A New Yorkers’ Guide to Practical Fake Sign Language

City residents employ a rich lexicon of daily gestures to avoid having to speak to each other

A bilingual person, flipping you off (stock.chang)
A bilingual person, flipping you off (stock.xchang)

I don’t know why there is such a fuss over this fake South African sign language interpreter at the Nelson Mandela memorial.

New Yorkers use made up sign language every day.

Gently rubbing one’s own cheek while making eye contact with a concerned expression, for example, would silently tell a colleague that they have “schmutz” on their face. This is best used with a professional rival in an important meeting when there’s nothing actually there.

Here are some other examples that might be useful.

No Manhattanite would stoop to flipping a raised middle finger, the vulgar insult of rednecks. Here, you raise one finger for every language you speak.

Traffic arguments outside the United Nations can sometimes involve both hands, which is why it’s a good idea to avoid First Ave at rush hour.

Any visitor would recognize the formal Roman salute we use to hail a cab. But you have to live here a little longer to undrestand that a vigorous, crossed-arm wave means “I have been waiting longer for a taxi, but this asshole just stepped out ten yards ahead of me.”

Sweeping a hand over your shoulder or hair communicates that you’ve just passed under one of the city’s many leaking air conditioners.

The same movement executed more rapidly, sometimes accompanied by a jig from foot to foot, means you realized it was actually a pigeon.

In a restaurant, a raised arm accompanied by a slight rotation of the wrist indicates that you would like the check. Very important people—including investment bankers, dentists with their own product lines and fired MSNBC hosts—might eschew this effete gesture in favor of snapping their fingers.

The correct response to such a person is for the server to approach the table with a glass of complimentary top shelf liqueur, their head bowed low, so they can spit in it.

Tourists identify themselves by walking on the left side of the sidewalk, slowly, with their necks tilted back at 45 degrees.

That, combined with open manhole covers, is probably why we have so many alligators in the sewers.

Fashion Week is a virtual killing field of gang signs, flashed between rival editors. Conde Nast claiming one side of the runway, Hearst the other, throwing each other the “F4E” (Front-row 4Ever.)

Anna Wintour is the most terrifying fashion editor in the world precisely because she has reduced all human expression to a mere glance, and then wears dark glasses so you can’t see her eyes.

Her devastating silence is our Om, the sound of the of New York universe.

Of course, New Yorkers might also touch a stranger gently on the arm in the subway, to indicate they are offering their seat.

Or press a handshake with a bill enclosed, to show gratitude for service.

You might even see a door being held.

We use this kind of informal sign language every day, without it causing an international incident. So perhaps Thamsanqa Jantjie, the besieged Mandela memorial interpreter, should consider a move to our city.

He could get a job with the MTA, translating subway platform announcements. His incomprehensible style would be perfect.

A New Yorkers’ Guide to Practical Fake Sign Language