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Waving Goodbye to Old-School Gestures

In October 2020, The Guardian published a tongue-in-cheek “Pass Notes” article about how young people no longer understand traditional hand gestures such as miming a phone call or requesting a bill at a restaurant. 

Questioning whether we’re losing part of our cultural heritage as a result, the piece takes the form of a conversation between the interviewer and the interviewee: hand gestures themselves.

A cartoon image of two Mr Potato Head toy figures against a blue background. Each figure has a moustache, wears a hat, and raises their hands as if in greeting.

"Can you give me an example of what you’re talking about?"

"Certainly: placing a fist alongside your head, thumb and little finger extended, in the manner of a man trying to scratch his chin and his ear at the same time."

"OK. And what does that mean?"

"Can’t you guess?"

"Does it mean: 'My ear and my chin both itch'?"

"No! It means: ‘Call me.’"

"What? How do you figure that?"

"It’s miming holding a phone — the thumb is the earpiece, the little finger is the mouthpiece, and the fist is pretending to grab the long bit in between."

The public comments kept me laughing for a good five minutes or so. User Blowln joked:

“A police officer pulls you over, approaches your car and makes a cranking motion with one hand. Why? He, or she, wants to engage in cranking motion with me? I wouldn't be up for that myself, what with my back, but my mate might enjoy it.”

Troyk chipped in with their account of “feeling old”:

“I found this out when playing with my 4-year-old niece. When she was pretending to use a phone she put a flat palm against the side of her head.

“It dawned on me she has never used a traditional handset and receiver phone in her life, so the thumb and pinky gesture is a nonsense, a phone is a flat piece of glass. It just is. Never felt so old — I'm 30.”

And Sandyabstentia shared their awkward air-cheque-writing experience:

“I tried the, what I was sure was James Bond international sign language, writing in the air movement to try and get a bill in a bar in Rio once. The waiter brought me a pen. That was 20 years ago, so I think cultural as well as generational is right.”

I’m sure all of us of a certain age have adopted the “James Bond international sign language” at some point. You’d anticipate there may be complications when communicating in different languages. You don’t expect, however, that you’d run into the same issues with your own children! And that divide is only going to widen over time, as floppy disks, MP3 players and landline phones follow Bing Bong the imaginary friend to the Memory Dump. Forgotten, forever.

On that melancholic note, what else can we expect to fade into oblivion in the coming years? And what might surprise us by making a comeback?


For those few years, so-called “text speak” was all the rage. In the days of character limits, SMS allocations and no autofill functionality, every single letter counted. Back in 2003, a story did the rounds of a teenager submitting an essay written entirely in abbreviations. The opening extract read:

“My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we used 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :-@ kids FTF. ILNY, it's a gr8 plc.”

And with reports of classic Nokia handsets making a comeback, we may not have seen the last of text speak. According to TechRadar:

“In Q4 of 2017 Nokia Mobile sold 4.4 million smartphones and 20.7 million feature phones according to research from Counterpoint, making it the 6th largest mobile phone vendor, 11th largest smartphone vendor and the world's largest feature phone vendor.”

'Feature phones' is a kind way of putting it. For other outlets, 'dumb phones' is more fitting. A November 2020 article from Good Housekeeping explains the pros and cons:

“Dumb phones are much more affordable than their smart counterparts, costing between £5 and £100 outright. They’re more robust, too, meaning you won’t have to pay a fortune to get a smashed screen replaced.

“They’re more compact and the battery will last a lot longer — expect to get anywhere from six days to an entire month from one full charge!

“Older people who are not au fait with modern technology should find dumb phones simpler to use, but they’re not for everybody. Using a physical keypad can be fiddly and time-consuming.”

Ah, fiddly and time-consuming… another reason why text speak was so prevalent in the late nineties and early noughties. No one wants to spend precious time punching each key several times to select a chosen letter. Not when “CU NXT 2SDY” would suffice.

I’ll be honest — I was glad to see the back of this trend first time around, and am relying on the prevalence of smartphones to save me from further exposure.

I’ll be even happier when “LOL” dies a death, but I might be waiting a while… If David Cameron’s cringeworthy “LOLgate” wasn’t enough to kill it off, what hope is there?!

A graphic image with the bold pink letters "LOL" centered on a cream background. A yellow laughing emoji with tears replaces the 'O', bringing the acronym "Laughing Out Loud" to life, which is spelled out beneath each corresponding letter.

Tapes, Tapes and More Tapes

“The kids of today don’t know they’re born”. You’ll hear that sentiment a lot, and more often than not it relates to media consumption. There will be few people under the age of 25 who can appreciate the sacred relationship between a cassette tape and a pencil. Or the meaning of “Be kind, rewind”. Or the old-fashioned movie camera motion in Charades…

Unlike many things “of their time”, however, I expect we may continue to see a resurgence in the years that follow. For the past five years, news outlets have reported a boom in cassette sales at the hands of hipsters — so much so that America risked running out of magnetic tape!

Vinyl experienced a similar comeback in the digital age, with an August 2020 report by Statista demonstrating growth in US sales for the 14th consecutive year:

“Continuing one of the more surprising comebacks of the digital age, vinyl album sales in the United States have grown for the 14th consecutive year. In 2019, 18.8 million LPs were sold in the United States, up 14 percent compared to 2018 and more than 20-fold compared to 2006 when the vinyl comeback began.”

Somehow, I can’t see VHS tapes gaining the same traction. Not only are the tapes themselves cumbersome, the old-fashioned tape players aren’t slick, stylish additions to a living room in the way Pro-Ject or Rega turntables are.

And don’t get me started on in-car audio!

Polaroid Pictures

Back in 2003, hip-hop duo OutKast released one of their biggest hits, “Hey Ya!”. I was always more of a Ms. Jackson fan myself, but there’s no denying Hey Ya! was an instant classic, with choruses of “shake it like a Polaroid picture” ringing out around Uni Club Nights ever since.

The line was so popular that Polaroid was forced to issue a warning to consumers:

“The image never touches air, so shaking or waving has no effect. In fact, shaking or waving can actually damage the image. Rapid movement during development can cause portions of the film to separate prematurely, or can cause 'blobs' in the picture."

Polaroid snaps were cool again. But not for long. They were soon superseded by digital cameras. No night out was complete without a Sony Cybershot in hand to capture the carnage. And then came the iPhone…

Nowadays, bloggers and vloggers use full photography gear for high-end edits but there is still a place for Polaroids, with “The World’s Simplest Camera” purportedly enamouring Gen Z and Millennials with its vintage appeal. There are even white border filters on Instagram for those wishing to emulate Taylor Swift’s 1989 album cover. And with 707k followers of Polaroid on the 'Gram, it’s safe to say we’ll be (not) shaking it like a Polaroid picture for a long while to come.

Perhaps by dusting off my old 3310, cassettes and instant camera, I can communicate with the kids after all.


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