Driving Miss Crazy

“Americans will put up with anything provided it doesn’t block traffic.” (Dan Rather) 

Over the last few years of exploring kindness, writing about it, and occasionally talking about it, one of the most frequent comments I encountered from others was along the lines of, “I think I’m a pretty kind person—except when I’m behind the wheel.”

What is it about driving that can turn a pacifist into a warrior, or transform Prince or Princess Charming into Freddy Krueger? As much as it pains me to say it, there are always going to be some people who will be aggressive jerks under any circumstances—and driving just magnifies that jerkiness to cosmic proportions. But there are also kind and good-natured individuals who transform before our very eyes into sneering auto-crats with the vocabulary of a Quentin Tarantino thug.

Clearly, there is no single reason for the metamorphosis that occurs when an otherwise splendid human being gets behind the wheel of their vehicle—be it a Ford F-150 pick-up, a BMW, or a Toyota Prius.

Some studies cite the protection and the anonymity offered by a heavy vehicle moving at high speed. Surrounded by a few thousand pounds of steel, we can name-call and chastise, knowing that similar behaviors directed back at us can’t actually penetrate the armor of our vehicles (unless the other driver is both psychotic and armed, then all bets are off).

I think the fact that we’re nearly always in a hurry is a big factor, too. We’re just trying to get from here to there and aggressive or oblivious drivers slow us down. They get in our way and then they won’t get out of our way. All the while, the clock is ticking.

There may also be a connection to a condition called “illusory superiority,” a cognitive bias whereby individuals overestimate their own qualities and abilities, relative to others(think Lake Wobegon, where, famously, all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average). In a famous study conducted some years ago, 93% of American participants rated themselves as above-average drivers. Even with my limited mathematical prowess, I recognize this to be a statistical impossibility. The same study also included Swedish drivers, for whom—somewhat more humbly—only 69% claim to be above average.

So, if 93% of Americans are driving around feeling superior to other drivers, who’s to blame them if they express their superiority by refusing to yield, tailgating, speeding, flashing their lights, and honking their horns. And why should they use turn signals—they know where they’re going, why let the rest of us in on it?

I’ve heard it said that if you really want to get to know someone, just watch how they drive. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. There’s something exceptional about driving—it takes certain people out of their day-to-day tranquil reality and drops them in a dystopian battlefield where they become someone else entirely, someone they’re really not all that proud to be. Again, I exempt the true jerks (jerkus americanus) from this acquittal, because they revel in letting their true colors fly as they terrorize the highways, speed the side streets, and assert their dominance across parking lots.

I came across an interesting study that ranked all fifty states and the District of Columbia by the rudeness of their drivers. It also noted what other state held each state in particular contempt for its driving. Surprisingly (to me at least), Idaho drivers were ranked as the rudest of all, and they are especially hated by drivers from Arizona (a state which is ranked 34th and has as its nemesis the state of California). My own state, Washington, comes out pretty well, ranking 43rd in rudeness, and disliked most by our neighbor to the south, Oregon. Washington drivers don’t seem to hold particular animosity for any other drivers, while California drivers appear to hate nearly everyone. Given how highly-caffeinated Washington State drivers are, our ranking comes as a bit of a surprise. But, then, based on the number of venti Starbucks cups I see in drivers’ hands, I suspect we are all just looking for the next easy-access restroom.

In yet another study of rude driving (there are many!), the author concluded that good and courteous drivers are “turned bad” by rude drivers. The courteous ones mistakenly believe that by venting their frustration they will let offending drivers know they have behaved poorly, so that they will not repeat the behavior in future. “It’s a contradiction,” says road safety researcher Lauren Shaw, “good drivers are using rude and unpleasant bad behavior to teach other drivers how to be better drivers.” All that does, she concludes, is confirm to aggressive drivers the bad behavior of all drivers.

Is there way to conquer our own aggressive driving and not be provoked by the hostile or foolhardy driving habits of others? I think there is, but I suspect few people will like it. Here goes anyway: Let go of needing to be right (or righteous)—even when you know you are. Even when you’re absolutely, positively, without any doubt, certain you are right. Let it go.

