19 November 2008

Mixed Signals and Bad Reactions

I was clipping along in my car yesterday, driving home for lunch, going maybe 35-40 m.p.h. As I approached an intersection, I had a solid green light, no question, and I proceeded at my pace accordingly. Just as I'm reaching the intersection, however, a car waiting at the light suddenly makes a right-hand turn in front of me. It was startling and a bit scary, because I had to hit my brakes quickly to avoid rear-ending the other car. I also laid on my horn as I did so, because I was pretty ticked off about it. My level of patience with other drivers is not what it should be.

Well, next thing I know, this car that pulled out in front of me has its flashers on and is slowing down to a crawl. I figured the driver was probably feeling contrite about pulling out in front of me, or else just wanted to get me out of his hair by letting me go by. No problem, except that I was wanting to turn right in less than half a block, in order to mail a letter. Well, the other car comes practically to a stop, so I go ahead and pass, then turn into the post office parking lot. As I pull up to the mailbox to drop my letter, the other car pulls up alongside me.

Great. I'm thinking, this other driver is going to give me trouble now. All sorts of things are running through my head, like, Is this someone on crack? Who knows what's going to happen.

I roll down the passenger side window, and here's this well-dressed older gentleman in his car. He calmly and courteously expresses that he had been confused by the fact that my right turn signal had been on as I was approaching the intersection. That's why he had pulled out in front of me. And as soon as he said that, I realized that I was the one who had inadvertently caused the problem. My turn signal switch has been broken for months now. It's a real pain. I've gotten pretty good at shutting it off after each turn, but I don't always manage it; I just don't think about it, necessarily, because the ticker isn't all that loud.

The gentleman in the other car behaved better than I had done. I hadn't confused him on purpose, of course, but my car was sending him a false signal, and he had done exactly what I would have done at the same intersection. Then he, too, might have been startled and upset by the fact that I almost rear-ended him, and honked at him, yet he didn't confront me with any hint of anger. He was polite and well-mannered, and he took the trouble to explain what had happened.

I apologized immediately. But I was chagrined with myself as I continued on my way afterwards. I had too quickly gotten upset and become angry at a stranger, over something that proved to be as much or more my own fault. I had instantly made assumptions and judgments that were quite simply wrong. I've been conditioned to expect other drivers to be rude and inconsiderate. In this case, I was the one who acted rudely; my horn blast was longer than it needed to be for any purpose other than venting my short temper at the other driver.

This isn't just an analogy, but a concrete example of how easy it is to send and receive mixed signals, and then to proceed rather badly in reaction to false assumptions and misinterpretations. It happens all the time in conversation, but that is almost always easier to perceive when you're an outside party listening in. I'm sorry to think how often I have responded to someone on the basis of what I supposed he or she was saying and thinking, when I really didn't have an accurate understanding of things. I've been the driver waiting at the light, ready to turn right on red when I perceive that the approaching traffic is planning to turn. And I've been the driver with his turn signal still blinking from the last intersection, unwittingly conveying a different course of action than I'm actually taking.

I need to work on listening more patiently, observing more carefully, and asking questions of clarification before reaching my conclusions and acting on impulse. I was humbled by the gentle demeanor of that other driver, and I want to take a lesson from him in how I approach others. It seems to me there is also a remindere and a lesson to be learned, that miscommunications go both ways; and while they are often very frustrating, they are almost never intended or desired by either party. No one wants to be misunderstood, nor mistaken, anymore than any of us wants to collide with another vehicle in the middle of an intersection. I need to cut my neighbor some slack, at the same time I also need to strive for clarity in all of my own communications.

1 comment:

Monkey Laughs said...

Very nice post dad. I definitely can appreciate the message myself, as I see this sort of thing and fail myself in similar ways all the time.

I also enjoyed (perhaps inappropriately) your narration of the thoughts running through your head, such as "Is this someone on crack?" which is something I often wonder as well in my day-to-day life ;-).