Yesterday, I was driving behind a car that had its left blinker on for a solid few minutes. My ready anticipation of the other driver’s future action transitioned into mild frustration and eventually gave way to resigned acceptance.
As I drove, I realized that the limits of car-to-car communication were a pretty good metaphor for the limits of human-to-human interaction as well, with your internal dialogue as a car driver and your body language/speech as the car’s lights/horn, i.e. how you communicate with the outside world.
From there, we can break down car-to-car communication into four stages:
The driver’s intention
How the driver uses the car’s blinkers/horn
How much the other driver is paying attention to your car’s signals
The other driver’s interpretation of your car’s signals
Driving requires a shared understanding of the rules of the road. In order for the blinkers to be effective, all drivers must be familiar with the meaning the shared language of the lights. We can take the metaphor even further by examining how rules of the road differ across countries. An obvious one is which side of the road you drive on, but here are a few interesting cultural ones that aren’t taught in any driving school:
In Japan, drivers will flash their hazards as a way to say “thank you”
In Mexico, if there’s a truck in front of you and they can tell you need to pass, they’ll leave their left turn signal on to let you know it’s safe
In Australia, you can beep the horn 3 times on a single lane road, and a slow driver ahead of you will pull over to let you pass
As I’ve written before, cross-cultural communication can be tricky. If I see any extra blinking or flashing in America, I’m automatically assuming the other driver is swearing at me. But even when drivers are following the same driving conventions, other road users may still misinterpret their intentions. Luckily for us, humans have a bit more nuance than cars.
With this in mind, we can translate the above 4 steps for human-to-human interaction:
What we mean to say
What we actually say
What the other person hears
What the other person thinks you mean
In general, I try to give other drivers the benefit of the doubt (while still prioritizing my safety). Maybe that driver in front of me was an old lady or a parent calming down their rowdy kid. Whatever the case, I try to keep in mind the divide between intention and expression, whether I’m driving or talking with someone about a difficult topic.
By keeping these steps in mind, we can hopefully improve our communication and avoid misunderstandings. Drive safe out there!
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I also drove behind such a car in similar circumstances on Sunday. They left their left blinker on for up to five minutes (on a small town street though), eventually making a *right* turn!