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The phatic finger: Public gesture and shared meaning on the highways of the Australian Outback


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This paper explores the cultural significance of ephemeral public greetings on the highways of Australia's Northern Territory. Despite the exceptional speed at which vehicles pass one another and the fact that such salutations are mostly between travellers who have no acquaintance with one another, few drivers fail to acknowledge the co-presence of others on the highway. The main concern of this account is to detail how this greeting system works, including the diverse meanings which can be attached to participation in it. In conclusion, it is suggested that this is a form of phatic communication which, as Malinowski (1923) said, eschews engagement with weighty economic and political issues, but contributes significantly to a sense of community between those involved.