Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Driving with empathy

By their nature, cars impede empathy.

Which is good, because when we're driving we need to be able to focus on the road and the cars and the signs and the traffic. We can't spend our time communicating and reaching out, we have to be isolated in our cars, separated from the world and flying down highways at amazing speeds in a little metal box.

I've heard about the new self-driving cars and trucks being tested and I'm all for them. I think we should be able to stop worrying about protecting our lives while we drive, and get back to the incredibly difficult task of living our lives and being people.


I'm going to get a little Luddite here; I think that driving is the most unnatural thing we do as humans and we should find a better way to do it. Perhaps it's the lonely nature of a ritual commute or the fact that it's wholly unlike anything our early human ancestors would have ever done, but it doesn't feel like it's what we should be spending hours or days or weeks of our life doing.

The closest 'natural' experience I have to driving is walking. I imagine that I'm strolling down a street, keeping a certain distance from the people around me. Other people are moving too, but they are moving at close to the same speed as me, so it doesn't look like we're all moving very fast. My instincts tell me this is a reasonably safe thing to do, because it is. When I'm walking there's little chance that bumping into another person will result in my immediate death or harm.


Driving feels like walking, but it's also such an inhuman experience. We don't see and understand the stresses of our fellow drivers, we don't have their faces to interpret. We don't talk to them and they don't listen (well, maybe we do but they don't hear us). Perhaps that's what makes it feel so unnatural.

There are some people who are inventing ways to better communicate while driving (see the Wiper Wave). I wondered if there were other great ideas out there for a special invention or 'empathy system', so I asked my Facebook friends for help.

I did get some responses;  such as "Front and back lights display one word messages that can be voice activated by driver" or the "Apology sign.". These types of responses are like the Wiper Wave, because they are about expressing ourselves ('talking') while we drive. One person even wanted telepathy, the ultimate communication!

Talking is a two-way street, though, and someone has to listen. One of my friends said that we don't need a better way of communicating at all; instead, we need to all pay more attention to the signals we're already sending and receiving; such as lights and hand gestures. I'm not sure I agree; but it does tell me that we're not treating each other like people on the roads.

Unlike a nice saunter down an avenue, driving (especially commuting) is very dull. I'm just completely done with the same roads and the same cars and the same highway signs. Sure, when the seasons change it gets a little more interesting but it's still tedious. Getting bored is apparently a common thing, and more importantly, when we get bored we stop paying attention to anything and people get hurt. (See bored,  bored and bored).


I imagine a future where I enter a road on my regular commute, and my car (all by itself) locks into place directly next to someone else's car. I'm not driving anymore, I'm riding. So maybe I'll relax, make a few calls and talk to my friends or family. Maybe I'll be working already, talking with someone over a computer screen or finishing up a project with my team. Or maybe I'll strike up a conversation with Sonia, the girl in the car next to mine.



tldr: Self-driving cars will be great, because then we won't be bored and we'll start talking to each other again.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Unwanted connections - A story (trigger warning)

I think it's pretty clear that in our society, we are not allowed to touch each other without permission.

I wish the event I'm going to tell you about hadn't happened. I wish I was telling you a story about a great time at the roller rink with my family. Instead, I'm asking you to think about what gives a guy the idea it's okay to grab someone he doesn't know. I should just accept it, since this is the culture we live in, right? Yes? Except that's not right. He was wrong. It's wrong. Here's my story.


I saw the couple as I finished the turnaround. They were together, a boy with light brown wavy hair and a teenage girl with an oval face; they were laughing and talking as I went past them.

I picked up some speed and swung my arms around, back and forth to get momentum. I was relaxed and having a great time moving fast and feeling the breeze through my hair, when suddenly he grabbed my hand. I looked up and saw him, the same boy I had just seen with his girl. His mouth was wide open in a grin as he sang along to the song that was blasting from the speakers. His other hand was waving around in the air; he seemed to be dancing.

I was thinking fast. He was holding my hand tight, and skating at my speed. What is this? Who is he? Where's that girl he was with? What is going on? Why doesn't he let me go?

I was surrounded by families, kids, people. The crowd was thick, I couldn't just turn or slow down without risking hurting someone around me. I didn't want to make a scene. I relaxed my hand, but he did not let go.

All of this was in the space of a few seconds - by this time we were halfway down the long side. Since I couldn't stop or turn away I tried skating faster, faster than I was comfortable with, trying to force him to let go. I pulled my hand hard as I pushed down on the wheels and finally, I was away from him.


I shook my hand in the air a few times, trying to sort out what happened. I found my husband,  and told him about it. I tried to tell it as a laugh, a joke of a story, "Ha ha, you won't believe what just happened."

I went and washed my hands in the bathroom.

Later, my husband asked me about it. He couldn't understand why I thought this was a joke, why I wanted to make fun of it. He didn't think it was funny. I told him that yeah, it wasn't funny at all. It instead felt icky, like I was wearing coal tar or glue; I wanted to get the feeling off of me as fast as possible.

I was also embarrassed - really, really ashamed. I'm the empathy-gal, right? So maybe I did something to encourage this. Maybe I was doing exactly what my mother tells me all the time not to do; don't let your guard down, don't be open to strangers, don't put yourself at risk, etc.


I stopped feeling bad, though, for two reasons. First, I know that building empathy isn't possible without being open to new connections. It's part of what is important to me; and nothing (not even this guy) will stop me from trying to draw others in. I will keep working hard to smile at strangers, to nod at other customers in stores and to start conversations with my fellow patients at the doctor's office. I will keep myself open, and that's what I'm hoping some of you are working on too.

Second, I know beyond any doubt that nothing about my being 'open' and 'welcoming' and 'friendly to strangers' meant that I asked for this. They are almost opposite actions; what I do is about creating relationships, what he did was about treating me like a toy.


What does bother me is that I didn't make a scene. I didn't yell, or scream, or say, 'hey, you, let go' or anything like that. I didn't say no, and maybe that sent him a message that grabbing a stranger's hand is okay. Or maybe not. I'll never know.

What would you have done?

Has something like this happened to you?