David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Driving Language

Here’s a social phenomenon I find fascinating. We all seem to know the same handful of gestures for car-to-car communication. And when I say “car-to-car communication,” I’m talking about the ways you can get something across to other cars while you’re zooming by each other at 60 mph.

Here are the only things you can communicate in a car that I can think of offhand:

Gesture Meaning
The friendly one-handed wave Thank you.
The window roll-down Can you roll down your window so I can ask you something?
The bird, the shaken fist, long horn beep I’m angry and annoyed at you.
Turn signals I’m going to turn or change lanes.
The one-handed go-ahead Go ahead, I’ll let you go first.
Quick flash of headlights (1) Go ahead. (2) There’s a police car ahead. (3) You’ve got your brights on when you shouldn’t.
Short beep Pay attention.
Hazard lights on Use caution, I’m having a problem with my car.

So what’s so fascinating about these gestures? First off, nobody ever really teaches them to you. I can’t remember anybody ever showing me the gesture to get someone to roll down their window; I simply learned it in context.

Even more interesting is the fact that the official hand gestures that the government does teach you — left hand extended to turn left, left hand up to turn right — are hardly ever used. The few times a year I see somebody stick their hand out the window to make an official hand turn signal, it takes me a few seconds to actually remember which gesture translates to which direction.

But there’s a problem in that certain necessary communications just aren’t a part of the common lexicon of driving. We don’t need to communicate angst at the state of the Dow Jones to other drivers on the highway, but there are certain basic concepts it would be helpful to be able to communicate. How do you indicate to someone that you want to go straight and not turn, for instance? You can’t. (Not easily, at least.) And here are some more simple gestures that I think should be a part of our driving vocabulary:

  • Follow me.
  • Please move over a lane and let me pass you.
  • Stop tailgating me, I’m going to move over and let you pass as soon as I pass this group of cars.
  • You seem to be having a mechanical problem with your car.
  • You’ve got your brights on and you’re right behind me.
  • You’ve been driving with your blinker on for the past 3 miles.

But the most crucial omission from this lexicon is that there’s no way to say you’re sorry. Sometimes you can use the friendly one-handed wave, but unless you do it just right, this gesture can be mistaken for arrogance. I remember once a number of years back I was driving along a highway paying too much attention to the radio, and I almost sideswiped a church van with a dozen people on it that had crept into my blind spot. We both swerved and caused half a dozen cars around us to swerve too. Luckily everything came out okay and nobody was hurt. But in that two-second interval before we moved off to different lanes and parted forever, I couldn’t think of any way to indicate to the occupants of the van that I had made a mistake. They had plenty of ways to communicate their anger with me — honking, shaking fists, yelling — but how could I say I was sorry? I couldn’t. These people reached their destination angry and scared, I’m sure, and there was nothing I could do about it.

They say you can tell a lot about a culture by studying their language. The Eskimos have a gazillion words for snow. There’s a hunter/gatherer tribe in Brazil that only has three words for counting: “one,” “two,” and “many.” So what does it say about driving culture that we have no way of saying we’re sorry? It’s a cycle that only leads in one direction: we have no way of expressing calm and measured politeness on the road, therefore people interpret this as hostility, and therefore people are angrier and more reckless on the road.

(Of course, now that I look up on Wikipedia about the Eskimo words for snow, I see that this idea is really just an urban legend. Lots of fascinating reading on Wikipedia about this topic in the article on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, if you’re interested.)

I read an article recently about the debacle in Iraq that demonstrated just how deadly the communication barrier can be. (Wish I could remember where it was — The New Republic, maybe?) Apparently the common gesture that we Americans use for “stop” — holding your hand up high, fingers open, palm out — doesn’t mean that to Iraqis. That means “hello” or “come here.” You can imagine where this leads. A confused and frightened eighteen-year-old soldier standing at a checkpoint with an intimidating M-16 raises his hand and yells at an Iraqi to stop where he is. The confused and frightened Iraqi doesn’t understand English and misinterprets the hand gesture, thinking the soldier is demanding that he come here right now. Iraqi runs towards the checkpoint as quickly as he can, soldier thinks he’s a suicide bomber and sprays him with bullets. This isn’t just a hypothetical; soldiers say it happens all the time.

