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Understanding Traffic From an Intercultural Perspective

Updated: May 5, 2023

Part 2 of 4

“Why in the world do people behave the way they do on the roads?” Some people are predictable, and others are totally unpredictable.

Many of us have traveled to or lived in other countries where we had to switch the side we drive on, get used to police officers (trying to) regulate traffic, learn to navigate “roundabouts” or understand how a four-way-stop works… But what happens on the roads when the whole world coming together in one city and people hit the roads… A growing number of cities across the world have people participating in traffic from at least 100 countries.

Most of us learn traffic rules (or the lack thereof) and get our drivers license in the country of our birth. When we move to a different part of the world, we typically have years of traffic experience under our belt! When we travel or relocate, we bring that driving culture with us wherever we go! This impacts how we make decisions on the roads, what we think is ‘perfectly normal’ driving behavior and why we get so frustrated with one another…

Living in Dubai has made me realize that the interculturalness (if that is a word) of the traffic is a fascinating topic to study. Over the years I have discovered the intercultural lens is a great way to start making sense of the madness. Understanding the intercultural driving behavior of others helps us with anger management, calms our nerves, assists you in practicing defensive driving and helps you avoid accidents.

About ten years ago, every Thursday morning, we contributed intercultural insights to a live radio broadcast on Dubai Eye 103.8. On several occasions we talked about the intercultural side of traffic and the phone lines would be red-hot and twitter feed would practically blow up; traffic for sure was and is an emotional topic for everyone!

Since that year of broadcasting we have learned a lot from our ICI Practitioners network and from observing traffic around the world. So we wanted to pass on to you what we have learned through a series of articles. In this four-article series we will illuminate various aspects of how our cultural wiring impacts driving.

When you have everyone from everywhere sharing the same road, there are problems right off the bat. For example, having to switch the side you are driving on can be mentally taxing, especially when you are forced to make a split-second decision. This is true not just for drivers, but also cyclists and pedestrians. A pedestrian looks right or left first when crossing depending on if they are used to cars driving on the left or the right in their home context. We do not think about these simple concepts until we mess up without understanding why we have made a mistake. Speed, flow, and spacing are also very important in driving and it changes depending on the country. In countries where traffic is slower due to road conditions, the traffic naturally slows down and everyone drives close to each other. In places where traffic is faster, it tends to be more spread out. When a driver behind me is flashing his lights in heavy traffic to nudge me on to “fill the gap”, it is almost guaranteed that the driver comes from a country where traffic is much slower. So from his perspective it is frustrating that I don’t fill the gap, while I keep space to increase flow and safety, specially if I have been trained in defensive driving techniques.

Our family took a trip to Sri Lanka, and I did not take into account that Sri Lanka is a “slow traffic” country. A 90-km trip that would have taken at the most two hours by my calculations took four hours in Sri Lankan traffic. Our family was totally not prepared for a four-hour trip! We did not think to bring water or snacks or any sort of entertainment for our kids. Our assumptions of what traffic should be, blinded us to the reality of Sri Lankan traffic. These experiences impact us in very emotional ways – tempers can easily flare in traffic due to these misunderstandings. Deep down inside we expect everyone else to drive the same way that they do, and when that doesn't happen, confusion and frustration run rampant. The more we looked at traffic through an intercultural lens, the more we realized how powerful the "Three Colors of Worldview" are in explaining some of challenges we face in traffic. In order to start illuminating the cultural side of traffic we need to start with ourselves: "What are my cultural drivers that underpin how I behave in traffic?" Applying the "Three Colors of Worldview" allows us to recognize the intercultural motivators and demotivators of our-self and other people in traffic around us. This is not just useful in traffic but in any intercultural interaction you experience in life.

The "Three Colors of Worldview" (Honor/Shame, Innocence/Guilt, and Power/Fear) influence what we consider acceptable and unacceptable on the road. The "Three Colors of Worldview".

For example, in an Innocence/Guilt(I/G) society, the assumption is that you will have studied the rules and know what is and is not acceptable. If the rules are not followed, people get upset and do what they can to ensure the rules are enforced. The underlying belief is “if everyone sticks to the rules, we will all get where we need to go”.

Honor/Shame(H/S) dynamics do not always follow this pattern because the honor of the driver has more impact on how they conduct themselves than adherence to the rules. H/S driving pays more attention to the interactions of the drivers (“how am I being honored? Am I honoring others?”) and sometimes rules play a secondary role (“this is what is legally right.”).

Power/Fear(P/F) influences drivers in a similar way to H/S worldviews in that the interactions on the road take precedence over the rules. However, a different question is being asked. It is not “how am I being honored”, but “am I losing Power? Am I giving or being given respect?”. The decisions made by P/F or H/S drivers depend on the interaction with other drivers, while I/G movements depend more on the rules. All of these aspects greatly impact how we conduct ourselves on the road and in our personal lives. Perceptions that we are unaware of jump out sharply at us when we drive because of the nature of driving – split second decisions enforced often by instinct.

Driving brings to surface our quick acting instincts and assumptions of other driver’s behaviors. In our every-day lives, on the road, we need to take into account that cultural assumptions form the backbone of these events.

Special thanks to Ruby Maxson, one of our youngest ICI Practitioners, for contributing to this article series. Read Part 1, Part 3 and Part 4 here.

To begin your intercultural learning journey, contact us, or get our mini-ebook: Inter-Cultural Intelligence: from surviving to thriving in the global space. We hope that through your engagement with KnowledgeWorkx, you will more easily engage with people in our global and interculturally complex world. We trust our article library will also aid in showing you how that can happen, and what that might look like for you.


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