Dear Mr. Matthew Alice: Why do people wear their wristwatches on their left hands? It seems to be the universal custom. I took a poll, that is, I sat on a bench in a shopping center with pencil and paper and found out that out of 375 people, only 4 wore theirs on the right hand. Why the left hand? Thank you for answering. — Alfred Beck, San Diego
When determining which questions to answer each week, yours truly relies on three indicators: the weirdness of the inquiry, the distress level of the questioner, and which letters land inside when I wad them up and toss them at the fedora upended on my bookcase. Clearly this letter meets my second criterion. Since Mr. Beck chose to fritter away a perfectly good afternoon in a mall examining people’s wrists when he could have been home dozing in front of the TV — well. I’m impressed with that pluck and initiative and sheer, unabashed “need to know.” And you’re probably lucky you weren’t arrested, Mr. B. I can’t imagine what they thought you were doing.
Following your lead, I took my own poll — my usual biased rummage through the minds of whoever happened to be hanging around at the time. I asked each watch-wearer how they pick a wrist when they get up in the morning. I knew what they’d say, so I quit after three or four people had given me the answer I expected to get. Streamlined science, I call it. Or science lite, if you will. No need to waste time reconfirming what everybody already knows. Right-handed people put their watches on the left wrist, left-handers put them on the right wrist. And because righties predominate, most of your mall walkers are going to have their watches on the left.
If you need a demonstration of why that’s true, I challenge you to take a watch (one with a strap and buckle) and try putting it on your dominant hand, say, your right, and struggling with the buckle with your clumSy left. One person in my survey figured that a watch on a righthander’s right wrist would be more likely to be broken, since a righty’s right is busier than his left.
For extra credit, we here at Factoids R Us called in a panel of demographics experts to examine Mr. Beck’s field research. Actually, we just pulled in some kid who happened by — but anyway, we obtained an analysis of the data and found that on the day of the survey, Mr. Beck’s mall was way short of southpaws. If the kid’s calculations are right (and he did have a full complement of fingers and toes, so my guess is he’s correct), only 1 percent of the sample was lefties. Most experts in the subject estimate that anywhere from 5 to 35 percent of us human beans are left handed. On the other hand (I had to say it), in the finest science-lite tradition, perhaps we should conclude from our data that left-handed people are less likely to own watches.
Naturally, man is the only animal that would even bother with a question like this. If a wombat wore a watch, it wouldn’t care which wrist it was on. Only humans show a distinct, fixed hand preference. Lower animals sometimes exhibit a paw preference at certain tasks (with lefties and righties distributed about equally among the animals studied), but they can switch dominant sides easily with no loss of dexterity. Man seems to have developed his laterality as early as the Stone Age, according to anthropologists, who have found right-handed tools from that era. One theory says we developed our “handedness” because of our greater need for fine motor control compared to the average elephant. As for why the human population is predominantly right handed, the theories are complicated and unproven, but it seems to be linked to other types of hemispheric specialization, speech in particular. The most audacious theory that’s been proposed says that because left-handedness is more common among epileptics and others suffering from brain-related afflictions, including mental retardation, lefties are actually — hey, they said it, I’m just reporting it — brain damaged. Personally, I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole, no matter which hand it was held in.
January 28 update
For reasons that elude me at the moment, there was additional rumbling among the troops over the “Why do people wear watches on the right wrist?” question. Further speculation arrived from John Ona of San Diego: “Put your watch on your right wrist. If your time dial is easily readable, you will find it almost impossible to set or to wind your watch with your left hand. If you put the watch on with the stem toward your fingers, as it would be on your left hand, you will find it very difficult to read the time (upside down and backwards). I’m sure this is the reason that Mr. Beck’s poll showed that only 4 out of 375 people wore their watches on the right wrist.
“With the advent of battery-powered watches, it is no longer necessary to wind them daily. However, many of them must be set each month to keep the date correct. I have an idea that lefties have taught themselves to set the watch with their right hands, since, even when taken off the wrist, a normal watch is right handed.” A contributing factor, no doubt, but not the only reason.
William E. Schrambling of La Mesa insists we forgot the elaborate sociopolitical aspect of watch-wearing. “The big reason for so little numbers of people wearing watches on their right hands has to do with peer pressure and teacher discrimination against left-handed persons. When a left-handed child goes to school, peer pressure teaches the child that wearing their watch unnaturally is easier than standing out. If not, the average teacher will, as part of trying to combat left-handedness, simply show the child how to make the change. That is the experience of my left-handed son, who wore a watch as a child and adolescent. The only persons, therefore, who wear their watches on their right hands were either too poor for a watch when they were children (most of us) or too wealthy (George Herbert Walker Bush).” Suggesting that Bush was rich enough to hire someone to wear his watch for him? Well, my guess is you’re relieved now that George can get up every day and leave the old Timex on the dresser, since he has no place to go and no longer needs a watch.
And finally, “My name is Michelle Marquez. I am right-handed and I wear my watch on my right hand also. Would you care to explain? (There’s one in every crowd, isn’t there?)” There certainly is, Michelle, and they all insist on writing to me. I’ve notified the wristwatch police about this highly irregular situation, and they’ll be right over to make an arrest.