Last week as part of the links, I sent a video revisiting “In Praise of Roundabouts,” an essay I posted nearly a year ago. If you didn’t get a chance, watch it here.
This week I’m back with more hard-hitting traffic content.
As absurd as it is to pull so much meaning from everyday driving patterns, I find it fitting. We humans are interesting creatures, spending hours daily in our personal transportation pods. Like eating and sleeping, a portion of our lives is made up behind the wheel.
It’s precisely because driving is so ordinary that I find it revealing. The way we navigate our commute is the way we navigate life.
Driving norms are different everywhere. I’m aware of this since moving to Florida, where cars and pedestrians compete to be most careless. People roam aimlessly as if asking to be hit. Yesterday, a man rode down the street on a horse—easy enough to spot. His two small dogs, though, followed him unleashed, causing a traffic backup as they weaved playfully behind. Only in Polk County.
In Ohio, the problem is the opposite. When Ohioans see a trooper on the highway, they slow down to fifteen under. I can’t help but think that’s not what the officer is looking for. Midwest politeness at its best.
My greatest annoyance, though, would not occur on the highway but rather in my quiet neighborhood. Allow me to elaborate in painstaking As It Were depth:
Say that I’m out running or strolling around—especially common during the summer of 2020.
Imagine you see me on the sidewalk as you’re driving.
What you may do, as a courtesy, is give extra room as you pass. I’m on the sidewalk, and we’re separated by the grass meridian—I’m safe. But there’s no traffic, and it costs nothing to move over.
Like I said, it’s an act of courtesy. I’d do it too (though true Floridans wouldn’t).
But let’s imagine instead that the road isn’t empty. There are cars in your oncoming lane. I’m still safe on the sidewalk, and I don’t need you swerving over the line to avoid me.
Yet this was a common experience when I ran: drivers nearly causing wrecks to signal their politeness.
I’m an adult. I’m safe. This is what sidewalks are for. Even with my height, if I suddenly fell, I could not reach the road. I’d have to purposefully lunge at your vehicle for any danger to exist. I appreciate the “courtesy,” but if the oncoming driver’s horn is an indication, they don’t.
Take me at my word: the neighborhood is too nice. I’m a guy who commutes on my bike. I know what it’s like when drivers aren’t courteous enough where it counts. But there’s a level of “careful” that becomes careless, and it’s generally aimed at protecting the wrong things.
I started to dread the sight of cars as I ran—not because there was danger but because their manners might create it.
I shuddered a bit typing the subtitle to this post. I’m not trying to problematize kindness. Rather, in certain cases I find we’re policed by surface “niceness” at the expense of greater wellbeing.
Society-wide, it seems we’ve become worse at handling competing values. That’s a shame because most values compete: forgiveness and accountability, mercy and justice, tolerance and conviction. Maybe it’s due to politicization. Maybe it’s because we speak in bumper sticker maxims. We don’t have time to weigh ideas in conflict.
There’s a runner on your right and a car on your left; those are competing values. Swerving in either direction may not be your solution.
Much of our unnuanced niceness is really avoidance of friction. We want to give wide breadth. We want others freed of any imposition. It goes without saying, I think, that these are good impulses. People’s lives are hard; why make them any harder? We’re ultra-aware of everyone’s vulnerabilities, and we steer clear.
The issue may be one of substance versus appearance. Is the runner unsafe, or is the driver insecure? Don’t hit the pedestrian, but don’t start a wreck for him either.
Returning to school later in my twenties, I’m experiencing college with a unique vantage point. I’m really here to learn. I moved for it. I left a job for it. I know how many dollars I’m paying to be in class. As a result, I interpret things differently than some of my peers. My favorite class periods aren’t the ones that get cancelled. My favorite assignments aren’t the easiest. And my favorite professors aren’t the most frictionless.
Every professor I’ve had is great; I have zero complaints. Yet, the experiences I’m valuing most are the moments of friction. They dwell on what I do wrong and tell me to improve. They make me uncomfortable, which is not very nice.
And yet I consider them kind. I remember mean teachers in school. I also remember those who would let you walk free for murder. Again, there is balance. I don’t want to be flunked, but I appreciate the grades if I know I’ve earned them. I don’t want professors steering clear of uncomfortable statements.
By and large, systems develop for a reason. There’s a reason to do the reading report. There’s a reason to take the exam.
There’s a reason for street lanes, and sidewalks, and grass meridians. I have some responsibility for my safety, too. I can stay on the sidewalk and be aware of my surroundings. If I’m in danger, honk. If not, drive by. You don’t have to show fake politeness that’s more about you than anyone else.
If your true concern is my care, though, there’s still another option. You can slow down. Stay put in your lane, but let off the gas. The problem? The potential loss is now yours to take—the loss of your comfort and time.
You could argue ineffective teachers, bosses, or anyone who’s too “nice” do it because they care what others think. That’s certainly a part of it. But upon second thought, it may have more to do with speed. The teachers I love—the ones my classmates hate—are always slowing things down. They belabor points. They still speak while the class packs their bags and don’t let us go till we’ve gotten it. They’re busy but willing to be delayed just a bit further for us.
Those who let anything slide are always in a rush. That’s not to say they’re uniquely busy; aren’t we all? But their conversations follow the path which slows them down least.
How much of our kindness is avoidance? We take the frictionless route because it has no costs: no cost to our self-perceptions, no cost of carefully weighing options, no cost of losing speed.
We need more skills than swerving if we want to be truly kind. Otherwise, we may avoid our way into a wreck. We’re quick to assume others need our shows of niceness—but not so fast when it’s time to face the costs.
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Wow, this was really insightful. Really good to way to word over politeness as a different path of avoidance.
Very good Tim. Thanks for sharing your learning experiences while you have been gone. We will be watching out for you as you return home.