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You Aren’t In the Crowd, You Are the Crowd

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For almost ten years I had a job that required incessant driving. I crossed the city by every possible route, often under time pressure. During one of the countless CBC radio interviews I absorbed during that period, the topic turned to coping with rush hour traffic. Someone on the panel offered a novel concept:

“You’re not stuck in traffic, you are the traffic.”

Luckily, I was stuck in traffic at that moment, so I had plenty of time to ponder the thought.

We tend to think of “traffic” as synonymous with “lots of cars in the way.” You’re trying to get somewhere so you can fulfill your responsibilities. Other parties have competing, perpendicular interests, and that slows you down. There’s you, and there’s traffic—traffic being the obstacle.

As obvious as it seems in hindsight, I hadn’t often thought of my own car as the anonymous, other car it always is to everyone else. It’s never anything but in the way, unless you’re me. And that’s a fact essential to understanding what the everyday problem of traffic actually is—we’re all trying to get home, and we’re all in the way. 

Whenever I’m lucky enough to remember that I’m both sides of the problem, the afternoon rush hour experience transforms. It goes from from a zero-sum competition to a shared struggle.

No longer feeling at odds with other drivers washes most of the unpleasantness out of the experience. Without indignation or competition, there’s room for an emotion that’s much more useful in slow-moving traffic: sympathy.

Ironically, it’s a lot more empowering to concern yourself with minimizing your impact on others than with how others ought to be minimizing their impact on you. I found that while I still had no power to make the other cars move, I did have the power to improve the experience of others, at least slightly: I could let people in, inch up to let someone turn right, and otherwise show fellow traffic-creators that I cared how things went for them. I could offer to others what I couldn’t make others offer me.

When you see everyone present as both the creator and victim of the scourge of heavy traffic, patience and understanding towards other members of the crowd becomes the natural response, and that makes everything about the experience easier.

Nothing about the situation itself has to change, just a little shift in mentality—to us, from you vs them. Everyone present in a given afternoon snarl has the same goal, and the same adversary—not other cars, but rather the impersonal, blameless phenomenon that happens when that many people share a completely reasonable desire to go home.

Traffic is only one form of crowd though. I try to remember to cultivate the “us” feeling (you might call it “us-consciousness”) whenever I notice my own annoyance at long lines, crowded buses, sold-out tickets, occupied gym equipment, or packed overhead bins on airplanes. It’s all okay, and it needs to be, because in our own ways we are constantly playing the part of the “other” to others. If it’s right that you want this and sometimes get it, it’s right that others want it and sometimes get it. So what’s the annoyance all about?

As far as I can tell there are no downsides to this “us” mentality. It removes much of the unpleasantness of contending with a crowd, without adding any additional work, aside from the work of imagining yourself as the other to those others.

It’s easy to forget that possibility, however, and slip back into an adversarial relationship to the crowd. I forget it constantly, especially while driving, and it’s possible the me vs them mentality will always be the first place my mind goes when I run afoul of a crowd. But whenever I remember to see myself as an undifferentiated part of that crowd, it’s clear which mentality is better for everyone.

This moment of forgetting always begins with a thought that you’re somehow different, morally speaking, than the rest of the crowd. That guy didn’t signal when he changed lanes. I always signal. That car could’ve made the light—I would’ve been quicker. I am always very efficient with overhead bin space.

We often differ in our style of pursuing what we want, and in which other styles irritate us most easily. Each of us has very specific ideas about the proper way to change lanes, order a sandwich, stack groceries on a conveyor, move through a concert crowd, and back out of a parking spot, oblivious that we are frequently, possibly at this very moment, an irksome “other person” to some other person.

When you interpret those style differences as important points of contention, you lose the benefit of us-consciousness, because you lose sight of the much more significant way in which you’re the same. After all, a crowd is nothing but the collection of people who showed up with the same idea you did.

***

Photo by Borna Bevanda
Julie December 10, 2017 at 11:35 pm

I recently had the pleasure of spending some time in Bali. Drivers there seem to work on the principle of cooperation rather than competition. Use of the horn is a friendly warning rather than an angry reaction. It looked like chaos but it was far more peaceful than the driving I experience in New Zealand where it is every driver for his or her self.

