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With Super Bowl XLVIII coming up, it’s a good time for some pointers about how Americans celebrate with friends (and strangers) at sports events—and at almost any other occasion when something good or positive has happened.
Of course, the British cliché is that the traditional response to a goal, a wicket, a try, a point, a victory (or even a defeat) is a good, solid handshake—just watch old BBC footage of Wimbledon or a test match. Today that’s old hat of course; fist-shaking, screaming and enthusiastic hugs definitely happen (even among strangers), but that’s rarely found outside the confines of a sports situation, be it in the stadium or watching on television.
Sports stars themselves have a million ways to celebrate; ever-changing dances, poses and gestures that are inspired by local references, movies, team rivalries, private jokes, news events, religion, superstition, YouTube viral hits or something else bang up-to-date. In soccer there’s the classic shirt off/over the head gesture, even for players on the USA Women’s Soccer team.
Americans are a fairly friendly bunch, but they have some celebrations that Brits find just too public and OTT, especially when they’re initiated by strangers and your drawing back like a startled deer makes you look like a snob/killjoy/buzz kill.
Unsurprisingly, as a Brit, I often find that Americans are shocked when I am happy to give friendly (and appropriate) hugs to almost anyone—why not?—but there are definitely some American things that are very hard for a Brit to get used to.
Perhaps the most common gesture celebrating success, it’s super-neutral and not too intimate. The origins aren’t certain, but most say it first happened unconsciously when baseball players Dusty Baker and Glenn Burke of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1977—or Wiley Brown and Derek Smith of the Louisville Cardinals men’s college basketball team in 1978—made the move.
Despite high fives spreading across the world, as a Brit, it’s desperately hard not to leave someone “hanging” when they raise their palm to the heavens in a kind of disco gesture, then freeze it in place, an expectant look on their face and shouting “woooooooooo!” or, if you’re still not getting it, issuing the near-command “High Five!” As for the pushing or sliding variety, that just seems like they’re wiping something nasty onto you. Actually, Missouri has gone so far as to introduce legislation making the high five its official greeting.
Maybe it’s just me, but it looks so utterly odd when a lovestruck couple or parents and their kids bump fists, as if they barely know each other or don’t want to risk germs by touching more than knuckles. It originated in boxing matches, but bikers were early adopters too—a handshake would put you off balance on your ride—and then of course President Obama and First Lady Michelle shared one in 2008. But I still find it too awkward.
The chest bump is more a flying upright rugby tackle. Two people—nearly always men, for obvious reasons—launch themselves at each other, arms splayed back, and bang chests like rutting bulls. Most men take it as a chance to show their strength, and it’s hard to love a semi-wrestling move that could end with you on your back.
This one sneaks up on you. It starts out as a handshake that is more of a closed fist than usual—bonus points for being cool and far less formal—but then, surprise!, it carries on as the other person suddenly pulls you forward, like an octopus with its prey, into a bearish hug.
In the U.K., unless you’re in the Armed Forces and among your fellow soldiers, you don’t make a saluting gesture. In patriotic America however, this gesture can mean lots of things and in a sports-related moment—especially if conversation is impossible—it means “Yes!” or “That was amazing!” or “Win or lose, you’re the champ!” Despite it being a staple of U.S. television shows and movies, whenever I see it I look around for a smart uniform, medals and a buzz cut.
“Live long and prosper!”
Okay, so this one is a bit of a cheat. It’s not really sports-related, but then doesn’t the saying “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” sum up all games?
I’m no Trekkie, but even I get a lump in my throat and dust in my eye during the scene between Kirk and Spock in The Wrath of Khan.
Have you adopted any of these American forms of celebration?
View all posts by James Bartlett.