I was riding in a friend’s car a few weeks ago and the guy beside us made a crazy no-look, no-blinker lane-change and had my friend not nailed the brakes hard it was a for-sure accident. I was a bit surprised when I heard my friend yell at his front window, “Stupid #*@%ing Asian driver! Go back to China you moron!” We were pretty pumped on adrenaline after the near miss, so the outburst itself wasn’t surprising, but I found it amusing that an Asian guy had just been yelled at and called names by another Asian guy.
Similarly, years ago I was driving with a brown friend who had a similar interaction and he pulled up at a light, had me roll down my window so he could tell the “stupid #*@%ing Paki” next to us to learn to drive like a white man. Like a white man?! My buddy was also Pakistani. So are these two people self-hating or what’s going on here?
What’s going on is that we think when we’ve heard the words that we understand the idea behind them but that’s ridiculous. As I’ve often noted here, when I told my university and college classes that “last night I shot a man in my pyjamas,” every class agreed that they’d understood what I’d said—odd as it was—but in reality they couldn’t have understood it because the sentence has four possible meanings. So what they mean is that they presumed they had understood it correctly because they had found an idea that made sense to them. They never looked past that self-confirmation to see if there were other possible meanings.
So what’s happening to you, me and my Pakistani and Chinese friends is that we are having an experience via chemistry which we interpret as an emotion that we then convert into language. This isn’t to say the language is accurate, sensible, logical, or even decent. We’re rarely good when we hurry at anything. So our response is just what’s instantaneously assembled in the face of the immediate chemistry. It’s why people that don’t usually swear will often cuss like a house on fire if they hit their finger with a hammer. So my Chinese friend wasn’t insulting Chinese, he was simply using the man’s Chineseness to help point the resulting chemistry at the appropriate cause. But when that chemistry is adrenaline etc., we can get a little broad in our applications of language.
It’s like when my relatively short, 280 lb friend complains about the fat people taking too long at the grocery store checkout. He’ll start attacking their food choices even if he has the exact same stuff in his basket. Again, he’s not really attacking them, he’s just reacting to his thoughts that the process is taking longer than he expected. Well what was he doing expecting anything? Does he think he’s a prognosticator? He doesn’t know the future, so he’d be better to just wait for it to unfold, but because we have words we tend to time travel and build futures that won’t come true.
So my over-tired friend compared what he thought would happen at the checkout to what did happen and the result was a burst of adrenaline and an instantaneous anger that he wanted to point at someone. And so fat was the word he used to do the pointing at the person he was blaming for not making his imagined future come true. And even when he said it he knew the skinny cashier was more the reason we were going slow but the other woman was simply more convenient to attack. He’s not assigning actual blame, he’s just having an emotional experience that’s emerging as words.
When people suffer they will want to blame. It’s a natural reaction. It doesn’t mean anything because it’s just the immediate reaction. Once they calm down they’ll process the event as themselves. When it first happens they’re a drugged version of themselves and the drugs don’t help. The fear comes out as a combination of neuro-chemistry that has you feeling angry when in fact you’re afraid. And that anger is what comes out of us at some velocity, and it’s natural to want to focus that energy somewhere and the words are what defines the target.
So does my Chinese friend hate Chinese? No. Does my Pakistani friend hate Pakistanis? No. And does my overweight friend hate overweight people? No. So if you’re still re-living some schoolyard fight where some kid referred to you as anything—it doesn’t matter what identifier they used—then you just can’t take that personally. Not and be healthy anyway. People say all kinds of things they really don’t mean.
In my initial example, two blocks down the road my buddy had chemically calmed down and he actually let that very same Chinese guy into traffic when he got stuck behind a bus. When he did it he said, “go ahead you idiot”—which made us both laugh. His tone of voice wasn’t mad at all, but he was being darkly comic because he needed a stepping stone between the angry place he was and the calmer place he was headed. Bottom line he was polite and helpful to the guy, so what matters? What he yelled at his windshield? Or how he actually behaves throughout most of his life? We all say all kinds of crazy stuff when we’re emotionally high. So no, my opinion of my friends does not change. Over time they have repeatedly demonstrated their good character. They are allowed to be human.
Try not to judge people for individual moments because that’s not who they are, that’s who they’re being under those conditions. And you’re the same way. When you’re expressing fear/anger you will absolutely think/say things you patently do not believe. So don’t assume other people really mean everything they say either. They might mean the emotion but they very well may totally disagree with their own words. So pay less attention to what they’re saying and more attention to why they’re saying it. Because bottom line, when you get right down to the nitty gritty, the vast vast vast majority of people are pretty decent. If you want to see how a person’s character can conflict with their words, simply watch Clint Eastwood’s brilliant film Grand Torino and you’ll see an excellent example of what I mean.
Take the world less personally. And don’t be hard on yourself when you lose it for a moment or two. That’s human. Those emotions are useful in the right circumstances, its just that they can sometimes be tricked into showing up when they’re less useful—or worse, even hurtful. Let others and yourself have your natural bursts of fear/anger and then let them go. They are natural experiences. But you ultimately control your emotions, so it’s on you to reign them in well enough to strongly ensure that no one is physically intimidated, or injured, and there is no intent toward psychological or any other kind of harm. Because in the end people are people and they’re all pretty amazing and awesome, and if you ever did end up in a car accident, it might just be their blood that ends up saving your life. So then you and they can’t really be all that different in the end anyway, can you?
Have a great day and please be as courteous on the road as you can and everyone will get where they’re going more safely and more efficiently. All the best.
5 Random Driving Tips
- If you’re driving well you have lots to pay attention to. And you don’t want the nickname “Killer” in prison. Put down your phone. And yes you’re still driving when you’re sitting still at a red light. (See point 5.)
- It’s a natural impulse, but try not to speed match passing cars, nor race to fill gaps. Particularly approaching a zipper merge: if someone puts their blinker on, don’t race to fill the gap where they would have otherwise gone. Instead make room and maybe even flash your lights to let them know they’re safe to come over. Everyone will get home faster that way.
- If you live in a cold climate and your side windows are always fogging in the winter, that’s because you have your climate controls set on inside air, so the air that’s supposed to come up your windshield and circulate around your car to clear the windows is instead pushed up the windshield, and then is promptly sucked back into the intake fan under the dashboard, so it never gets to hit the side windows. Switch to outside air and your side windows will clear. And if you want to reduce humidity to clear glass, turn on your air conditioning (with the heat still on).
- When driving down residential streets look for shadows under the parked cars to see if kids may be behind them, where they could suddenly run out onto the road.
- Always look around you when you’re stopped. 5 times out of 10 you’ll be in a situation where—if you moved just a bit—someone else could get where they’re going. I see this all the time. 25 cars lined up to turn right onto a clear road, but they can’t because the person going straight—the person at the front of the line—needs to pull forward a tiny distance to allow everyone through. But they don’t notice those honks are for them because they’re too busy texting. Or a guy wants to turn left into a side street but people lining up for a red light block the road entirely unnecessarily. We’ll all do better if spend a bit more energy on trying to make the roads run smoothly for all of us rather than just prioritizing what we’re doing and where we’re going.
We need to start driving spiritually. Meaning: as though we actually care about each other. If your commute sucks, then stop thinking about where you’re going and start thinking more about where they’re going. Because in the end, that’s far more likely to get you to where you where you really want to go.
Scott McPherson is an Edmonton-based writer, public speaker, and mindfulness facilitator who works with individuals, companies and non-profit organizations locally and around the world.