If some idiot from the South tried to be polite, the system broke down

Friday, February 1st, 2019

As you travel the world, some of the local rules you can look up or read about, but often the rules are just assumed because “everyone” knows them:

I described an experience of mine in Erlangen, Germany, in an earlier column, where I didn’t know about the practice of collecting a deposit on shopping carts. No one told me about this, and I thought I recognized the context of “grocery store” as familiar, one where I knew the rules. But I didn’t.

I had another experience in Germany, one that made me think of the importance of what Hayek called “the particular circumstances of time and place.” Erlangen, where I taught at Friedrich Alexander University, is a city of bicycles. There are roads, but most are narrow and there are so many bikes that it can be frustrating to drive.

The bike riders, as is true in many American cities, paid little attention to the traffic lights. Often, there were so many bikes that it was not possible to cross the street without getting in the way. But I noticed that people did cross, just walking right out into the street.

I tried this, several times, in my first time in Erlangen. But being from the southern United States, I’m polite and deferential. So, I would start across the street, but then look up the street, and if a bike was close and coming fast I’d stop.

And get hit by a large, sturdy German on a large, sturdy German bicycle. And then I got yelled at, in German. What had I done wrong? Eventually, I figured it out: there had evolved a convention for crossing the street and for riding bicycles. The pedestrian simply walked at a constant speed, without even looking. The bicyclist would ride directly at the pedestrian, actually aiming at the spot where the pedestrian was at that point in time. Since the pedestrian kept moving in a predictable fashion, the cyclist would pass directly and safely behind the pedestrian.

If some idiot from the southern United States, in an effort to impose his own views of “polite” behavior on people whose evolved rules were different, tried to be polite and stop, the system broke down. Though that idiot (me) was stopping to avoid being hit, I was actually being rude by violating the rules. These rules were not written down and could not easily be changed.

In fact, a number of my German colleagues even denied that it was a rule, at first. But then they would say, “Well, right, you can’t stop. That would be dumb. So, okay, I guess it is a rule, after all.”

More precisely, this rule — like many other important rules you encounter in “foreign” settings — is really a convention. A convention, according to Lewis (1969), is a persistent (though not necessarily permanent) regularity in the resolution of recurring coordination problems, in situations characterized by recurrent interactions where outcomes are (inter)dependent.

Conventions, then, exist when people all agree on a rule of behavior, even if no one ever said the rule out loud or wrote it down. No one actor can choose an outcome, and no actor can challenge the regularity by unilaterally deviating from the conventional behavior. But deviation can result in substantial harm, as when someone tries to drive on the left in a country where “we” drive on the right, or social sanction, as when there is intentional punishment on behalf of other actors if deviation is observed and publicized.

According to David Hume, convention is

a general sense of common interest; which sense all the members of the society express to one another, and which induces them to regulate their conduct by certain rules. I observe that it will be to my interest [e.g.] to leave another in the possession of his goods, provided he will act in the same manner with regard to me. When this common sense of interest is mutually expressed and is known to both, it produces a suitable resolution and behavior. And this may properly enough be called a convention or agreement betwixt us, though without the interposition of a promise; since the actions of each of us have a reference to those of the other, and are performed upon the supposition that something is to be performed on the other part. (Hume, 1978; llI.ii.2)

Notice how different this is from the “gamer” conception of laws and rules. For the gamer, all the rules can be — in fact, must be — written down and can be examined and rearranged. For the world traveler, the experience of finding out the rules can involve trial and error, and even the natives likely do not fully understand that the rules and norms of their culture are unique.

One of my favorite examples is actually from the United States, the so-called Pittsburgh Left Turn. In an article in the Pittsburgh City Paper in 2006, Chris Potter wrote:

As longtime residents know, the Pittsburgh Left takes place when two or more cars — one planning to go straight, and the other to turn left — face off at a red light without a “left-turn only” lane or signal. The Pittsburgh Left occurs when the light turns green, and the driver turning left takes the turn without yielding to the oncoming car.

Pittsburgh is an old city, many of whose streets were designed before automobiles held sway. [That means] that street grids are constricted, with little room for amenities like left-turn-only lanes. The absence of such lanes means drivers have to solve traffic problems on their own. Instead of letting one car at the head of an intersection bottle up traffic behind it, the Pittsburgh Left gives the turning driver a chance to get out of everyone else’s way. In exchange for a few seconds of patience, the Pittsburgh Left allows traffic in both directions to move smoothly for the duration of the signal. Of course, the system only works if both drivers know about it. No doubt that’s why newcomers find it so vexing.

The Pittsburgh Left is a very efficient convention. On two-lane streets, turning left can block traffic as the turning car waits for an opening. And left-turn arrows are expensive and add time to each traffic light cycle. Far better to let the left turners — if there are any — go first. If there are no left turners, traffic just proceeds normally, not waiting on a left arrow.