David Cain December 11, 2017 at 8:11 am

I’ve noticed a big difference in how traffic (not just cars) feels in different places. Here in Canada drivers are relatively friendly (compared to the US) but everyone expects a certain amount of vehicular personal space. In New Zealand I was surprised how aggressive drivers were — I joked to my host that everyone drove like they were late for something.

Gabi December 11, 2017 at 3:04 am

Hi David,
I really enjoyed reading your article, it made me say “that´s true” and laugh out loud. It is very helpful to think of yourself as part of a crowd, rather than there is me and there are the others, not only to avoid being annoyed, but to feel more connected to what is happening around you.

David Cain December 11, 2017 at 8:22 am

Thanks Gabi.

Kelsey December 11, 2017 at 3:48 am

To second Julie’s thought — hello from India. The naturalness of this “us-consciousness” was the first and most striking cultural difference I noticed after moving here from the US. In the context of traffic, I think another contributing factor is the prevalence of commuting by motorcycle and scooter here. It puts drivers in a much closer physical proximity, and I think the ability to see one another face-to-face goes miles in terms of cultivating sympathy and cooperation over rivalry. Thanks for your work, David.

David Cain December 11, 2017 at 8:24 am

Ah I hadn’t thought of that, but I’m sure you’re right. We know from our interactions on the internet that being able to attach a face to another party makes it much harder to act without compassion. I suppose we’re also more aware of how vulnerable people are when they’re not surrounded by steel and airbags.

DiscoveredJoys December 11, 2017 at 3:57 am

My only reservation is that there are *different* types of crowds. Some are collections of people going about their individual daily concerns – and the us-consciousness is a fine way to view the experience. Other types of crowds are collections of people gathered together for a common purpose (sports events, political rallies, or protest marches) and these can suppress your critical faculties.

David Cain December 11, 2017 at 8:28 am

Yeah it’s probably worth delineating between traffic/shopping crowds and emotionally-charged mobs. This post is about cultivating an “us” mentality as a response to a feeling of competition or annoyance to the fact that other people are there at all.

Priscilla Bettis December 11, 2017 at 4:32 am

I needed this little bit of wisdom because today I have to go stand in line at the post office, a dreaded chore for an introvert like me.

David Cain December 11, 2017 at 8:28 am

Enjoy!

Elisa Winter December 11, 2017 at 4:38 am

David, thank you. I’ve thought it, but you’ve put it into words. In traffic or not, I often wonder about black pick-up trucks. What is it about the drivers of black pick-up trucks? The aggressiveness of the drivers of these particular vehicles astonishes me. Nearly every day. Have you noticed? My daughter and I submit that there ought to be a psychological test for anyone who wants to buy one. Score low enough, and no sale. And another thought about being out in public… can we talk about televisions and music (terrible, terrible music) everywhere all the time? At the gas pump? In the rest room? Everywhere you turn? Why do I need to be “entertained” at the gas pump? Maybe a future post. Thank you, dearie.

David Cain December 11, 2017 at 8:32 am

I know what you mean, I have a similar black pickup truck prejudice. It seems like a disproportionate number are purchased by people who want to spin their tires, tailgate others rev their engines, etc. I guess certain personality types gravitate towards certain vehicle types. Still, I have known and worked with people in black pickup trucks who aren’t like that. Confirmation bias is a problem here though — we probably never notice the occasions when a black pickup truck is being driven normally.

Angie unduplicated December 11, 2017 at 6:33 am

@Elisa Winter: My running joke is that white people in black vehicles must be drug dealers/addicts driving a sneak-around car. African-Americans may or may not be driving black vehicles for race pride. I’ve definitely noticed bad driving behavior from local white boys in black rides.

Vrgniaslim December 11, 2017 at 8:06 am

I think whatever anyone else is doing in traffic (or what vehicle they are driving) is simply about them. No need to judge. Our part is to simply operate in the spirit of cooperation. It’s better for us, and it’s better for others. We are one! ;-)

David Cain December 11, 2017 at 8:34 am

:/

CARLA December 11, 2017 at 6:47 am

Deep on many levels here, David. This is truly about more than just the crowds. thanks for putting it in terms we can relate to.

