Likewise, the 30 drivers who don’t honk at the still-stopped airhead at the green light aren’t doing him a favor. Still more true of the ones behind the slowpoke who isn’t getting the (uncommunicated) message on the freeway. Maybe he doesn’t know the law, in which case a judicious honk, on occasion, will quickly teach him. Maybe he’s going slowly because he’s too old to be driving safely — but how will he know it’s time to retire his car keys if his unsafe driving never meets with resistance? Or maybe he’s just a terrible driver or a self-centered person; if so, he needs to be reminded there are other cars around him, both for courtesy’s sake and for safety’s. (In case you’re wondering: all this slow driving doesn’t make the streets safer; the number of accidents in this town caused by sheer driver incompetence stuns me, and don’t even get me started on what happens when a few snowflakes fall.)
Obviously, those suburban moments when somebody generously lets you merge or waves you ahead are feel-good moments (“Drivers are so nice here!”). And I’m sure there could be a middle ground between the hard-edged terror of Manhattan’s streets and the good-natured anarchy of the suburb’s. But these two polar opposites are just a human dilemma playing out on streets.
Everybody feels good if everybody’s always “nice.” But how many people do you consider worthwhile friends who are always “nice?” How long do you stay plugged into a church where everyone is “nice?”
The lack of communication in perpetually “nice” environments, where no one holds anyone else accountable and no one says what he’s thinking, tends to lead to the absence of honesty, trust, and personal growth. Such suppressed social chaos sooner or later requires more intervention from the top — be it Dad, a priest, management, or the government. Organizations, communities, and streets that are self-regulating can at times feel intimidating or repressive, because they have a strong sense of shared expectations (manners). But one social science study after another (click here for one of my favorites) concludes that they also tend to be more peaceful, more cohesive, and less in need of heavy regulations and large police forces.
I used to be as put off by city drivers as anybody else. But in retrospect, I’ll take a strong, albeit grumpy social order over a weak one covered in a veneer of shallow niceness. That’s as true on the road as anywhere else.
Brian Brown is a social fundraising consultant and the founding editor of Humane Pursuits. He is the author of anthologies on art and nature philanthropy and a contributing author to Why Place Matters: Geography, Identity and Civic Life in Modern America (2014).