Of course, if some idiot from the southern United States (yes, me again) is driving in Pittsburgh, that person expects to go when the light turns green. I blew my horn when two cars turned left in front of me. And people on the sidewalk yelled at me, as did the left-turning drivers. Once again, I didn’t know the rules, because I was a foreigner, at least in terms of the rules of the road in Pittsburgh.

Actually, it’s worse than that. The Pittsburgh Left is technically illegal, according to the Pennsylvania Driver’s Handbook (p. 47): “Drivers turning left must yield to oncoming vehicles going straight ahead.” The written rules, the gamer rules, appear to endorse one pattern of action. But the actual rules, the ones you have to travel around to learn, may be quite different. Real rules are not written down, and the people living in that rule system may not understand either the nature or effects of the rules. It is very difficult to change conventions, because they represent the expectations people have developed in dealing with each other over years or decades.

Hayek understood this clearly, and argued for what I have called the “world traveler” conception over what I have called the “gamer” conception of rules and laws. As Hayek said in 1988, in The Fatal Conceit:

To understand our civilisation, one must appreciate that the extended order resulted not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices, many of which men tend to dislike, whose significance they usually fail to understand, whose validity they cannot prove, and which have nonetheless fairly rapidly spread by means of an evolutionary selection — the comparative increase of population and wealth — of those groups that happened to follow them.… This process is perhaps the least appreciated facet of human evolution.


  1. Graham says:

    These little things play a huge role, and most of us both implicitly understand their impact and yet fail to be consciously aware of them.

    They apply even when the distance of space or time or culture isn’t necessarily that large — as between neighbourhoods or across a city or between two broadly similar cities, as the Pittsburgh Left indicates. Once you get to state/province or country/country, even quite similar countries, many bets are off. Not all, but many.

    I grew up in Ontario with two British born parents and my upbringing had some British elements, not by design but habit. Still found Britain quite dissimilar. Adjustable, but dissimilar.

  2. Kirk says:

    There’s a lot more embedded in the unspoken and unconscious array of how humans interact than we’d first think, but the hidden depths are still lurking there for one to drown in.

    We tend to assume that everything is written down, somewhere, but it really isn’t. Think about your daily life–How much would you actually bother to write down? What specific causes are there, what choices did you make, to create your daily routine? The everyday ritual observances we make, derived from God alone knows what inputs we had, earlier in life.

    Friend of mine does a full walk-around of his car, checking for anything unexpected. He can’t get into the thing, without first walking around it, and looking underneath it. He parks his car where he can do that without having to get on his knees, when he can, and he’ll walk a half-mile to park in a spot where he can do that. He won’t let you go near the car until he does that, especially his wife and kids.

    Why? Because he’s looking for the signs of a planted car bomb, from forty years ago in Northern Ireland. You observe him doing this, you think “Oh, that’s a nervous tic, a ritual…”. But, it’s not–There are roots to it, and reasons.

    Chesterton’s Law about the removal of fences applies here. And, there ought to be a corollary stated, that goes to the effect that there’s generally no behavioral pattern without an underlying cause, however remote and obscure.

  3. gaikokumaniakku says:

    Evolution built humans with an amazing faculty for imitation. Mostly humans imitate the behavior of other humans. This imitation is pervasive = we can barely see it because we are immersed in it.

    Two advantages of written rules are 1) they facilitate debugging; and 2) they can sometimes be learned very quickly just by reading, without embodied interaction. You can read and imagine how to interact with the system without taking risks.

    The “foreign traveler” rules take a long time to learn, and require embodied interaction. You must risk getting hurt by the system while you interact with it, and for a long time, you must labor in a state of ignorance.

  4. Kirk says:

    I think there’s something to be said for the idea that literacy and the written law has forced a major change on human relations that didn’t exist before their advent.

    Think of the situation that a paleolithic hunter-gatherer was in: No hard-and-fast rules, nothing written down. You did what you wanted to, circumscribed only by the customs and relations in your tribe. A “people-blind” person, one we’d characterize as autistic, unable to “read” people in the “now”? They’d be at an incredible disadvantage, and unlikely to survive.

    So… The written word and the codification of custom into law was, I would suggest, highly conducive to the autistic sorts that innovate and build new things. Hell, “the law” and writing were probably concepts one of them thought up because they were tired of having to learn the rules, only for the “consensus reality” of the verbal world change on them…

    And, considering that much of our civilization was built by such people, is it any wonder it took us this long to get where we are?

    In my darker moments, I sometimes find myself wondering if the socially “ept” people like the Kardashians are actually the human norm, and it’s the ones who build and keep civilization going that are the actual aberrations.

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