5 Ways Americans Celebrate That British People Find Awkward

(CBS)

Don’t be alarmed if someone raises their hand to you, opens their palm and yells, “High five.” It’s a sign of solidarity. (CBS)

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.

High five
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.

Fist bump
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.

Chest bump
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.

The Shake/Hug
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.

Saluting
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? 

See More:
10 Adorable Things Americans Do (According to Brits) 
10 Common American Expressions That Baffle Brits
6 British Customs that Will Puzzle Americans

James Bartlett

James Bartlett

James Bartlett writes about travel, film and the weird and wonderful side of living in L.A. He has been published in over 90 magazines and newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, Los Angeles Magazine, Angeleno, Hemispheres, Delta Sky, Westways, Variety and Bizarre. He is also a contributor to BBC radio and RTE in Ireland, and is the author of Gourmet Ghosts - Los Angeles, a "history and mystery" guide to bars and restaurants in L.A. - details can be found at www.gourmetghosts.com.

See more posts by James Bartlett
  • expatmum

    I don’t tend to high five ’cause I always miss! You can’t really not hug people here in the mid-west; even people you’ve just met will hug you when you part. That’s the only time I find it a bit odd.
    The one I like (but again don’t do because I always get it wrong) is the YMCA dance, usually at baseball games. Everyone’s always in such a good mood.

    • M

      If you look at someone’s elbow while high five-ing them, you won’t miss

    • http://www.meaganadelelopez.com/ Meagan

      You just gotta look at people’s elbows while you high five and you’ll be all good!

  • Marsha Smith

    I really enjoy this blog but today I’m slightly confused. Where have you seen non-military people saluting? (It may be that I do not watch sporting events on the telly. Hey! I’ve always loved British words!)

    • Shawna DeMar

      Marsha- I do it to my husband when he starts giving me lists of things to do. It’s my way of telling him to F himself without causing a fight. ;-)

    • Nicole

      In High School, as a part of the marching band we had to salute the flag at every football game.

      So it does happen time to time, it’s just not something that I’ve personally seen done regularly.

      • Danielle Holden

        Ok, but that’s in uniform, under regulations. The only time I’ve seen saluting on tv by civilians is in HIMYM with their inside joke.

        • expatmum

          Don’t forget the Joan Rangers on E’s Fashion Police.

        • The Denver Diamond

          I saluted people as a light hearted way of telling them that I thought they were being overly bossy but I did not want to sour the mood.

        • TMarius

          Nope, veterans have been allowed to salute during the anthem in civilian clothing for a few years now.

  • ProudYankee

    I think these are mostly American MALE things. I’m a woman and don’t do any of these. Unless we’re dating, I don’t really need to have a lot of physical contact with you. I actually never even shake hands unless the other person initiates it.

    And I can do without the European kiss-kiss too.

    • Lisa Venezia Giannotti

      I don’t know. Women do hug each other upon greeting. That’s about it though.

      • ProudYankee

        But he specifically mentions a “shake/hug,” which tricks someone into thinking they’re only getting a handshake before moving in for the kill. I don’t know any women who do this.

  • LJ

    Seriously .. what faff!!

  • Aubrey

    Never have I seen or heard of Americans saluting during a touchdown? Maybe this is something people in Britain assume we do as Americans?

    • Shea

      I don’t see a whole lot of saluting. Okay, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in real life.

    • Mandy

      I’ve saluted my husband and shouted “yes, Sir!” when he told me to do something, rather than asked. Of course, I added a more colorful word after the fact, but there was a salute.

      • carol9

        That’s being sarcastic, not the same thing.

        • Tempus12

          Watch a defensive lineman after he sacks a quarterback. JJ Watt comes to mind. He also wags his finger “No no” when we swats down a pass.

          • carol9

            One person does not a stereotype make.

    • Jenny

      Yeah, this isn’t really a true one. The rest are very common, but where I am and the other 6 states I’ve lived in, Americans only salute in the military. I’m sure the writer saw one or two idiots do it and then extrapolated it to cover the entire population – not that Americans haven’t done that regarding other countries.