David Cain December 11, 2017 at 8:34 am

:)

Owen December 11, 2017 at 8:44 am

David

Enjoyed this (as I enjoy all your articles).

Have you read this by David Foster Wallace?

http://bulletin-archive.kenyon.edu/x4280.html

Similar sentiments to your piece. Ever since I read it I’ve tried to understand consumer-hell type situations like this.

Doesn’t always work of course…

CT December 11, 2017 at 11:34 am

I came to post this as well. I think the David’s are making very similar points about the nature of existence. I really love the video someone made for it:
https://vimeo.com/188418265

Thanks for sharing!

Guilherme December 11, 2017 at 8:16 pm

I thought of that text (This is Water) too.

And this video is awesome. I love it.

David Cain December 12, 2017 at 2:48 pm

One of my faves

Caine December 11, 2017 at 8:48 am

“a crowd is nothing but the collection of people who showed up with the same idea you did.”? To me, a crowd is a collection of people who were all manipulated in the same way. I had a similar experience about 35 years ago. I was stuck in traffic, and thought, look at all those poor rats running here and there. Then I realized I was one of them. Then I became depressed over it. Then I saved every dime and got out of the rat race as soon as I could.

My advice to all would be to save hard and early, and never enter the race. And, make sure you pass this advice on to all you can. Saving and investing is a bit like rat poison.

Keith December 11, 2017 at 8:57 am

David, as you aware there are two seasons in Canada – winter and construction. Traffic being what it is with more and more people driving, our infrastructure is continually being changed to make it more efficient! Here is an interesting solution – with its own consequences – for traffic improvement.
https://www.vox.com/2017/11/24/16693628/shared-space-design

Great suggestions for reducing the traffic competition. A nice wave, a flash of high beams and even a smile once in a while can make the journey more pleasant. Enjoy the coming months!

David Cain December 12, 2017 at 2:49 pm

This sounds great to me. It seems pretty certain that the age of the automobile will have an end, and I hope it comes soon.

Martin December 11, 2017 at 9:26 am

A high degrees of physical sensitivity and imagination (brain power) give you the capacity to imagine what others are feeling and what suffering you are self-inflicting. Consequently, this allows you to be more aware of both the personal relief that comes from being detached (stoic? ), as well as the social benefits of being altruistic (considerate) in the public domain, which releases reward chemicals in your brain by reaffirming the altruistic world view that maps onto your utilitarian world model, reinforing your sense of logic and orderliness. The price that you/we will pay for such beneficial meta-awareness (and the chemical rewards to you that give you a sense of de-stressing) is less competition and less struggling to be “first”… the question is how much does society lose when it shifts further to the non-self-centric/altruistic/common good model of thinking Vs the competitive model which so fuels entrepreneurial endeavors, risk-taking and faster growth… the eternal debate and tension between the capitalism and communitarianism, or between utilitarianism and libertarianism. Awarenss of this inner/outer trade-off often consumes my mental energy. The older I get (and the less testosteron i have) the more rewards i personally reap from becoming less selfish and more detached/contemplative/ stoic about such dilemas. But i know this bhuddist mind-set makes me less competitive and productive.

David Cain December 12, 2017 at 2:51 pm

I think it’s more complex than a tradeoff between the rewards of competitiveness and the rewards of noncompetitiveness. At least in the traffic example, very little changes with the attitude change aside from the quality of your own experience.

Jules December 11, 2017 at 10:22 am

What a fantastic and timely piece, David. It reminds me of an earlier piece you wrote about having shifted your perspective on a car in front of you that was driving oddly and seeing things from their possible POV and choosing to look after them and try to make things easier for them. But being part of traffic, rather than stuck in some phenomenon that overtakes and overwhelms you, is a whole other level. As aways, I appreciate the way you take these simple, daily observations and apply a new perspective that liberates the individual and shifts the experience. Much gratitude to you.

