hey, what's up, babel?


I recently saw the movie Babel, recent winner of the Golden Globe for Best Picture. I thought the film was nothing special -- nice to look at, occasionally compelling, mostly insubstantial, way too long -- but then again, I am a hater. Babel is about our inability to communicate with one another, and how improbable, snowballing tragic events happen in all of Alejandro González Iñárritu's films. To me, the strongest themes were:

1. British tourists are bastards.
2. So is the Border Patrol.
3. Deaf Japanese girls are prone to act out in an inappropriate sexual manner.
4. Hey, remember 21 Grams?

My favorite part of the film came when the deaf Japanese girls would greet each other with enthusiastic high-fives. This appealed to me, as I once dreamed of making a documentary where I'd visit famous landmarks around the world and high-five locals in front of them. It was not an ambitious documentary. My movie companion and I had different theories as to why the girls relied on the high-five.

Louise: It's because they're deaf.
Sean: It's because they're Japanese.

It got me thinking about the way that I greet my own friends. Right now, I am heavily reliant on, "Hey, what's up?" If you call me and introduce yourself, I will respond with, "Hey, what's up?" This is true whether you are a good friend calling my cell phone, or an incarcerated state prisoner making a collect call to my office. It's a total reflex by now. In fact, if you call me, and we get disconnected, and then you call back 15 seconds later, I will still greet you with, "Hey, what's up?"

Usually, not much is up.

When I was younger, I used to greet people by lifting my head and nodding in a ponderous manner. It was the perfect gesture for an adolescent male, all false coolness and mild hostility. The head nod was judgemental, but also somewhat insecure. It said, "I'm lazily lifting my head to acknowledge you, because if I say hello, my voice might crack." It also may have been that our puffy Starter jackets were inhibiting the movement of our necks, necessitating such a birdlike motion. Sometimes the head nod would be accompanied by a quiet, "'Sup?", because that is how we believed cool kids and/or rappers said hello. Even then, something was rarely up.

I can't remember if the deaf girls also slap five to say goodbye to one another. I've been told that my own phone goodbye is an awkward, strangled "Goodbye" sound, as if I'm choking on the words in order to end the call faster. My roommate ends each phone call with a wistful, "Bye?", as if she's questioning whether you're really about to hang up. This gives the impression you've left something unsaid, or that the call is ending prematurely. Only after years of telephonic communication have I managed to shake the idea that I've wronged her each time a call ends.

The most ridiculous goodbye comes from my atheist friend, Eugenio. While he's not religious whatsoever, he usually wishes you farewell with the words, "Peace be with you." Nearly everyone responds with, "And also with you," and then leaves feeling uncomfortable and hungry for Eucharist.

I think Eugenio has made a bold choice, looking to the Liturgy for his small talk needs. Some people don't realize this, but my own phone greeting is biblical in nature, coming from St. Paul's first letter, "Hey, What's Up, Corinthians?" Taking Eugenio's lead, I started saying goodbye with, "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen." It rolls right off the tongue. The proper response to that phrase is, of course, a high five. Unless you're dealing with a British tourist or an American border guard, because there's no way they'll understand you. Just scream, "Peace be with you!", drive into the desert, and then demand an Academy Award.


Actually, you pack a lot into that "Hey, what's up." Maybe it's different depending on who you're talking to, but when you say it to me what I hear is "I'm relieved you're not someone I like much less than I like you, but I still was sort of hoping you'd be Gene." Or, "you might make me laugh, but I probably still won't want to go to whatever you're about to invite me to." It's a complex mix of pleased and slightly disappointed.

My response is usually a bland "not much," which I think implies "something is actually up, but I'm not going to take the time to describe it to you. Let's get this conversation over and done with because you know I fear the phone."

I get that too. So either Sean does that to everybody or we're both in the same friend caste.

Or "caste of Friends," as it were..

this is so awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! i love it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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This page contains a single entry by Sean Keane published on January 18, 2007 5:16 AM.

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