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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope


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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The 4-way stop as Canadian metaphor

Twice a day, on my way to and from work, I pass through an intersection with a four-way stop. Invariably the experience leaves me dumbfounded at the behaviour of fellow motorists at the intersection - no one seems to know what to do when more than one car arrives. Then it dawned on me: the four-way stop is the perfect metaphor for the Canadian psyche. As evidenced by our often lamentable behaviour as a country, Canadians hate to go first.

David Brin used the four-way stop to illustrate human behaviour as it applies to dispute resolution:

If you want to see clues about our future, step away from your computer screen. Go outside and stand near a four-way intersection that’s regulated only by stop signs.

Watch for a while as drivers take turns, not-quite-stopping while they gauge each others’ intentions, negotiating rapid deals with nods and flashes of eye-contact. You’ll spot some rudeness, certainly. But exceptions seldom rattle this silent dance of brief courtesies and tacit bargains -- a strange mixture of competition and cooperation.

The four-way stop doesn’t work in some cultures, and it’s hard to picture anything like it functioning in times past, when mostly-illiterate humans lived in steep social hierarchies and “right-of-way” was a matter of status, not fair play. Nor would robots, adhering to rigid laws, handle traffic half so well as the drivers I see, dealing with a myriad fuzzy situations, making up micro-rules and exceptions on the spot, even as they talk on cell phones or quell squabbles among kids riding in the back seat. This phenomenon visibly illustrates how simple rules can be used by sophisticated autonomous systems (e.g. modern citizens) to solve intricate problems without any authority figures present to enforce obedience.

Since I've been paying attention to this, I've noticed that when I am at a four-way stop people ignore the rule that the first car at the intersection has the right of way, but instead wave at you to go first, or sit politely waiting to go last. In frustration I sometimes take the initiative and enter the intersection when it isn't my turn just to stop the insane politeness that seems to compel people to give up their right of way. According to Brin's theory, Canadians are apparently unable to "solve intricate problems without any authority figures to enforce obedience".

It isn't just in cars that Canadians exhibit this bizarre behaviour - our pathological politeness and deference is inevitably exhibited when we hold doors open for each other. We apparently believe it is a civic virtue to make a theatrical display of opening doors for others so that we can go last. I have been in situations where someone has seen me approaching from fifty yards away and has stood there holding the door open for what seems like minutes while I mosey on up to the entrance. People do acrobatic contortions to hold a door open behind them after they have already passed through it in order to let someone go through the door first. I was once at a coffee shop with a vestibule with two double doors. Two people, one leaving the shop and one entering at the same time, stood frozen holding the doors open for each other, neither one wanting to go through first. I came up from behind and walked past both of them, still standing there motionless.

I think this Four Way Stop Syndrome explains a lot about our country. It explains why we feel incapable of doing anything on the international stage unless it is already sanctioned by the UN, or France. It explains why we hate to put our troops in combat situations where we might have to take some strategic initiative and kill people instead of digging wells and sand-bagging swollen rivers. It explains why we have this knee-jerk distaste of the US: we hate people who just barge in and do things. An American would never be paralyzed with indecision at a four-way stop (well, maybe in Minnesota).

For the record, folks: the first car into a four-way stop is the first car to proceed through the intersection. If two or more cars arrive simultaneously, the one on the right goes first. If four cars arrive at the same time - God help us. The UN would have to sort it out.

1 comment:

SouthernTory said...

Nice one Diogenes. We also like to be correct. Okay, so let's all start being rude so we can become more CONSERVATIVE. This is a movement we can all work on.
P.S. When 4 cars stop, it is God help us. No one has the right of way. We have to use our instinct. So speed through before the rest of them can make up their minds. hahahaha.