David Cain December 12, 2017 at 2:51 pm

You reminded me that I forgot to include my favorite traffic tip: pretend every other driver is your grandmother.

JG December 11, 2017 at 10:58 am

excellent piece. sympathy is key. breathing and smiling works for me.

Lori Bamber December 11, 2017 at 12:34 pm

Glorious, valuable thinking – thank you. ❤️

Bob December 11, 2017 at 12:50 pm

Today’s post reminded me of this vid a friend sent me yesterday. It is, in fact, the exact same idea. https://www.facebook.com/dkthehuman/videos/897449253740190/

David Cain December 12, 2017 at 2:54 pm

I want to go to Japan. I remember being impressed to hear that after the Fukishima disaster, there was virtually zero looting. “It’s just not something that would happen in Japan,” they said.

George Coghill December 11, 2017 at 1:05 pm

While I agree with the sentiment, I’ve found this approach doesn’t quite hold up in practice. One can choose to “be part of the solution” and merge lanes early, but the onslaught of me-first drivers will gleefully speed last you to the source of the bottleneck and cram their way in dozens of cars ahead of you — likely at the kindnesses of another “us” driver.

As long as there are those willing to take advantage of the “us thinkers”, you’ll need to steel yourself for the inevitable advatage-takers who’ll gladly use your empathetic actions for their own own gain if you choose the “us” path.

Factoring in this inevitable situation is a must to ensure your sanity if you choose to think “us”.

Karen J December 11, 2017 at 6:03 pm

Your point is taken, George.
On another side of it (because there’s never only two sides) is that how others choose to use opportunities presented to them, whether a little bit more room in traffic or $2 to the homeless person on the street, is really none of our business.

David Cain December 12, 2017 at 3:01 pm

Nobody is saying you need to defer to people around you in every single instance. This is an attitude shift that doesn’t change much in the practical sense (i.e. how long it takes you to get home) but it can completely change the quality of the experience.

Annie December 11, 2017 at 1:26 pm

Amen to this! This year I have become more aware of my tendency to judge others and get frustrated by their actions when I should keep what you said in mind. My intention for 2018 is to practice more loving-kindness and less judging of others. I know I don’t really have to wait until 2018 so I am already trying to put it into practice now and at least think about what situations really trigger it for me and how to be ready to keep my focus on my intention.

David Cain December 12, 2017 at 3:02 pm

There’s definitely no shortage of opportunities to examine our judgments. Best of luck!

John G December 11, 2017 at 3:05 pm

The “shared struggle” comment struck me as worthy of comment. How you engage in the struggle with others impacts your peace and responses to the jabs and punches of abrupt lane changes, honks and frequent stop-starts. Several years ago I accidentally stumbled on a way to make my traffic jam experience more peaceful for me. I drove a 5-speed manual transmission truck at the time and was constantly aggravated by the constant clutch-break-gas application every few yards in the jam. So one day I decided to reduce the aggravation by not following so closely. I expanded the gap to 3-4-5 cars length with the result that my clutch-break manipulation reduced considerably. At first I was peeved by folks diving into the hole I had created but learned to live with it by slowing to maintain the gap and happily accept the occasional friendly wave offered by kinder in-cutters. Yes the accordion would compress, but I developed the skill to slow correspondingly such that, unless everything came to a complete stop, I could just slow down enough to catch up and continue rolling as the accordion unwound. It developed into a skill game to have the least number of full stops on the commute – a fun way to distract from the actual chore of the commute.
Interestingly I came across situations where 3 or 4 like minded big gap drivers would occupy a lane and the combined lack of frequent stops would result in a smooth ride for all of us. It doesn’t happen often though because the prevalent driver is the bumper-hugger constantly jamming on the breaks and acting as if they would get home one inch faster glued to my butt. Maybe they get there faster, but I think I get there with a better state of mind.

Martin December 11, 2017 at 3:49 pm

This + more roundabouts + more motorcycles/electric bikes = bliss and world peace.