Maybe we could take a cue from some of the street signs we see all over (and often ignore):

Yield. Let the other guy in—whether he’s merging onto the highway, trying to change lanes, or snatching up the parking place you had identified as your own. Even if it clearly was your space, or if he jumps in without signaling or waving thanks, what does it cost to acquiesce, and to do so without cussing and name-calling?

Stop. Before you act aggressively or react to another driver’s idiocy or belligerence, pause and ask yourself if that’s really who you want to be and whether you will feel better or worse after yelling an obscenity or making that universally recognized hand-gesture. A pause offers us the option to be gracious and to put an end to escalating rudeness.

Seek Alternate Route. Remind yourself that you always have a choice, and when you make the choice—rather than allowing someone else’s behavior to make it for you—you’re not only exhibiting maturity, you’re modeling good behavior for others on the road or in your own vehicle.

I don’t have the slightest idea what this sign means. But maybe it’s a reminder that we can’t always know what’s going on in someone else’s life that has made them behave aberrantly. Maybe they’re a brand-new driver and they’re terrified … perhaps they’re rushing a loved one to the hospital … possibly they’re lost…. Why not give the benefit of the doubt?

Some people will never change. But if driving is one of the few places where you lose control and succumb to unkindness, challenge yourself to take another route the next time you get behind the wheel. See if you can find the road that leads to inner peace.

“When you argue with a fool, make sure he is not similarly engaged.” (Proverb)

 

 

Hit the Road, Jack

“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.” (Dalai Lama)

Attribution: Donna CameronMany years ago I was driving home in heavy afternoon commute traffic. As I approached my exit and switched on my turn signal to change lanes, the car next to me in the lane I wanted to move into sped up, preventing me from moving into the exit lane. I slowed down to let him get ahead and he slowed down. I slowed down some more and he slowed down some more. I looked over at him and he was looking over at me—and laughing. I sped up, and—you guessed it—he sped up. This went on for a bit longer. He continued to laugh as he continued to block my ability to change lanes. As I passed my exit, he waved, and for the first and only time in my life, I made a rude—but expressive—hand gesture.

I fumed as I drove to the next exit and made my way back to the highway to return in the other direction. What a jerk! Why’d he pick me? Where’s a cop when you need one? I also thought about the hand gesture I had made. I assumed it would make me feel better, but it didn’t. By saluting him as I had, I sank nearly to his level. He got the reaction he wanted, and I acted in a way I considered crude.

I’m not going to say he wasn’t a jerk. He was a colossal jerk. I imagine this was a trick he’d performed before, probably only with women driving alone … certainly not burly guys driving 4X4 trucks with gun racks. What kind of a person does that, and, for heaven’s sake, why? But just because he was a jerk, there’s no reason why I needed to be one. If, indeed, making a lewd gesture had made me feel better, then okay, go for it—no harm, no foul—but the act diminished me. It did, however, teach me something important: even under great provocation, that’s not who I want to be.

I’ve often wondered if I had the experience to do over—and I’d rather not, thank you, to any Seattle drivers who may be reading this and know what color Subaru I drive—what would I like my response to have been?

Perhaps if I had smiled and waved he might have had a momentary panic that he was perpetrating this nasty trick on an acquaintance, a friend, or—worse yet—one of his mother’s friends. That might have given him just enough of a pause that he would have stopped being a jerk long enough for me to change lanes. Maybe if I’d blown him a kiss….

Kindness is always a choice, as is unkindness. Every time we choose how we will respond in an emotion-charged situation, we choose what sort of a person we are going to be. And the more times we choose, the more we reinforce who we are. Eventually, maybe, we get to a point where we no longer need to choose—we know who we are and who we have become—and we act out of that now-innate knowledge. If I ever get to that point, I hope I will have chosen kindness at every opportunity. That, I think, is a life well-lived.