    • http://atlantarofters.blogspot.com The Sanity Inspector

      It used to be a thing in the NFL back in the 90s, maybe with the Broncos, too lazy to google it.

  • James Jones

    Hmmm… I’ve seen “thumbs up”, but aside from a military context, not salute, save perhaps this: in American Sign Language, the “hello” gesture is very salute-like. (Not having been in the military, I’ve not learned a proper salute and thus won’t commit to it being a salute.)

  • Lisa Venezia Giannotti

    Sounds like Brits don’t really like each other lol

    • Mandy

      I think it has something to do with our views on personal space and how reserved we are. Americans are very prudish about some things, but personal space isn’t one of them.

      We like to touch people. Huh. That sounds creepy.

      • LULZ YA DERPS

        As I United States Citizen, I can tell you I don’t like High Fives, Fist Bump, and Chest Bumps. I really don’t like people I don’t know violating my personal space with hugs.

      • http://www.heatherwiech.com/ Heather

        Awwww come on. Lemme give you a hug and big sloppy kiss! :)

      • ProudUankee

        If you think Americans like to invade personal space and touch people, you must have never been to Europe…

      • TMarius

        Personal space is huge for us 90-95% of the time. If they go in for the contact greeting, it’s considered a moment of either affection or joy (when Osama bin Ladin died, Americans were jumping on each other and being bodysurfed by a crowd of strangers in D.C., as well as embracing total strangers and handing out free beer), though before conversation can resume, they are going to naturally want to re-establish personal space bubbles.

        I personally have met several Englishmen and Scots whose conception of personal space during a conversation was definitely too close-in for American standards, almost French or Italian. If you need more space than they are giving you, I highly doubt they would be offended if you just outright told them so.

        Also at sporting events and concerts of certain genres of music, celebratory shoving can be very common. If you don’t think you’d enjoy that sort of thing (like many Americans), you’re expected to move to the periphery.

    • TMarius

      LOL

      Not gonna lie, I get this feeling at times.

  • Danielle Holden

    The more I read of these, the more I believe I should have been British instead of American.

    • LULZ YA DERPS

      Well technically a lot of us in the US do have British Colonist blood in us.

  • Michael Crowe

    I actually took the Pledge of allegiance with the Vulcan Salute when I became a US Citizen, bumped into a Lady with a big chest ( my Brit Upbringing)Gave her a hug and a High five then saluted the Flag ..God Bless America!

    • http://www.heatherwiech.com/ Heather

      Well done.

    • TMarius

      That is the most American thing I have ever heard in my life.

      God bless you, sir. E pluribus unum.

  • Mandy

    Yeah, I don’t do any of these things. ProudYankee has it right, I believe, and most of these are male-oriented. Either that or sports fan-oriented, as I’m not too familiar with either. If someone tries to high five me, I won’t leave them hanging as that seems horribly rude, but I will try to make it as awkward as I can for them so they don’t try it again.

    Expatmum – Michigan (or frozen pit of despair – either works) here and I admit it… I am a hugger. Most of us are. I’ve been hugged by strangers at the grocery store and I don’t mind. There is so much anger and animosity around here most of the time, I encourage all positive interactions. Heck, I’ve been hugged by homeless people, random kids, and an elderly woman who I made laugh. I love it.

  • sagriver

    I’m an American who doesn’t like touching, so I’m always having weird moments when I’m going in for a handshake and the other person is going in for a full on hug. Its like, “Well, see you later . . . ahh, what are you doing?” and we end up in an awkward sideways hug. Its especially strange when people I barely know want to hug me. What happened to the handshake?

    • expatmum

      Ha ha ha ha, that sideways hug thing. Oooh, awkward.

    • The Denver Diamond

      I have huge boobs and hugs feel awkward for me, all hugs turn into awkward side hugs for me ha ha ha!

  • ukhousewifeusa

    I will not fist bump anyone. Ever.

