Sunday, April 26, 2009

What Our Culture Needs

American culture needs a more sophisticated means of communication between drivers. When you are in a car, driving upwards of sixty miles per hour in a machine made of several tons of metal, surrounded by hundreds of other people in the exact same situation, you can generate some pretty powerful and nuanced emotions.

The Problem

Right now, I know of exactly two signals that exist for driver-to-driver communication:

1. "The wave" is used to communicate appreciation or permission to another driver. It often means either "Thank you!" or "Why yes, I will allow you to merge/turn/change lanes," respectively.

2. "The bird" is used to communicate disapproval of another driver's actions. It often means, "I am furious at your disregard for other drivers and I hope you die," or sometimes, "I would relish the opportunity to cause you grave injury or death as punishment for your poor driving practices."

As you are no doubt aware, these messages are sufficient for a vast selection of common driving situations, but I will demonstrate that there is at least one significant gap in the gesture vocabulary of America's drivers. The primary weakness of this vocabulary is the lack of an apologetic gesture.

An Example

The gestures detailed above both assume all drivers are in absolute control of their vehicles and fully omniscient of their surroundings. If Driver A flips off Driver B, it is because Driver A thinks that Driver B consciously decided to undertake a maneuver that would upset others.

But suppose, in fact, Driver B simply made a mistake?

1. Driver B can countersign Driver A's gesture with another bird, but this is considered rude, and only aggravates the tension between the two parties.

2. Driver B can countersign with a wave, which implies, "Thank you!" Despite the normally positive meaning of this sign, here it only makes Drive B's mistake look even more like a deliberate attack on Driver A by suggesting a high degree of entitlement on Driver B's part.

3. Driver B can do nothing can get on with Driver B's life.

Obviously, none of these are good options. Instead, there should another option: the ability to apologize for an honest mistake (or a now-regretted deliberate move), as such:

4. Driver B can countersign an apology to Driver A, at which point Driver A immediately understands that Driver B regrets making the mistake and will endeavor not to do it again. Driver A can then employ the wave to indicate satisfaction or continue the bird to indicate an unkind hardness of heart.

The Proposal

For the gesture itself, I propose a wild flailing of the hand, while making the most terrified face imaginable, as if the driver were suddenly looking at an oncoming train. This simultaneously conveys the fumbling nature of the mistake and a fear of social ostracism. It also enjoys of the benefit of being difficult to confuse with either of the existing gestures.

We need to teach this stuff in driver's ed.