Karen J December 11, 2017 at 6:08 pm

Beautiful, John!
I drive pretty-much like that too, ever since I was a courier in Chicago, many years ago. That approach flows into many (all, even?) other areas of life, and makes for a much mellower day. :)

David Cain December 12, 2017 at 3:04 pm

I think you just made me more aware of other people’s manual-transmission gaps. I’ve never driven a stick so I wouldn’t have guessed this.

Nick December 11, 2017 at 3:07 pm

The airplane example is an easy way of not becoming the crowd. I have never understood why everybody leaps out of their seat to get at the overhead lockers when the plane has barely stopped. I just sit and wait a few minutes and calmly exit the plane just behind the sheep

David Cain December 12, 2017 at 3:08 pm

My flight attendant friend confirms that otherwise calm, normal people get acutely uptight on planes. People feel cramped, tired, annoyed, averse. That makes it a perfect place to practice this kind of forgiving attitude.

Elena Galey-Pride December 11, 2017 at 3:15 pm

Brings to mind another great talk from TedX in 2012 – “We are They” by Melissa Hellwig.

Gabrielle Bauer December 11, 2017 at 5:40 pm

Amazing post as usual. I am guilty of all the misguided assumptions you speak of. I get irritated far too easily. I blame others for their ways of doing things. Etc. A good reminder for me to get a grip.

Brady Faught December 11, 2017 at 6:02 pm

This is also a great daily practice in compassion of your fellow human, something sorely in need of these days.
I was driving with my wife and someone was tailgating me. In an act of serious passive-aggression, I slowed down to aggravate them and have glorious justice upon this driver who dare enter my space bubble!
My wife said to me, “what if they’re rushing to the hospital? Maybe their child is sick.”
Despite the 1% chance that’s true, similar to what you said: there’s no downsides to giving the compassionate benefit of the doubt.

David Cain December 12, 2017 at 3:13 pm

Right — and there is a downside to assuming the worst about everyone. I also try to have more compassion even for the people who are impatient, rude, selfish. I’ve been all those things, and in those moments, it’s not as though I know how to be patient and calm.

Abhijeet Kumar December 11, 2017 at 10:28 pm

Man, this resonates deeply.

What I am going to say is one of a very deep realizations I had. I guess these are all ways to an intuitive understanding of what we all are part of. At some levels, this understanding has no huge meaning, at least conceptually. It doesn’t seem to change anything. But when there is an intuitive understanding of it, things seem to fall in place.

Joe December 11, 2017 at 10:34 pm

I drive a lot in the mountains for work. I had the realization an couple of years ago, while waiting for an accident to be cleared to reopen the road, how horribly selfish it was of me to be impatient and worried about the appointment that I was going to be late for. I was judging the driver, their abilities and experience with winter driving, tires, etc. It occurred to me all at once that someone’s (perhaps several people’s) life had just changed, maybe dramatically. Likely a financial setback. Possibly a permanent injury. There’s a chance someone had just died in that accident and I was uptight about missing a routine appointment. To your point, it could have been me. I was on the same road, same winter driving conditions, part of the same group, only a couple of vehicles away.

David Cain December 12, 2017 at 3:17 pm

That is a thing we tend to do: when we’re inconvenienced or put out by something, our minds tend to search for a moral judgment to make about whoever “caused” the problem for us. I know that when I turn a corner and traffic is unexpectedly back up, my eyes travel up the line of cars to search for someone at fault — a slow driver, a poorly-scheduled construction job, someone asleep at the switch in some sense. For some reason, we want to identify a party at fault for our current moment of suffering.

My favorite Nietzsche aphorism: “Anyone who has declared someone else to be an idiot, a bad apple, is annoyed when it turns out in the end that he isn’t.”

