Have you ever noticed how people behave in their automobiles?
Have you ever been at a red light and looked… I mean really looked…at the person in the car on your right, or on your left?
Go ahead, look. Stare at ’em. Watch them start to freak out.
Okay not really. Don’t do that. That’s just weird and crazy stalker-ish. They may even call the police on you and have you hauled off… not that I’ve ever done that or anything.
All kidding aside . . . it’s interesting to me to (surreptitiously) observe others in their cars while waiting at a signal light. Some pick their nose; some sing along to the radio; some talk to themselves (or their hands-free cell phone, perhaps?). Some people put on lipstick, fluff their hair, pick something out of their teeth. Most people, however, are looking at their laps. Surreptitiously checking messages on FB or Twitter, or reading email on their smart phones. Rumor has it that even getting your cell phone out and playing with it at a stop light is violation of the no-cell-phone-use-while-driving-law. Me personally? I don’t want to test that theory. But there sure are an awful lot of people who like to look at their laps at signal lights. Just sayin.’
Social convention, when in the close proximity of strangers in tight spaces such as elevators, subways, commuter train cars, or escalators, demands that you gaze out into space, never making eye contact and just pretending the other person isn’t there. And Americans have a rather large personal space, so you have to make sure none of you is touching the other person. Not even a tiny corner of your sweater. It’s like you create a little cone of silence around you. You know, like when you were a kid and would hold your finger a millimeter away from your little brother, and move it all around while chanting in a sing-song voice, “I’m not touching you…” Not that I ever did that, either. Ahem.
I mean, how many times have you done this: You are waiting for an elevator, shifting your shopping bags from hand to hand as you gaze at the arrow at the top of the elevator, pushing the “down” button repeatedly, as if all that staring and pushing is somehow going to make the elevator move faster. It reminds me of standing at the printer at work after you send your document to it, and muttering “c’mon, c’mon” at it, as if that intimidates it into working faster. But I digress.
So the elevator FINALLY arrives, and if you’re an introvert like me, you hold your breath as it dings, pausing before the doors open, hoping… nay, PRAYING that there aren’t any people inside the elevator and you can ride in comfort the rest of the way, hoping against hope that it doesn’t stop on any more floors and pick up any more of those pesky people.
Alas, the door opens and there are other people on the elevator. And if there is only one, I will usually glance at him or her, but never in the eyes; usually somewhere around their left ear — and then smile briefly before hurrying onto the elevator car and turning around. If there is more than one person, then the rules are you make no eye contact, get inside the elevator, turn around and face front, and everyone stares at the elevator doors, or the elevator panel, watching the floors click by. A heavy silence usually prevails, unless there are a couple of people, or group of people who all know each other, and they chat either quietly or boisterously, depending on how much alcohol they have imbibed. At that point, you and the other elevator passengers will either exchange amused glances at the drunken idiots, or mutual rolled eyes at the ridiculous buffoons. Nothing bonds two strangers like shared annoyance at our fellow humans.
But cars…. cars have a similar etiquette, but you have this large buffer of automobile around you. But you’re all facing the same direction, not looking at one another, maybe taking sidelong glances at fellow car travelers, seeing if you can catch them picking their nose (hey I imagine there is a 12 year old boy inside most of us).
But the point here is what do you do if you see someone you know in the car next to you? I mean, if you walk onto the same elevator car, or subway or commuter train car, you sit next to one another and have a pleasant conversation, right? Or at least a wave and a quick hello before sticking your nose in your book, or smart phone, or tablet or whatever you have to buffer yourself from others. But in a car? What do you do when you are side by side, and drive up to each signal light beside each other?
Today, a co-worker and I left for lunch from work at the same time. He pulled into the right lane and I pulled into the left, because I was going to get onto the freeway. There are three signal lights between work and my turn off for the freeway, and naturally we hit all three of them red. And naturally we were beside each other at each light.
As we both climbed into our cars in the parking lot, we exchanged a wave and a “have a nice lunch”. Then, we pulled out of the lot and up to the first signal light. We stopped side by side. I looked over at him, and we exchanged grins and that goofy “hey we’re both at the signal light at the same time” awkward wave. So then what do you? What’s the socially acceptable next move? You keep eye contact for a second, thinking, “Okay, now what?” It feels rude to break eye contact and go back to staring at the car in front of you, because if we didn’t have these cars between us, we’d be chatting. I don’t want him to think I’m being rude, but sitting and staring at each other and waving for more than a few seconds is just….creepy. So he goes back to staring out the front windshield, and I stare out of mine.
Finally, the light changes and we move forward. I think, okay perhaps the next light will be green, or the cars in front of him will turn off and we won’t be side by side again. But alas, no luck. He pulls up to the red light, I pull up next to him. And therein lies the dilemma. What is the proper etiquette? Do I pretend he isn’t there? Do I exchange another grin and goofy wave? Awkward! Will he think I’m rude? Then I smack myself upside the head (figuratively, because if I did that literally he really WOULD think I’m nuts). We can’t speak to one another; what in the world would we do except sit there and wave inanely at each other?? I mean really. I briefly consider calling him on the phone and then think that probably isn’t a good idea either.
So we sit there, staring through our windshields. I nervously run my fingers through my hair, tap my fingers on the steering wheel to the beat of the music, trying to pretend the guy in the car is a perfect stranger.
Finally light turns green and we trundle up to the last signal light before I have to turn off…. a-a-a-a-and we’re beside each other once again. My stomach clenches. Do I look? Do I give him that grin and eye roll about the stupid signal lights, gesturing at the signal light and shrugging my shoulders like “whaddya do?” Would we then wave at each other again? Do I just pretend he’s not there? The right side of my face is burning as I imagine him thinking I’m a dork because I don’t look at him. Then I worry that he would think I was a dork if I did make secondary eye contact. What are the rules? Gah! I don’t know!
Socially awkward? Why, yes I am, thank you.
So in the end I opted for staring out my windshield and willing myself not to turn my head and see what he’s doing. Because if he’s not looking at me then maybe he doesn’t like me or he’s mad because I didn’t give the eye contact at the second signal light….
Ok really I’m not that neurotic. But I did find it awkward as we found ourselves side by side and three consecutive lights. Being in cars is a unique social situation because we are close in proximity and yet out of earshot. Unless you’re a CB’er and then you can just say “Breaker, breaker this is Lady Snowman, catch you on the flip side. Over and out.” Or whatever.