Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Power of Quiet, Civil Dialogue

Of peaceful, civil streets I speak

The driver right-hooked me on my bicycle clean off the street and out of the bike lane like the tip of a kielbasa with a sharp knife. It was my evening commute home from work. I was all shiny-reflective, lit up, and blinking brightly, while, as I swerved to a stop in behind him, I noticed he was still yakking on his cell phone. Somehow didn't see me, or didn't care, or couldn't be bothered. Anger, rage, urge to yell and gesture, to chase after him and scare the crap out of him, at least. I'm big, shock factor was on my side, I probably could have could have caused him quite a stir.

But wait. Calm down. Breathe. Keep riding. Ignore it. Notch it up to just another oblivious, or clueless, or inattentive, or passive-aggressive, human behaving badly on his way home, too distracted to care about another human just riding his bike home from work after a long day, who just wanted to see his family, to get home and to take a break, like everyone else. It's cool,  you're the better man, ride on peace dog, it's all good, right? You reacted like a champ, avoided catastrophe with a combination of skills, cat-like reflexes, and a dandy new helmet mirror that showed his encroaching headlights over the left shoulder like nobody's biz. Let it go. Joy to the world and so forth.

But wait, that's hardly satisfying. Go back and stomp the shit out of him and the car he drove in on. Dude did it into his OWN DRIVEWAY, pretty easy to find that jerk. Yeah, that's what you should...no, no, that's ill advised, and won't accomplish anything, and cannot turn out well. On the other hand, if you do nothing, he'll probably keep on doing it, right? Maybe next time he right hooks a kid, or you, in a closer call, at a higher speed, when good fortune and excellent defensive technique are not on everyone's side. Maybe next time it doesn't turn out half so well. So what then?

Imagine this: he slices me off the road like a kielbasa again. I follow in right behind him, then stop behind him in his parking place. As he gets out, he sees me writing down his license plate, vehicle color, make, model, time, date, place, and situation, while I'm dialing 911. About the time he approaches me, the operator says to me, "911, what's your emergency?" and I report my name, and that I was just run off the road by a driver who caused me to crash** my bicycle, and now I'm standing behind his vehicle. All stated in a calm, rational, objective voice, reporting the facts, responding respectively and in a level voice. Not snide, not know-it-all, not entitled, but firm and confident, assured. No, I don't know if I'm injured, right after an accident it's difficult to tell. Yes, I would appreciate that, thank you.

The 911 operator says whatever she says, and just about then the driver finally speaks to me, after he decides his play. No matter what he says, though, no matter what his mood, his voice, his approach or strategy, I speak to him exactly the same way I spoke to the 911 operator, all the while staying on the line, by the way. I speak to him exactly as I would wish to be spoken to: calmly, respectfully, evenly, rationally, civilly. You reap what you sow. "Yes, I'm just calling in this unfortunate event, reporting it to the proper authorities. Would you be so kind as to share your personal information with me? I would like to see your ID and your insurance information." I don't expect that many people would comply with that request in that situation, but that's part of the deal: to stay calm, rational, civil, respectful even, no matter what he does. The power of that fills me with confidence. And it's all on the 911 tape.

Rather than accusing the driver of anything, or responding in any aggressive or angry manner, I would stay civil, and say something like, "Yes, unfortunate event, I agree, perhaps you just didn't see me, really should keep an eye out, shouldn't we? But these things do happen."

If all this seems a bit improbable, I'll say this about the alternatives. The middle finger is an ineffectual and inflammatory gesture. Likewise, yelling curses at the rapidly retreating rear window of the vehicle of the offending driver has never accomplished anything positive or of lasting good. On the other hand, plenty of people have progressed from these initial pissed-off responses to road rage, actual fights, and worse, but no one, ever, has altered their driving habits in a positive manner one iota in response.

Quiet civility. Rational, respectful response. When I contemplate the dialogue above, I am filled with hope that it might turn out differently, that such an approach might actually have the potential to make a difference, sometimes. Please, sir, don't act the cad. Objective reporting of the events which occurred. I believe in the largely untapped power of civility and calm dialogue to enact positive change. Next time I'm treated like a kielbasa, I plan to act the civil human, and not the screaming savage. We'll see how it goes.

Last blog post for the year. Work, family, time off, all that. Happy holidays, and peaceful, civil, and joyful* riding to all.

Note: I composed most of this post before I noticed that Tucson Velo has a post up called "The importance of having a conversation" , a similar view, from a similar space, at a similar time.   

*or grimly determined, facing into the biting cold wind, if that's your thing

**my actual experience did not involve a crash, for the record, but my 911 dialogue sounds better with one in there 


  1. You're more mature than me. Happy holidays to you and your family.

  2. And that's just it. Whatever our responses, heated or not, we'll never know the impact we can make...or not. I go through the same mental gymnastics...and, inevitably don't say anything.

  3. Take a cleansing breath. Stop, and then respond. Always a good policy.

  4. This is always tough. I've been on silent mode for a while because real conversation rarely seems possible. I like Steve A's comment but I would change "respond" to "Ride On."


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