The honking of the horn: a tale of cultural differences
I had an interesting experience this past summer while home in Minnesota. I was parked at a Caribou Coffee – the northern Midwest’s attempt to ward off the cultural dominance of Starbucks. I happened to look in my rearview mirror and noticed another car quickly backing up on a track that would lead to a collision with my rear end in a matter of seconds. It seemed clear the other driver had no idea I was there. I quickly honked my car horn to give warning, and watched his break lights come on, avoiding a collision by mere centimeters. At that moment, the driver of the car turned in his seat, glared at me, and flipped me the bird, shaking his fist aggressively. I looked at him in shock. What was that all about? Hadn’t I just saved him from damaging my car and his, not to mention the probable increase in auto insurance rates he would have acquired had he hit me? He pulled his car forward, and reversed again on a track that avoided my car. Then, to add insult to injury, as he now moved forward to exit the parking lot, the woman in the passenger seat turned toward me and also flipped me the bird. What the heck was going on?
Driving home, I thought about what I had just experienced, and compared it to our home overseas in Myanmar. It seemed that in the experience I just had, the driver of the other car interpreted my use of the car horn as some sort of a hostile act. While I presumed I was providing a service by helping him avoid a collision, he seemed to see the horn as some sort of affront, as though I was using it to point out how wrong he was or some discrepancy in his character. In Myanmar, the use of a car horn is interpreted entirely different, if interpreted at all. By this I mean, people make use of the horn so much, it often goes unnoticed. It wasn’t too many years ago there was hardly a car on the streets on Myanmar. People could drive from one end of the city to the other without hindrance. Overnight, it seems everyone has acquired a car. The infrastructure has not been able to keep up. There are constant traffic jams and little fender benders. The sound of a car horn honking has become so common it blends into the background. I think I even fall asleep at night on occasion to the sound of car horns in the distance. The honking of car horns has become so common that I find if I am driving down the road, see a friend walking or driving, and honk to greet them, they don’t even look up. My horn isn’t even acknowledged with a simple nod of the head, let alone a greeting in response.
I began to think how different the car horn is perceived in different locations or cultures. Another place we lived – was it the Cayman Islands or the oil camp on Sumatra – you hardly ever heard a car horn. Really, the only time it was ever used for was in greeting. If you heard one, you knew it was likely someone you knew saying hello and your hand immediately went up in a wave before you even identified the driver. In contrast was the highways of Romania where people would lay on the horn as they sped into one side of the village and didn’t let up until they exited the other side, letting people on foot know to beware. This eventually led to signs at the entrance to some of these villages with an X over a horn. Clearly, the expectation was the cars needed to slow down, rather than use the horn, to maintain safety. I’m not sure how successful this endeavor was.
So, I guess we could formulate a question around these experiences asking what does the honking of the car horn tell us about behavior within different culture? Can any statement be made, or assumptions about the way different cultures are perceived? I once read an ethnographic study about Myanmar called, The Traffic in Hierarchy by Ward Keeler. In this study, Keeler observes the perceived relational hierarchy in Myanmar and how it plays out in everything from societal norms to traffic patterns and in how people drive cars and cross the street. As I reflect on this study, I think one can easily assume that in Myanmar hierarchy may also play a cultural role in when people do, or do not use the car horn. This led me to wonder what it is that plays a role in the honking of a horn in other countries, and how this simple act reflects our own perceptions of who we are and how we see ourselves within our own culture?
Recently, my friend and colleague, Cameron Janzen, led a workshop on cultural understanding. In this workshop, he discussed core cultural values, or those values that are a part of our cultural perspective we are unwilling, or unable to change. An example of this would be someone who’s religion forbids them from drinking alcohol. For that person, this might be a core value. On the other hand are flex values. These are values we are willing to change to help us be more understanding and accepting of another culture. As I applied this to the honking of the horn in different countries, I realized that in some places, the horn itself may be symbolic of deeper core values. For example, in Myanmar, it may reflect some deeper core values around hierarchy. At the same time, for me, the honking of the horn is a flex value, something I’m willing to change and adapt to from culture to culture, or country to country. I guess, the honking of the horn could be a truly symbolic reflection of our cultural differences and our willingness to understand others. At the same time, I guess it is also possible I’m just reading too much into it. Perhaps, the honking of the horn is really nothing more than an obnoxious loud noise eliciting an abrasive response no matter where we happen to be…..
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