Amandasiberia December 12, 2017 at 12:26 pm

You simply…nailed it!! I am speechless ;-))

Little Miss Fire December 14, 2017 at 1:03 pm

I really like the idea of this “us” mentality. I’ve currently learning to drive and I’ve been “taught” not to let anyone in front of me, not to let pedestrians cross and a multitude of other “selfish” ways to be the traffic. As soon as I pass my test I’m going to practice the “us consciousness”

Little Miss Fire
https://littlemissfireblog.wordpress.com

Mike December 15, 2017 at 12:38 am

I’m from the U.S., have lived in Taiwan for several years. The difference in crowd mentality is astonishing; in Taiwan, long lines are not yowling mobs of people trampling each other or yelling about slow service–instead, people patiently wait their turn. The attitude seems to be “Hey, what’s the fuss? We’ll be waited on eventually,” probably because Taiwan is a small, densely populated country and people intuitively know that being stupid-aggressive will just sow chaos. As for traffic, Taiwan drivers honk horns all the time, NOT in an angry manner, but as a way of saying ‘Excuse me.’ If you’re on a scooter or motorcycle and a vehicle behind you honks, you just move over a couple of feet to let the vehicle pass. No fuss, no harm, no aggro-crap, and everyone keeps moving along to their destination.

By contrast, the ‘trampoline’ episode of The Simpsons sums up most Americans’ attitude toward traffic: Homer sees a newspaper ad for a free trampoline, so he jumps in the car and burns rubber down the street to be first to claim it. He sees a car up ahead backing out of a driveway and screams: “Oh, no you don’t! I’m getting that trampoline FIRST!” then rams the car, knocking it over on its side.

Jodie Utter December 15, 2017 at 9:04 am

Ok. That was a little MIND BLOWING! I get a little ragey in both traffic and grocery stores and never once did I stop to think that the other drivers and cart pushers are just other versions of me. Not once. But I will now and it will help. You’re so right that it’s often just a simple mental shift that will get us where we need to go. Much gratitude to you for this.

KG December 15, 2017 at 11:57 am

Thanks, great topic and thought provoking article. It helps to re-frame how you’re looking at things. The meaning you’re giving to situations makes all the difference with how you experience life. Are you suffering your life experience, or relaxing into the us-consciousness. Ultimately aren’s all things working together as one? Is there really ever an us and them? Or, life is for me and against you? I catch myself doing the “us them” position in my thinking automatically sometimes. It’s good to have a reminder!!

ken December 15, 2017 at 10:45 pm

Hi David,
I have a slightly different take on the “us-consciousness”.., first off…, now being 57 I have spent many many years in Seattle traffic which is some of the worst in the nation, that being said I have moved and live in a slower paced city with very few traffic issues. But in my years in Seattle the morning and night commutes became a sort of video game to me…, sure, I recognized we were all in the same position but it was all about making time and using every trick and ploy in the book to get even a few cars ahead e.g. I owned a small sporty little pick up that could weave in and out of traffic like it was an F1 Indycar…, I would use certain off ramps only to re-enter on the other side as I knew I could eek a few positions out of it…, our HOV lanes had buffer zones where you had a certain space of time to get out of the lane which was becoming HOV, I would use that buffer space to the last iota where most would merge out of it almost immediately. The ability to accelerate and move through two or three openings in a forward and horizontal direction became exciting. And there were others out there just like me…, I remember a Purple Impreza that I would try to outdo, and a Honda Civic hatchback too…, sometimes we would give each other thumbs up if one of us bested the other. I was never in an accident nor was I ever the cause of an accident…, but the moral of my story is the commute used to piss the hell out of me until it became a kind of game and then it actually became kinda fun. I guess it doesn’t matter how you change your mindset…, the truth is that YOU CAN change your mindset and that changes everything!!

Md Nayeem December 18, 2017 at 10:35 am

Appreciating your another experimental thought, the concept of being crowd or traffic by selfsame was really thoughtful. All knows about our Asian traffic condition,i.e. so much worst that whenever I travel other countries never feel that there have ‘traffic jam’ but traffic is obvious. But friend, I think that human patience limit is different accordance their nature, age, & sex, suppose young guy rolls their car wheel on speed to be rock, middle age is decent to drive & the old remain calm down on their driving. Driving our ride in disciple way, completely depends on our patience limit and our human consciousness about ‘we’ are all in road are same, just could be said compromising to good….

Carrie January 2, 2018 at 11:32 pm

I can honestly say I have never considered things from this perspective before. I’m super excited to try and change my mindset when in a crowd. Thanks for sharing this awesome idea.

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