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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 25-Jun-10


Friday 25-June-10

Body language and negotiating traffic

I was recently stuck at the edge of a stream of slow-moving cars, trying to get out of car park in Oxford. You probably know the situation: the cars are nose-to-tail with everyone studiously not looking at you as the refuse to let you in.

So what could I do? Other than wait for some kind (or guilty-feeling) soul, how could I persuade one on the drivers to let me in front of them?

What I did, most successfully, is as follows: First, I wound my window down to reduce the barriers between me and them. Then I waved in a friendly way at a selected driver. This movement caught his peripheral vision, even though he wasn't looking directly at me. Seeing someone wave in a friendly way then made him pause and try to figure out if he knew me, which required paying more attention to me. In that moment of confusion I gestured a request to let me out, with a palm-up request, pointing where I wanted to go, also with raised, questioning eyebrows. I then followed it up quickly, before he could figure out what I was doing, with a thumbs-up thanks as I smiled in a friendly way and inched forward a little. Caught in the trap, probably still unsure if he knew me, he could do nothing but smile back and wave me on. And with a further wave and thanks I was out!

Negotiating traffic is a perennial problem and I often use such methods, making eye contact and with friendly, gently assertive non-verbal requests. I never get cross and toot my horn but try to be elegantly persuasive such that people feel good about helping others. Try it out yourself! You can get to where you need, quicker and happier. And on today's frenetic roads, that can only be a good thing!

Your comments

Hi, David. This is a nice post, I do something similar while cycling in congested traffic. It always works.

I am also wondering how can I condemn someone's aggressive attitude when they, for example, cut my path all of a sudden. I want to do this in a non aggressive way, something that will trigger a feeling of shame in them, rather than showing them the fist :)

Do you have any suggestions I might add to my repertoire?

-- Adrian

Dave replies:
Hi Adrian. I understand the cycling dilemma and it's a very exposed position where you are sometimes just not seen or not thought too much about. One advantage of being exposed is that your body language is more visible and you are higher up, so you can communicate well once you've caught their eye.

A way to embarrass a driver is to point at him whilst looking at another driver and raising your eyebrows as if to say 'Just look at this idiot'. If windows are open, you can literally say 'Look at this!'. I'd do the pointing palm up, by the way, as it's less aggressive. You don't want to appear to be attacking the first driver as other drivers may side with them. Neutral or concerned expression with a hint of vulnerability may be more effective.

Drivers are always strangely concerned about what other drivers think of them. If they see you highlighting their errors to others they'll be significantly more embarrassed and likely ashamed.

Beg to differ David, sort of...

"....First, I wound my window down to reduce the barriers between me and them....." That is a good idea. It reminds the drivers that there are people inside those machines just like them.

However, IMHO, the machines (the cars) have to converse. The horn is like using CAPS in emails - a little too ambiguous and intense. Use the turn signal as a request - turn them on as if to ask the other vehicle to let you in. If he/she is stubborn turn it off quickly until the next car. Flash the headlights in gratitude to the obliging commuter.

Courtesy is awkward on highways. The worst is being #10 in a line of cars and #'s 1 to 8 will not allow the exiting car out. Then, unexpectedly, #9 does!! Why??? - the line-up was almost past. So annoying!

Once, way back, I used to commute with an old ex-military FWD (a little tougher than AWD SUV's). The traffic line was Km's long. I put my "rig" in FWD and drove along the rough easement a km or two. When I had to re-enter the line none would allow me to benefit from my advantage!! Petty!

-- Peter

Dave replies:
Hi Peter - nice addition in conceiving of inter-vehicular communication. Cars indeed are extensions of their drivers and even slight movements send signals. About your problems, letting people in is a status thing -- to let a person in puts yourself behind and for many this is about putting themselves in a lower status than you. But then a person of high status can show their magnanimity by letting you in and does not feel inferior. The trick in getting in is to signal to the other person that letting you in will not reduce their social position and your signals to them actually increases their status.

I'm wondering what Adrian's point would be to 'condemn' someone who displays unwelcome behaviour on the road: why would one bother to condemn them? At best it would distract you and them, increasing danger on the road; at worst they are a mad axe murderer and will kill you (actually happened in Sydney NSW where a motorist disagreed with a a released murderer who got out of his car and stabbed the motorist to death). If some one 'disses' you on the road, just remember, it takes all types, even ar**holes! Only you don't have to be one too.

-- clive


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