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road sage

As a species, we spend a significant portion of our brief lives in transit. As a result, there is a universal truth: How we move reveals who we are. It is not only the mode we take, however, that reveals our character; it’s the manner in which we travel. We’ve changed as a species. You don’t need to look further than the passenger seat in an automobile or a subway car to see how.

There was a time, for instance, when a person would attract attention, concern and even suspicion if they sat on a bus talking loudly to themselves, addressing an invisible acquaintance. This is no longer the case. One-sided conversations such as this are the norm.

There was a time when, if a passenger got into a taxi and then proceeded to stare intently at his hand, never removing his gaze or even acknowledging that there was another human present, that this behaviour would have alarmed his driver.

Today, the opposite is true.

I noticed this phenomenon recently, after quitting social media. I left for the usual reasons. I was disgusted by what it brought out in others and even more by what it brought out in me. Twitter is a like a Speedo; it doesn’t look good on men over 50. So when I took taxis, instead of burying my head in my Twitter feed, I looked out the window. Each time, I began to notice the drivers staring at me intently through the rear-view mirror.

I could see their imaginations working: Who is this maniac? What kind of person gets in a taxi and LOOKS OUT THE WINDOW? Should I call 911?

Delmaine Donson/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

That’s right, all you have to do to unintentionally freak out a taxi or Uber driver is get in the back seat, say hello and then stare out the window for the remainder of your journey. The longer the trip, the stranger you will seem. By the end of your ride, your driver will consider you so odd and mysterious that he will be convinced he picked up the Great Sphinx.

To be fair, the older the driver, the less surprised they act. These folks tend to either ignore me or engage in chat. I arrive at my destination having learned something new – the name of a restaurant I should try, or the backstory of another real human being.

But hey, it’s still a head-down world, whether in a restaurant, the classroom, the bedroom or in transit.

Automobile etiquette has never been terrific. People do things on the road they would never even dream of doing on the sidewalk, but the interior of the car, at least, was always a realm of cordiality. When you went on a road trip or carpooled, you expected your passengers to be good-natured and engage in conversation. Passengers were expected to keep their hands off the controls and stay away from the glove box. Feet-on-the-dashboard privileges (though not advised) were restricted to intimate acquaintances and family members. Not that long ago, cars were one of the few places parents could talk to their teens. You were both facing forward with nothing to do, so talk would eventually ensue.

It was like that in the early days of motoring. “’Automobile etiquette is simply common kindness sprinkled through the ordinary routine of the social usages in other forms of entertainment,” observed Kate Burr in the Buffalo Times in 1916. “Perhaps a little more latitude is allowed the ‘guest of the road’ than the indoor guest, but rudeness or boorishness – never.”

It’s hard to believe that a mere 10 years ago, people debated whether conversations with passengers were more distracting than cellphone conversations. “There is something uniquely distracting about talking on the phone when you’re behind the wheel,” Tara Parker-Pope wrote in 2008 in The New York Times. “Conversations with people inside the car are far less distracting to drivers. Unlike cellphone callers, chatty passengers instinctively stop talking when driving conditions change, and they offer an extra set of eyes to alert drivers to nearly missed exits or erratic drivers.”

Well, they used to. Now everyone, the driver included, just stares at their mobile phones.

Of course, there are holdouts. You can still see drivers and passengers conversing without the aid of their mobile devices. But they now seem to be the exception, not the rule.

In the 21st century, the best way to stand out is to sit down and gaze out the window.

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