Communication by hand signals, and other complex coordination problems


Back in 1944, LIFE Magazine ran a series of photos showing some of the hand signals used by club owner Sherman Billingsley to communicate with his staff while he schmoozed with a customer.

In a similar vein, the general manager of Eleven Madison Park demonstrates some hand signals used in his fancy restaurant.

I'm fascinated by hand signals and more generally the mechanisms by which complex processes are coordinated, particularly the subtle mechanisms that customers never notice.

For example, when I visit a casino, I like to hang out near the craps table, not because I enjoy the game itself, but because I enjoy watching how the people who manage the table keep track of dozens of bets simultaneously.

Bonus reading: The secret codes used in fancy restaurants, the mechanics of Fashion Week, and how the Queen signals her attendants at social events.

Comments (7)
  1. Based on that casino vignette, I’d guess that you’d also enjoy reading Bruce Weber’s “As They See ‘Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires”, which examines how umpires watch baseball games.

      1. So you have. I’d thought maybe I’d seen it mentioned before on this blog, and I did a quick google search to test that theory, but I used the wrong search terms and didn’t find that post.

        1. Brian_EE says:

          Adam, Your mistake was using “The Googles”. There is a search box in the upper right corner of this very page. Putting the single word Umpire in there and selecting “this blog only” brings Raymond’s previous article as the top result.

  2. Nico says:

    Those LIFE photos are great, thank you for sharing. What I find interesting about the hand signals is not just the signals themselves, but seeing what messages the club owner felt important enough to devise a signal for.

    Personally I think I would spend too much mental effort trying *not* to make any of the hand signals by accident that I wouldn’t be able to focus on anything else. Guess I wouldn’t cut it as a fancy restaurant owner.

  3. Communication by hand signals makes me think of tic-tac used by bookies at race courses in the UK to communicate odds; in decline now because everyone just uses mobile phones instead.

  4. George says:

    A couple of years ago, the NY Times had a piece on signals used by ushers, the source being the International Church Ushers Association (ICUA). When I mentioned this to an usher I know, he had never heard of the ICUA, though the church where he is head usher is within a mile and half of the ICUA’s building.

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