On the Road Again

I’ve spent a bit of time on the road of late. In once case I was quite tired and, using the only thing in front of me (the road) as inspiration for ideas to keep me focused. Thinking of the road while trying to stay on it. Two birds, one stone.

I was thinking about the lanes and how important they are (again, good thought while driving)! I mean I can’t ever see myself driving 80mph 10ft away from another car coming in the opposite direction at the same speed. But, because of a 6″ line every yard or two I’m perfectly content and feel safe enough to go past (not by much, I swear) the posted speed limit.

That idea seemed so profound, perhaps because of the exhaustion, but I continue. I thought ‘wow, this makes getting around on 25 feet of pavement super efficient.’ If it were up to me, with no lane, I’d probably be at least 30 feet away from another car going that fast.

So my highway-inspired self got to thinking. There’s an analogy to the lanes of the highway, and the boundaries used in social interaction. Bare with me as I construct this. There’s finite space on the road so we use lanes, and signs to regulate how that space is used. We even have police officers who enforce all those regulations. I see social interaction has some similarities to the road.

For instance, many people like to indicate where they went to school, what type of faith they have, what company they work for and so on. Weather on clothing, a window decal, a keychain, for some these indications are an important part of how they want to be perceived. I think these indications are like lanes, they can tell us a person thinks where they came from, where their going, or where they are is important enough for people to know. It gives a personal context ‘this person went to college, this person is a christian, this person works for Apple.’ So, in a new social setting, it can aid in identifying some commonalities. An overly simplified example of this would be a guy in construction attire, a guy in overalls, a guy in jeans and a polo, and a guy in a suit are all in line at the DMV. The clothing alone establishes a context. If a conversation started with two people I anticipate the guy in the overalls and the guy in the construction getup might pair off leaving our two jeans and suit gents to talk amongst themselves. This again, an overly simplified example.

So now that we have lanes, we need to know how fast to move. If I’m in line at Starbucks the social speed limit is usually fast.

Bill: Hey, how are you?
Bart: Doing well, and you?
Bill: I’m good — just got done with work.
Bart: I’m jealous I still have 3 hours. Hows the…
Bill: Nice running into you [turns to counter to place order]

Aaaand Scene

In another social situation, say a dinner with a new romantic interest, the speed limit is much slower. I won’t write that scene but I think the pace would be much slower, and would have more intent.

So we now have a speed limit based on what the expected outcome of the exchange is. With Bill and Bart, it wasn’t to have in in depth conversation, it was to kill time while waiting on a barista. With our love birds the expected outcome was probably a mystery, but it was at least to walk away with a better understanding of the other person.

Social cues are also among some signs. Sometimes they are not clear, sometimes they are obnoxiously overt. If one of our love birds got a headache halfway through dinner we might see that as a big red stop sign. However, if someone indicated they wanted to go get dessert, well, then, we might see that as a ‘next right, freeway entrance.’

So we have our lanes, speed limit signs, other signs, where are the police officers? I think in a social context, the answer to that question is different for everybody. Though, I see seeking advice from friends, parents, mentors, or spiritual leaders as verification that I’m obeying the rules of the road. Someone of like value giving input into what’s right or wrong, what I should or shouldn’t do is much like an officer saying “do you know what the speed limit is?”

The analogy is complete. Yay. Now on to what it means.

The question I asked myself, and then ruminated on for  a few days is “who sets all the standards?” Why does a Starbucks pre-drink exchange have to be so quick? I made a discovery. Well, maybe not that dramatic, but I learned that those elements are mainly controlled by the participants. In the Bill/Bart scene we see Bart gets cut off and, in the context, that was deemed ‘okay.’ If Bart wanted to he could finish his question as they wait for their drinks. Furthermore, the few minutes after they both get their drinks they could chat. However, the amount of social cuing involved is staggering. Maybe Bill just wants to go home. He might b-line for the door.

I think I noticed culture also plays its role. Especially with the timing of social situations the pace where I used to live, Hawaii is much slower than it is on the mainland. And, as you progress further east the speed limit just gets faster.

The great part is I’ve discovered subtle manipulation of the the social variables can completely change the contexts in which I find myself. I’m hoping that I can incorporate this into creating a context where being vulnerable, not only myself, but others who share my context, is acceptable and is a small or insignificant risk.

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