It’s on Twitter, in company meetings, and in group chats with disparate groups of friends. Recently, I’ve started to notice the hang loose hand symbol, and its emoji — also known as the “call me hand” emoji, better recognized as the shaka sign — all over my digital and physical worlds.
In my everyday, definitely-not-beach-adjacent interactions, the symbol for “surf’s up” has started to accompany messages about mundane planning, jokes, and more. In these cases, it mostly communicates an ironic stoner “heck yes,” or, an impish “fuck it.”
It’s not all laughs, though. Throwing up the shaka sign creates a pixel of distance from the crushing effort that the world, lately, requires us grown ups to muster, in order to live amidst despair.
Hang loose is the symbol made by folding down your middle three fingers, and rotating your wrist side to side while your thumb and pinky remains at attention. It’s also this emoji, added to Unicode in 2016: 🤙.
It definitely did not originate from Native Hawaiian Culture or anything (and has many conflicting origin stories). However, it is associated with Hawaii, and is a popular surf-culture gesture in the Aloha State and in California. President Obama, who grew up in Hawaii, flashed a hang loose at Honolulu’s Punahou School marching band during his Inauguration Parade. When I visited Hawaii as a kid during the holidays, towns would haul out painted statues of Santa Claus wearing bermuda shorts and sunglasses, throwing up a shaka with his fat, pale, plastic hands.
A few months ago, I could have never envisioned any of my high-strung urban friends, or any member of the Twitter intelligentsia, using it — whether in earnest, as a joke, or somewhere in between (didn’t stoner jokes go out of fashion a decades ago?). But now, hang loose is a more than occasional presence in my texts, social feeds, and even real world interactions; once I started noticing it, I began seeing it all over the place.
Yoga teacher advised us to “lean into whatever feels tight” 🤙
— Jia Tolentino (@jiatolentino) June 25, 2018
Omg there’s a cute dad I work with and I just gave him the hang loose sign and I think it’s time to die now goodbye.
— 👁🗨liz🌸 (@phosphorousmoon) June 24, 2018
Tossing a hangloose at same sex couples, as if to say “don’t worry, I’m one of the cool ones”.
— Post Varrone (@Dongzilla32) June 25, 2018
So what the heck is a symbol that is so out of step with my liberal millennial demographic’s national mood of daily rage and helplessness doing so far from the beach?
Hang loose is a symbol of greeting, enthusiasm, and most of all, good vibes. But on social media, and even recently in the real world, it’s started to take on a tinge of something more — a squinty sort of DGAF zaniness. That added meaning comes partly just because more people than, say, surfers, are using it. But also because it’s starting to stand for a zoned out, resigned-but-defiant kind of happiness.
People don’t use hang loose as a reaction to the news. That’s just too glib. Instead, my friends use it as an affirmation while planning logistics, or a reaction to bawdy absurdities, or a too-on-the-nose reveling in good times. Its use, and the “chill” attitude it represents, is post-ironic; it’s not not chill. It’s the expression of being chill, and just letting out some air, taking a goddamn breath and allowing our expressions to relax into a stoner’s smile while we manage to go about our every day lives. Hang loose, from a group of us who are decidedly not chill — who could not possibly be chill — right now.
Iconography comes in waves and fads. Emoji will surge in usage because of particular holidays, or because it’s engagement season, or because it’s summer. But the images and symbols with which we choose to express ourselves also represent a mood that seeps within and amongst us. Just look at the “tears of joy” emoji: from 2016 to 2017, its usage exploded and then plummeted, when our ability to “laugh-cry” at the world was no longer enough. We either had to just cry, or laugh uproariously; “ROFL” replaced “tears of joy” in 2018.
Lately, every day, the world demands our outrage. Protest and action against our government’s human rights abuses, conflation of disproportionate wrongs, and maddening legal decisions, is righteous and necessary. It’s also exhausting. And we can’t throw our hands up and walk away, we can’t just laugh-cry anymore, because there’s too much at stake.
But sometimes, in an emoji gesture imported to the web from surf culture and then exported to the stormy real world, we decide to crack a vacant grin, maybe waggling our eyebrows, too. With hang loose, we revel in the absurdity of things that are still good, like a funny text, or an outrageous comment, or plans to meet up for a beer on a Tuesday. We let our eyes glaze over, with a generosity that says “no rush.” Hang loose, man. Nothing’s alright. So we’ll take whatever sweet waves we can catch.