Update 8/29/07 12:30 PM: Found the article in The Nation (“The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness”). It’s really sobering reading. Here’s the passage in particular I was remembering:

A few veterans said checkpoint shootings resulted from basic miscommunication, incorrectly interpreted signals or cultural ignorance.

“As an American, you just put your hand up with your palm towards somebody and your fingers pointing to the sky,” said Sergeant Jefferies, who was responsible for supplying fixed checkpoints in Diyala twice a day. “That means stop to most Americans, and that’s a military hand signal that soldiers are taught that means stop. Closed fist, please freeze, but an open hand means stop. That’s a sign you make at a checkpoint. To an Iraqi person, that means, Hello, come here. So you can see the problem that develops real quick. So you get on a checkpoint, and the soldiers think they’re saying stop, stop, and the Iraqis think they’re saying come here, come here. And the soldiers start hollering, so they try to come there faster. So soldiers holler more, and pretty soon you’re shooting pregnant women.”


Here’s something else I think about before I judge other drivers on the road. A few times a year, I’ll purposefully skirt traffic laws because of legitimate emergencies. When my dog’s been attacked and he’s bleeding to death in my passenger seat, I’m going to drive on the shoulder and zoom around people if I need to. If my wife’s about to have a baby, I’m going to veer in front of other cars and make illegal U-turns in the middle of the street if it’s the quickest way to the hospital. I’m not saying this is always a wise thing to do, but once or twice a year you don’t do the wise thing.

According to these statistics, there are at least 131,000 cars that drive along my route to work every day. If one in 1,000 people are having some kind of emergency like that every day, that makes 131 drivers just along my route who are driving like frickin’ maniacs for legitimate reasons. Even if the number of people in a crisis any given day is one in 10,000, that’s still 13 drivers driving like Donald Duck on some really bad acid. Statistically speaking, then, there’s a very good chance that some of the idiotic drivers I pass are in the middle of some kind of crisis that makes them throw out the rulebook.

Again, I’m not saying this is excusable driving behavior. But it really pokes a hole in the perception that the road is full of angry, arrogant drivers that are just cutting ahead of you to be assholes, doesn’t it?

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  1. hugh57 on August 29, 2007 at 12:02 pm  Chain link

    (Apologies to Erich Segal):

    Driving in America means never having to say you’re sorry.

  2. Josh on August 29, 2007 at 1:15 pm  Chain link

    Maybe the closest gesture to “sorry” that I can think of for driving involves more than just the hands. It’s that shrug with the hands held up in helplessness, often with a very piteous look to your face. Best I can do for now, though since I live in NYC for the time, that means I take the subway anyways. I’d have to be mad to want to drive around here–I’d get someone killed, I just know it.

  3. Brian on August 29, 2007 at 2:08 pm  Chain link

    I can’t imagine what ‘I’m sorry’ would look like from a car. Failure of imagination or physiology?

    And ya – solders should be more aware of cultural hand signals. I imagine that some well meaning staff officer dug up the information, passed it along in briefing documents .. and at some point the information was presented to the grunt who either missed it or failed to grasp how important it was.

    Found this out the hard way – but luckily it had a happy ending. Riding in the back of an open truck in Dhakka, Bangladesh, halted at an intersection. Some teenagers were hanging out. They waved. We waved back. They smiled. We flashed the ‘V’ for peace sign.

    Puzzled looks were returned. The boys looked around, looked at the girls. The girls looked around and at the boys. A boy got a really big smile and pointed at the girls, flashed the peace sign back with some more obvious – and I add very friendly – gestures – that indicated he had mis-understood our ‘V for Peace sign to mean that we really really liked the girls. The girls blushed., smiled and looked altogether cute and wholesome. Traffic cleared and away we went.

  4. David Louis Edelman on August 29, 2007 at 2:28 pm  Chain link

    …and your insult of the local women was the spark behind the bombing of the American embassy and subsequent invasion of Bangladesh by the US.