“A good character is the best tombstone.  Those who loved you and were helped by you will remember you when forget-me-nots have withered.  Carve your name on hearts, not on marble.” (Charles H. Spurgeon)

Brace Yourself for an Epidemic of Bad Behavior

“Let us learn to live with kindness, to love everyone, even when they do not love us.” (Pope Francis)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Wallace Falls State Park, Aug. 2015

It’s going to be a long 14 months until our next presidential election. Many other countries have very different approaches to their elections:

  • In Canada, the minimum length for a campaign is 36 days, and the longest ever—in 1926—was 10.5 weeks;
  • In Australia, the campaign must be at least 33 days; the longest ever was 11 weeks in 1910;
  • In France, the official election campaign usually lasts no more than 2 weeks;
  • In Japan, campaigning is permitted for 12 days.

Sigh.

In our wisdom, we Americans draw out the process longer than the War of the Roses. And, to add to the fun, our candidates engage in incivility that would cause them to have their mouths rinsed out with soap, or at least an extended time-out, if they were really the 8-year-olds they act like.

But they are adult men and women, and for many of them, name-calling, lying and rudeness are standard operating procedures. And, sadly, their supporters cheer and egg them on, giving tacit approval for boorish behavior. Recent research indicates that this is likely to be the beginning of an epidemic of incivility.

According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Florida, rudeness is contagious. Really, it spreads like a cold or the flu—it’s passed from one person to the next until most everybody’s got it. Not only do people who are subject to rude treatment themselves subsequently behave rudely, even those who only witness rudeness succumb to rude behaviors.

The study, published in late June in The Journal of Applied Psychology, asserts that, “Just like the common cold, common negative behaviors can spread easily.” Lead researcher Trever Foulk further stated, “It’s very easy to catch. Just a single incident, even observing a single incident, can cause you to be more rude…. Rudeness is contagious, when I experience it, I become rude.”

We Tolerate Bad Behavior

“Part of the problem,” he adds, “is that we are generally tolerant of these behaviors, but they’re actually really harmful.” Where outright abuse and aggression are far more infrequent—and less readily accepted—rudeness is something people face daily, and its effects can be widely devastating.

“Rudeness is largely tolerated,” Foulk said. “We experience rudeness all the time in organizations because organizations allow it.”

Maybe our presidential candidates should come with a warning label: Caution: listening to this man could be hazardous to your humanity.

Perhaps most concerning: the study revealed that all of this happens at an unconscious level. “What we found in this study,” said Foulk, “is that the contagious effect is based on an automatic cognitive mechanism—automatic means it happens somewhere in the subconscious part of your brain, so you don’t know it’s happening and can’t do much to stop it.”

Does that mean that those people who abhor what Donald Trump says and stands for, but who watch him for his entertainment value only, are nonetheless “catching” his rudeness? Sounds like it to me….  Also sounds like my friend Kris is wise in declaring a news fast.

Responding to the study, Barbara Mitchell, human resources consultant, and author of The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook, says rude behavior can be stopped if it’s clear to all that such behavior will not be tolerated. “To me it starts from the top…. How does the leadership behave? What kind of culture do they want? And how do they live their own values within the organization?” She further notes that bad behavior must be addressed immediately. It must be made clear to everyone the moment it surfaces that rudeness will not be tolerated. While she is talking about workplace incivility, it stands to reason that the same factors exist at a broader, cultural level: How do our leaders behave? What values do they model? What are we—as members of that culture—willing to tolerate?

If being treated rudely, or even just witnessing rude treatment, causes people to behave more rudely themselves, over the next 14 months we are likely to see an escalation of discourtesy of unimagined proportion.

If we want to advance a kind and courteous culture, we need to take a stand. We need to politely say “no” when a politician speaks disrespectfully of an opponent, a celebrity, or a mere dissenter. Or when the media or political pundits engage in name-calling or deceit. We need say “that’s not acceptable” and turn our backs if they persist. That’s how the contagion is countered.

Fortunately, It Works Both Ways

The news isn’t all bad. There’s also been research that kindness can spread like a contagion, too. Scottish scientist David R. Hamilton, Ph.D., has done considerable research into the health benefits of kindness.  He asserts that just as colds and flu (and as we now know, rudeness) are contagious in a bad way, so is kindness in a good way. “When we’re kind,” Hamilton says, “we inspire others to be kind, and it actually creates a ripple effect that spreads outwards to our friends’ friends’ friends—to three degrees of separation.” As an example of that ripple effect, Dr. Hamilton cites the story of an anonymous individual who donated a kidney to a stranger. It triggered a ripple of family members donating their kidneys to others, the “domino effect” ultimately spanning the breadth of the U.S. and resulting in ten people receiving kidneys as a result of one anonymous donor.