    • expatmum

      Especially not my kids. They take delight in doing it as hard as they can!

    • LULZ YA DERPS

      I hate when people want to fist bump you and then they won’t leave you alone until you do.

  • Mikel

    I love the fist bump, but it does take getting used to at first.

  • Béla Fekete

    Why would any comment here be awaiting moderation ? Are you frightened people are not stupid enough to believe everything you post and comment accordingly
    on it ?

    • expatmum

      I think it’s a Disqus glitch. I have had a few comments apparently awaiting moderation and then all of a sudden they appear anyway. When I enquired about it, there was no moderation going on.

  • Driven2Create

    “High five” is a variation of “give me five”, a gentle hand slapping gesture. “Give me five” appeared in 1960s America from African American culture, as a sign of solidarity – five being obviously the number of fingers on one’s hand. The gesture spread throughout the country to popular culture in the 70s.

  • JR48

    Generalized hugs are friendly, but not automatic. Chest bumps, usually by guys at sporting events who’ve had way too many beers. High five, yep seen that a lot, when your team scores big at a sporting event. Saluting, usually by vets or active military, but then again, only with the Star Spangled Banner being sung or some sort of flag ceremony. More common is the hand over the heart. (Taught in grammar school during the pledge.) Fist bumps, by the youth only, unless it’s a joke. And the Vulcan, live long and prosper thing, only as a joke, unless someone is a complete Trekkie, and they’re sort of unusual. ST nerd behavior.

    Far more likely is the too friendly manner in general, accompanied by the hug if you’ve spent time together. Usually initiated by women. We all have a tendency to talk too loudly, are too intimate probably for what seems to be the average Brit taste. Boisterous when we’re happy, that sort of thing.

    But just know that we’re all not built like that, even with sporting events. It’s taken me almost two years to learn how to yell at one of my kid’s games, while being teased by my husband that I’m treating hockey like watching a tennis match. I will, however, chat with you far too much. LOL

  • Nikki

    I agree with some of the others. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone salute in sports LOL

  • Shakira

    I think it’s pretty accurate to me. Everyone around me always does those things on the list. Especially high fives, hugs, and hand shakes. I’ve lived all over West America and that’s how most people are.

    • pat

      What in the world is West America?

      • The Denver Diamond

        The western side of the United states…. It is where I live.

  • Jen McCauley

    I’m an American, and I find every one of these to be immensely awkward. Mainly because they are all generally implemented by imbeciles.

    • The Denver Diamond

      Well that is a highly judgmental and unfriendly thing for you to say.

      • frozen01

        Well, she did say “generally”, and I’m not sure I would disagree, except to add “or someone who is really drunk” at the end.

        • The Denver Diamond

          I have noticed high fives and fist bumps (same thing in my book) are so widely used that even generally doesnt fit unless they think most people are imbeciles. (They might though so then of course that would mean everything was generally done by imbeciles)

        • Jen McCauley

          I think that clarification is pretty appropriate. No offense intended to anyone. It’s all experience-related, which doesn’t say much for where I live. Altho I probably should have used a word other than imbeciles. “Drunken douchebags” cuts the number down quite a lot.

    • TMarius

      Sounds like you just didn’t receive enough fist/chest bumps or high fives as a child.

      • Jen McCauley

        That’s because I’m not from New Jersey.

  • Mark

    Much truth in this article, but a lot of these are more typical of people under age 40-ish. You almost never see men or women older than that chest bumping or doing fist bumps. You also rarely see people in middle age or older doing the shake-hug or even hugging in general (except within a family). Definitely a younger-generation thing that started about 15 years ago. Salutes tend to be an almost ironic response to someone who is for whatever reason in a position of authority over someone otherwise of equal stature, such as two tradesman, with the older one giving an instruction and the younger one giving a “salute” and saying, slyly, “yes sir” — good way to preserve morale among equals while still acknowledging that a command (of sorts) has been issued. That’s my view, from midwest USA.

  • Lorene Gilleland

    Trekker, not Trekkie.

