February 27, 2020

Understanding Traffic from an Intercultural Perspective

“Why in the world do people behave the way they do on the roads?” Some people are predictable, and some are totally unpredictable.

Many of us have traveled to other countries and have had to switch the side we are driving on, get used to police officers (trying to) regulate traffic, learn how to navigate “Round abouts” or understand how a four-way-stop works… But what if you have the whole world coming together in one city and people hit the roads… A growing number of cities across the world have drivers on the road from at least 100 countries.

Many drivers would have gotten their first driving license in another country with year of experience in driving under very different circumstances. They bring that driving culture with them no matter where they go and that impacts how we make decisions, what we think is ‘perfectly normal’ driving behavior and why we get so frustrated with one another…

Living in Dubai has made me realize that the interculturalness (if that is a word) of the traffic is a fascinating topic to study and there is actually a way to start making sense of the madness. By interculturally understanding the driving behaviors of others it will help with anger management, calm your nerves, pre-empt the potential negative consequences of the driving behavior of other drivers and help you to avoid accidents.

About ten years ago we used to be part of the Traffic challenges and frustrations always reminds me of being on the Dubai Eye ten years ago when we were doing live shows – we often focused on traffic from an intercultural perspective. When we were doing this on our live shows, the phones and twitter feed would practically blow up; traffic seems to be an emotional topic for everyone!

We thought that it would be a great idea to bring thoughts on intercultural traffic into written form. Traffic from an intercultural point of view is a fun and light-hearted topic that sheds light on the various types of viewpoints that we have on multicultural roads. We will be spending some time in three articles looking at various aspects of how our worldview impacts driving.

When you have everyone from everywhere sharing the same road, there are a few logistical elements that are problems right off the bat. For example, what side of the road you are used to driving on can be very mentally taxing when you are forced to make a split-second decision – not just as a driver, but as a cyclist and a pedestrian. A pedestrian looks right or left first when crossing depending on what side of the street the car is on in on in their home context. We do not think about these simple concepts until we mess them up without understanding why we have made a mistake. Speed, flow, and spacing is very important in driving and it changes depending on the country. Other issues like the “normal” speed of traffic in a home country can cause misunderstandings. In countries where traffic is slower due to road conditions, the traffic naturally slows down and everyone drives close to each other. In places where traffic is faster, it tends to be more spread out. This can cause frustrations when our expectations are not the same as reality. When a driver behind me is flashing his lights in heavy traffic to nudge me on to “fill the gap”, it is almost guaranteed that he comes from a country where traffic is much slower. So from is perspective it is frustrating that I don’t fill the gap, while I keep space to increase flow and safety.

Our family took a trip to Sri Lanka, and I did not take into account that Sri Lanka is a “slow traffic” country. A 90-km trip that would have taken at the most two hours by my calculations took four hours in Sri Lanka traffic. Our family was under-prepared and shocked by the reality that did not meet our expectations. We did not think to bring water or snacks or any sort of entertainment for our kids. Our assumptions of what traffic should be blinded us to the reality of Sri Lankan traffic. These practical things impact us in very emotional ways – we see tempers flare every day in traffic due to these misunderstandings. Drivers expect everyone else to drive the same way that they do, and when a different result happens, confusion and frustration run rampant. Simple realities like the flow, speed, and spacing of traffic in our home country lead us to draw conclusions about the way traffic should be. Not only do we have perceptions to deal with while on the road, but the Three Colors of Worldview come into play. The Three Colors of Worldview are constantly being challenged and interacted with on the multicultural highway. It can be difficult to navigate if you are not previously aware of the Three Colors at play within yourself. It is a practical and powerful skill to learn to recognize the intercultural motivators and demotivators of yourself and other people in traffic around you. This comes into play in not just social situations, but in driving etiquette and safety.

Honor/Shame, Innocence/Guilt, and Power/Fear dynamics affect our assumptions about how we should behave on the road. These influence our perceptions of what is acceptable for us to do while on the road. The Three Colors of Worldview are the founding principle behind how we believe other drivers will behave towards us.

For example, in an Innocence/Guilt(I/G) society, the assumption is that you will have studied the rules and know what is and is not acceptable. If the rules are not followed, people get upset and do what they can to ensure a rule is enforced. The underlying belief is “if everyone sticks to the rules, we will all get where we need to go”.

Honor/Shame(H/S) dynamics do not always follow this pattern because the honor of the driver has more impact on how they conduct themselves than the dictation to the rules. H/S driving pays more attention to the interactions of the drivers (“how am I being honored? Am I honoring others?”) over the rules (“this is what is legally right.”).

Power/Fear(P/F) influences drivers in a similar way to H/S worldviews in that the interactions on the road take precedence over the rules. However, a different question is being asked. It is not “how am I being honored”, but “am I losing Power? Am I giving or being given respect?”. The moves that P/F and H/S drivers will make depend on the interaction with other drivers, while I/G movements depend more on the rules. All of these aspects greatly impact how we conduct ourselves on the road and in our personal lives. Perceptions that we are unaware of jump out sharply at us when we drive because of the nature of driving – split second decisions enforced often by instinct.

Driving brings to surface our quick acting instincts and assumptions of other driver’s behaviors. In our every-day lives, on the road, we need to take into account that cultural assumptions form the backbone of these events.

Special thanks to Ruby Maxson, one of our youngest ICI Practitioners, for contributing to this article series.

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