Hidden Houston

How to Houston: An Etiquette Guide

Lessons from a native on when to wave in traffic and why we smile at strangers

By Katharine Shilcutt October 24, 2016 Published in the November 2016 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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My father made sure I learned the basics of driving a car long before he ever allowed me to take the wheel of his old Toyota pickup: how to change a tire, change your own oil, adjust the mirrors just right, and—perhaps most importantly—the importance of waving.

Some people refer to it as the “Texas two-finger,” a signal in which the driver raises two fingers off the steering wheel to signal a hello to fellow drivers as they pass, whether on country roads or suburban streets. Equally important, my father explained, is raising your entire arm in a salute through the rear window to anyone who lets you in front of them in traffic. Twenty-five years on, whenever I see someone fail to give the all-important “thanks for letting me in” wave, I find myself muttering under my breath: Were you raised in a barn?

With a few exceptions, I have to remind myself, they were not. Instead, they were raised in California—or any number of other lands that have funneled émigrés to Houston over the years. They weren’t taught that Houston’s frontage roads are called feeders, that you hold doors open for anyone who crosses your path, or that you offer a smile—or at least a friendly nod—to strangers you meet throughout your day.

“When I first moved here,” a friend from Detroit recently told me, “I thought everyone was messing with me.” The familiarity was suspicious; what did these people want from her? But soon enough, she relaxed into it, relaxed into Houston—finding herself making small talk with fellow shoppers in line at H-E-B, holding open doors, and asking friends about their parents within the first few hellos. (“How are your folks?” is as important a Houston greeting as “How about this humidity?”)

There is, after all, a trick to our incessant smiling and small talk—a lesson I learned from my mother. “Feelings,” she always says, “follow actions.” If you want to feel happy, act happy; if you want to enjoy living in Houston, be gracious and kind to your fellow Houstonians. Give enough of those Texas two-finger salutes and soon, driving these congested streets doesn’t seem that bad. Smile a hello to joggers who pass you along White Oak Bayou and soon, the oppressive heat doesn’t seem so overwhelming. Chat with your server or cashier or mail carrier and soon, this giant city doesn’t seem so big after all. 

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