  • Becky

    I’m not sure what movies the author saw that had people saluting in joy, but that’s not a thing. Americans don’t actually do that.

    • The Denver Diamond

      I have never seen it either…..

  • David Eckels

    what about the butt swat/slap?

  • Glends

    As a Southerner indiscriminate hugging is a part of the culture with which I have never been completely comfortable. I don’t mind a hug from most friends and family but aquaintences or strangers is just creepy. Never do any of the others either because they look ridiculous.

    • frozen01

      Southerner here, too (by birth, not by current location). The funny thing is that the only place in which I’ve experienced a hug from a new acquaintance (read: stranger) was when I was meeting friends of my fiance’s somewhere in Lancashire. Nearly every one greeted me with a small hug and a kiss on/at the cheek.

  • Curtis Michael Reddoor

    I do not do any of these things, nor do my friends, perhaps you are living in a heavy frat saturation area :)

    • ProudYankee

      Good call! That probably does explain it.

  • Bradley Dorrance

    We can be forgiven for all of those celebratory salutes. It’s the pretentious Roman numerals for a spectacle that is less than 50 years old that I find ridiculous.

  • melissa

    You really don’t know Americans at all. With all the things you people write on America maybe you should try and do some research in America and not on the net.

    • NotTrue

      I agree…these are not very common things, though some people do them. I was thinking the same thing when I read the piece about tipping in America. NO ONE has ever come running after me & asked why I didn’t tip. Actually, no one has ever asked why I didn’t tip – probably because they knew the service was bad, but still. Where do these guys get their info??

  • Gallifrey girl

    My husband says The Denver Broncos have the “Mile high salute” that may be the salute being referenced. The rest is dead on and further proof I was born in the wrong country. All of these customs confuse me and make me feel awkward.

  • marxwj

    One thing of note. Some people do one or two of these things. I have never known someone to do more than two. The high five and fist bump are most often used to celebrate. The others are more for greeting you at the door.
    As with others, I have never known anyone to salute in either greeting or celebration unless there was a veteran in uniform present, and even then it is rare.

  • Joey

    I have literally NEVER seen someone salute during a football game.

  • Erik

    If you want to act like a true American Hipster, when offered the high five or fist bump, say “Who still does that.” VERY hipster move – may not get you invited back though. As for the salute – not often seen, but mostly by football players on the field.

    • TMarius

      Be advised that you may be struck on the head with empty beer bottles if you do this at a sports game.

  • JennGarrison

    Where do you guys actually get this stuff for your blogs? Half of what you post don’t actually happen in America. With that having been said, unless there are people in uniform and there is an American song (i.e. the National Anthem) playing–we don’t salute. I have never ever seen this in celebration…ever. I see more Brits saluting on Doctor Who than I do on our programs. Wth!?

  • Kim

    Lol no one salutes or chest bumps

  • eric

    ive never seen the saluting for anything other then saluting someone in the armed forces, must be something brits think we do

  • http://beautifulsynthesis.com Andrea

    I think you’re missing some meaning here.

    High fives are an expression of congratulations and are done out of pure enthusiasm. The trouble is when someone else is WAY more excited than you are.

    Fist bumps emphasize teamwork. Parents might share one when they outsmart their kids.

    There’s two ways to use an informal salute. One is used when verbal communication is impractical (like, across a room). You could just as easily give the other person a thumbs up or an OK sign. The other way is supposed to be gently mocking, to be used if someone is taking charge and giving orders and you want to tease them for being serious.

    The handshake-hug is supposed to express brotherhood and solidarity. Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that if you’re going to try a handshake-hug, you should pay close attention to the other person’s body language, to determine whether they hate hugs in general (or just don’t want one from you!).

  • Martin

    Americans sometimes applaud at the end of a film in the cinema – completely pointless an weird. Even my American born son agrees.

  • Jessica

    not in sports as much but I know tons of people that salute! in the hallways of my high school if its to loud but a message gets across my friends confirm with a salute