Author Archives: Bella di Rienzo

School-taught hand Signals

TEXT: “Silent Signal”, “I agree with you signal”


CONTEXT: As I was jogging the informant’s memory of what Silent Signal was, the informant began, “Wow, I forgot about that. That’s so fascinating [that I forgot.] So, I completely forgot about the silent signal… and was it really called the silent signal?”

“Yes.” I responded.

“So, we were little young children, and I feel like some random person walked into the room, like one of the teachers held up their hand making a symbol and then a bunch of people held up their hand like that and everyone then went silent. It would probably seem like a cult or something. I’m trying to remember, I don’t know if it was a peace sign or what it was… I remember at one point it looked like a little fox, it was like silent coyote. And then at one point someone said that was like offensive to something and so they were like, ‘Oh, I guess we have to stop doing that, so we’re gonna use this other hand signal instead.’ I don’t remember what that was…But I do really remember the ‘connecting with you thing’ where you hold out your pinky and you hold out your thumb and it’s like a lever going back and forth and it means like I agree, I see you, I know what you’re doing. And I haven’t seen people do that since then, but everyone knew what that meant there and did that to each other. We had a class where we would sit around in a circle and talk about how we felt, so you would do that ‘I agree with you signal’ and they taught us that from when we were like 6 years old, but I completely forgot about it. It’s not ingrained in me because I haven’t done it,  I’ve kinda fallen out of it, but next time I see you and I agree with something, you’ll know what that means.”

I continued the conversation, “[Our mutual friend from a different city] actually does it too. She did it at her school too.”

The informant replied, “Maybe it’s like a private school thing.”

I agreed, “Yea, it’s definitely a private school thing… a cult thing.” 


The informant continued, “But it’s kinda fun. I, like, love learning sign language that isn’t [officially] part of sign language, like after I watched the movie DUNE, I learned most of the one handed sign language in the movie.”

(Some friendly chatter)

Then I brought it back to the conversation at hand, “I think a big part of it was that they were teaching us ways to like listen, but also control some type of excitement through a movement through a gesture.”

The informant ended, “Yea, that’s good! You can connect with someone without interrupting them.”

ANALYSIS: I sought out this informant because I knew we had a shared experience with gestures. We attended the same elementary, middle, high school, and, now, are both in SCA at USC together. In elementary school, our teachers and community leaders had many gestures they would use to teach us to communicate. Before I recorded our conversation, I talked a bit with the informant about “Silent Signal,” a signal where someone who wanted a large, noisy group or room to be silent would raise their arm and wait until eventually the whole room caught on and everyone was silent with their arm up in the air. I was curious to see if this informant’s memory differed from mine, and it definitely did. Silent Signal and the ‘I agree with you signal’ were somethings that I remember very well, but my mention of the word Silent Signal and just the simple hand motion of the ‘I agree with you signal’ jogged the informant’s distant and vague memories of them. I thought it was very interesting how the informant segway-ed to talking about the gestures that he did recall and that his memories of some gestures were very different from mine. I had no idea why we as a community stopped doing silent coyote, but he had details from a shared experience that I didn’t. I think this was an amazing interview to conduct because even though we spent many many years of our malleable adolescence together, his memories were unique to his view on our community. I also think the talk of our cult-like private schools having classes where we talk about our feelings, another sort of inside joke from our school community, was insightful because it showed that these extremely specific gestures we did as children, that he perceived to only be used in our small little world, are used all over the world to help children communicate their burning need to connect with their peers. I find it fascinating that there are simple hand gestures like that, that are not a part of any official language, that can satisfy kids’ tendencies in multiple schools.