Leavitt: Does fear make us friendlier?

By Irv Leavitt for Chronicle Media

Are drivers avoiding their horns out of fear?

I used to say that when a columnist writes about his or her drive to work, they have likely, at least temporarily, run out of significant things to say.

This column is, at least partly, about driving. You be the judge.

The story starts decades ago with my father, who, like a lot of people, took considerable pride in his driving, though he really wasn’t all that good at it.

One day, at a four-way, unsignalized intersection, he waited for a car to cross his path, then said, “Don’t drive with your horn. Drive with your brakes.”

He meant that instead of honking, I could just slow down. Or pass. Or actually look around before exiting an alley. Horn-honking tends to annoy, and sometimes frighten, everybody within earshot, more than it affects the behavior of the person being honked at.

Honking, then, is a big net negative to the universe, though dad didn’t put it that way.

Years later, I realized the horn button on my car had burned out, and I never noticed. Between that car and the next, it’s now been over 20 years since I beeped.

I was riding in a friend’s car recently, and he honked at some hapless driver who couldn’t seem to find which pedal was for go and which for stop. And I realized at the sound of the beep that for years, I’ve rarely been in any car when the horn was used by anybody, not just me.

Then I realized that in general, I hear a lot less honking now in and around Chicago, where I live.

Most of the drivers in Chicago couldn’t possibly have known my dad.

I asked several people to explain this. The answers from those who could actually come up with something coherent can be distilled to these two sentences: “I don’t want to honk and get strangers upset. There are people with guns out there now.”

So fear is a motivator toward quieter behavior for some people. And, beyond that, I think, as fewer people honk for whatever reason, it becomes a less acceptable practice. And it spreads as they realize that silence is golden.

So, I thought, there must be other things like this. Are people on foot getting nicer out of fear, too?

Yes, they are.

You may have noticed that people in retail stores are generally much nicer than they used to be. It’s not accidental.

If you are one of those retail workers, you know clerks and wait staff are often told nowadays to be agreeable with customers as a condition of their employment. If there’s a situation that cannot be solved with a smile, call a manager.

So, many retail employees are nice, or else. But for whatever reason they’re smiling, their smiles can be contagious, can’t they? Someone’s nice to you, and you’re nice to the next guy.

You’re a little afraid when a police officer pulls your car over, or stops you on the sidewalk. So you’re very nice, aren’t you?

And if the encounter ends without unpleasantness, all parties concerned may feel a little better about life for a while.

And now, in the era of bodycams and witnesses with cell-phone video capability, the police may be a little scared of you, too. Maybe they’ll be nicer – and even at times when nobody’s looking.

If there’s a lot of fear-induced niceness out there, it begs the question of whether such fake good humor is actually emotionally satisfying. To some extent, it is. Scientific tests indicate that the same happiness-associated chemicals that make you smile also flow when you smile for no good reason.

Unfortunately, fear-induced fake friendliness doesn’t seem to help in any discussion that lasts more than a few minutes.

But maybe it would help to follow the example, not of a retail clerk, but of a middle-level manager. How about the customer-service rep who agrees with the unreasonable customer at least once before finally saying there will be no refund?

An otherwise enjoyable man told me on the occasion of one of the more spectacular whoppers on the part of the President of the United States that it should be excused, because Hillary Clinton would have been worse. Wary of one of his relatives who would try to destroy my health if we quarreled, I told him, with a big smile on my face, that I didn’t think that Hillary Clinton even possessed the imagination to say such a wondrous thing.

So, in the end, Mr. Trump was responsible for every gem that tripped off his own tongue.

I don’t think the gentleman was convinced of anything, but we started talking about carpentry instead of politics.

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