17/04/2016 6:18 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Giving The Phatic Finger To Outback Drivers


Australians are laconic beings. After all, why over-exert yourself when a minimum of movement will do? Especially when driving those vast distances in the Australian Outback; where many a lonely driver can greet an oncoming motorist with the energy-saving phatic finger .

It has become the trend on those long, lonely roads to signal to the oncoming vehicle when you pass; to acknowledge the great trip you are both doing, and to signal your pleasure at seeing another human being along the obvious infinity of an apparently endless road.

This salute between drivers cements the relationship that the two persons, who are likely to be unknown to each other, share. It is a comment on the adventure of exploring Australia, and an expression of solidarity with the pioneers of old who really did risk their lives in order to open up this splendid, but remote, country. An acknowledgement that we are at one with this broad, brown land.

Phatic communication is usually associated with speech, particularly conversations which express shared feelings, goodwill and certainly sociability. You can't really shout at another driver and be comprehensively understood when two cars are approaching each other with a combined speed of over 200kmph out on an otherwise empty road.

It is a sign of Australian genius that we can use just one slightly extended digit to simultaneously bid a stranger welcome, acknowledge our inferred mateship, plus bid each other a good, safe journey. It is a benign but powerful signal which reeks of comradeship and benevolence.

You would think the importance of having such a fleeting acquaintance with another traveller would be celebrated with wild gesticulations, perhaps the honking of horns, or the flashing of lights; but, no. Australians aren't really overly expressive. At least not outside the realms of sport, for which it is okay to express emotion that appreciates an heroic act, or a win, or, conversely, displays disgust at a loss or, worse still, an umpire's foible.

No. In keeping with the Australian culture of understatement the humble Australian salute is grossly diminshed, being merely a simple, almost elusive gesture.

With both hands hanging onto the steering wheel, a device that could quite possibly be redundant on those long, straight roads, the best way to salute your soul mate, that oncoming driver, is to simply raise one finger of acknowledgement as you pass; or perhaps two fingers if you are in a frenzied frame of mind.

On Australia's remotest roads that soul mate may actually be your sole mate, so few are the vehicles you encounter.

One finger half-heartedly raised from the steering wheel is all that is needed, as its expression is fully understood and appreciated by other Australian motorists. Be aware, though, visitors from overseas may interpret that gentle thrust of a single erect digit as an action of completely different intent.

The Great Australian Phatic Salute, just one inconsequential finger raised slightly above the steering wheel speaks of the powerful camaraderie between all those lonely beings who exude an heroic pioneering spirit to take on this great big country of ours.