Whether one extends kindness, receives kindness, or merely witnesses kindness, the result is the same: it acts as a catalyst for more kindness.

So, as cold and flu season approach, not to mention the malady known as campaign season, we can choose what sorts of bugs we will expose ourselves to. We can choose to breathe the air of reckless incivility or of well-mannered courtesy. If only there were a simple shot to protect us from election affliction….

More election comparisons: In Germany, political parties release just one 90-second television ad. In the U.K.’s last major election (2010), British political parties spent just about the same amount as the American presidential candidates spent on expenses related to raising money in 2012. Sigh.

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

Extending Kindness to All

“Being considerate of others will take your children further in life than any college degree.”  (Marian Wright Edelman)

Attribution: Donna CameronThere’s an old adage that “a person who is kind to you but rude to the waiter is not a kind person.”

We’ve all seen it: some clueless person who treats a waiter, or a cashier, or a laborer as if they don’t matter and are only on the planet to serve Mr. or Ms. Clueless.

Viewed from another angle: we’ve witnessed the people who fall all over themselves to be agreeable when the individuals they are dealing with are famous or “important,” but who look at the rest of us as if we were either invisible or something to be scraped off the bottom of a shoe.

True kindness isn’t selective.  A kind person doesn’t pick and choose whom to be kind to.

A few years ago, there was a story on the news here in Washington about a farmer in the Spokane area who closed his million-dollar-plus account when his bank treated him rudely.  He had gone into the bank somewhat dirty and dressed as he had been when working in his fields.  The bank personnel assumed he was a vagrant and spoke impolitely to him, making it clear they wanted nothing to do with him.  So he decided he wanted nothing to do with them.  He closed his sizable account and moved his money to another bank.  Good for him.

As the story was repeated in different news media, the moral seemed to be “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but that misses the point.  It implies that if, indeed, he had been a vagrant, then it would be okay to disrespect him.  It’s never okay to disrespect anyone.  The deeper lesson of the story is that kindness isn’t situational and it isn’t reserved for some people and not others.

Along this same vein, there have been occasions in our office when someone will call to talk to me and I’ll learn afterward that they were rude and pushy to our receptionist.  I remember one instance in particular:  a representative for a national speaker called to see if any of our client associations were interested in hiring his boss to speak at their conferences.  He bullied and badgered our receptionist, he spoke to her as if she were insignificant, and then asked to talk to me.  When he spoke with me, he was deferential and even fawning—he wanted to do business with our company and he saw me as the key to that door.  When I hung up, Alison came in to my office to ask if he had been as rude to me as he had to her.  Indeed not.  Needless to say, his boss never stood on a stage in front of any of our clients.

Robert Louis Stevenson famously said, “Sooner or later everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”  I suspect the food at such a banquet is far more appetizing for those who have consistently chosen kindness.

Some people seem to think they only need to be nice to people who—in some way or another—can help them achieve their aims.  Maybe it’s advancing their career, making an advantageous introduction, or helping to acquire something.  Or perhaps—like the bank personnel—they make a judgment:  this is (or isn’t) an important person and I will treat them accordingly. 

Where do people learn that they don’t have to be kind to the cashier, or the waiter, or the service worker, or the homeless person?  I suspect they learn from watching others—parents first, but then probably bosses, friends, acquaintances, strangers.  Maybe they see it on television.  Children mimic what they see others do and say, not always understanding why.  How good it would be if parents and teachers remember the Marian Wright Edelman quote above and teach children the enormous lifelong value of practicing kindness.

It’s true that there are some people who don’t see any value to being kind, unless it can get them something.  There are some people who are, let’s face it: jerks.  But most of us aren’t.  We just need reminders occasionally that kindness begets further kindness, and that we can always choose kindness.

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” (Kurt Vonnegut)