sheepherders or that of other users of working and hunting dogs. I could “over hear” a lot more conversations. Maybe some graduate student could do a study and give us some interpretations that we could use while watching this sign language.

Yes, we newspapermen and –women are nosy. I guess that’s why we’re in the business we’re in.