  5. Dave Hutchinson on August 29, 2007 at 5:38 pm  Chain link

    Interesting. People use the same gestures here in Britain. You don’t see the bird so often, but it’s not unknown.
    I have also seen people say sorry – to oncoming drivers, at least – by means of a graphic shrug.
    I should add for the sake of disclosure that I’ve only observed these things as a passenger and a pedestrian, as I don’t drive. I decided a long time ago that there have to be better ways to die.

  6. christopher on August 29, 2007 at 9:39 pm  Chain link

    “But the most crucial omission from this lexicon is that there’s no way to say you’re sorry.”

    absolutely. i’ve said for years that it’s ironic we don’t have a way to easily convey an apology visually. always funny when someone else voices what you’ve been saying/thinking.

    another cross-communication: apparently in iran it’s rude to do a thumbs up.

  7. Jeroen Arendsen on August 30, 2007 at 4:35 am  Chain link


    First, I think there is a clear sign of saying sorry which is near universal. It is a hand held palms down and slightly (or entirely) up. To appease the other person, as it were. A slightly sheepish look on the face and a helpless shrug will complete the picture. Sure it will be tough to see it in a car, but it usually still works. If context is clear, and both drivers know whose fault it was, then any sort of raised hand will do to acknowledge the mistake (and apologise).

    Second, this is a thought that has popped up many times before on the net. The Dutch government even created a silly expensive campaign to come up with a ‘sorry’ gesture. Needless to say, one year later the initiative is as dead as it was when it started.

    Kind regards, Jeroen Arendsen (A Nice Gesture)

  8. Jeroen Arendsen on August 30, 2007 at 4:41 am  Chain link

    Update: There is an entire website devoted to the campaign to invent a sorry gesture in the Netherlands: http://www.sorrygebaar.nl. Notice how they adopted as a winner the gesture that was already in widespread use: one hand held up in an apologetic way.

  9. Jeroen Arendsen on August 30, 2007 at 4:47 am  Chain link

    I am a big fan of humanity and do not believe that people really misunderstand each other so easily. People from different cultures are usually well aware that there may be differences in their signals. People usually try to work out what the other party means instead of jumping to the wrong conclusions.

    To prove my point I have put out a reward for any evidence of a real cultural misunderstanding of a gesture. If it were really such a common thing then somebody must have videotaped it by accident, right?

  10. Jeroen Arendsen on August 30, 2007 at 4:50 am  Chain link

    The case described by Brian would definitely qualify if he is a first hand source and has the thing recorded 😉

  11. David Louis Edelman on August 30, 2007 at 9:13 am  Chain link

    Jeroen: Thanks for those links. Of course, whenever I think I have an original idea, it turns out someone else has already thought of it. :-)

    Of course, a government campaign for this kind of thing is just a monumentally bad idea. This kind of thing has to spring up spontaneously from the public, or not at all. It’s just interesting that in the 100 years of automotive history (and a hundred thousand of human history) one has never sprung up.

  12. Brian on August 30, 2007 at 1:44 pm  Chain link

    …and your insult of the local women was the spark behind the bombing of the American embassy and subsequent invasion of Bangladesh by the US.


    The case described by Brian would definitely qualify if he is a first hand source and has the thing recorded 😉

    I am but I failed to record it. I didn’t even take a camera with me on that deployment. So it’s got to remain a sea story.

  13. George Pedrosa on August 30, 2007 at 4:37 pm  Chain link

    It’s fun to read these “Jerry Seinfeld” articles about simple things in life…

  14. Tim Pratt on August 30, 2007 at 8:25 pm  Chain link

    There’s an intersection on my way to work every day, a three-way where only cars coming from one direction have to stop. If you’re sitting at the stop sign, and there’s oncoming traffic, it’s tough to tell if they’re going to go straight (thus allowing you to go straight, too) or turn left across your lane, which means you have to keep sitting there. So the locals who plan to go straight always alert the people stuck at the stop sign of their intention by signaling a right turn — there is no road to turn onto on the right, and indeed there’s only a precipitous drop off a hillside, so in that case the right turn signal means “I’m going straight.” It took me a couple of times to realize what the hell people were signaling for, but now I do it, too, without even thinking about it. I wonder about other highly localized signals…

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