Different /= Lesser

I travel a lot, and the more I travel the more I become convinced that making fun of people is stupid. I still do it, because sometimes you just can’t help yourself, but I try to only do it when I have the right context. It’s kind of like my post about accents: I talk differently from you because we come from different regions and backgrounds, yet we both assume that the differences come because the other person is dumb or uneducated. It’s my theory that most things in life are like this: When people do things you think are stupid, it’s probably something totally normal where they come from, and they think you’re the stupid one.

Let’s take driving as an example, because over the past two months I’ve had the chance to drive through a ton of different states of the US. Many people think Utah is full of horrible drivers, but this has never been my experience: I can always get where I want to go, in the time I expect it to take, and I rarely ever feel frustrated or endangered by the bad drivers so many people claim to see. Are am I wrong? Are all those other people wrong? I think the truer, more meaningful interpretation is that people in Utah drive the way I expect them to, so I think they drive well; I know how to drive in Utah because I’ve done it all my life. People who come in from out of state (and with two large universities in a relatively small valley, my area has a LOT of people from out of state) don’t have that background, and expect people to drive in a different way, so they think Utah drivers are “bad” when what they really mean is “different from me.”

Consider, for example, California. I drive through there quite a bit when I’m tour, and when I’m visiting friends and family, and every time I do I get frustrated with people who drive in the left lane so I can’t get around them. Don’t these people know how to use the passing lane? They’re such horrible drivers! But the more I drive there, the more I realize that they do know how to use the passing lane, they just use it differently than I do. They’re using it correctly based on their own subculture.

The midwest is another example. As I drove to Columbus a few weeks I noticed something weird when I got to Indiana, and then the trend continued in Ohio: people were tailgating me, and I mean hardcore. They would come up really close behind me, and in Utah that means “I want to go around you,” so I’d pull over to let them by and then…they’d pull over as well, staying really close behind me. This drove me up the wall, and I started to shout about how they were all such horrible drivers and nobody in the Ohio knew how to drive, but then I realized that this was silly–everyone was getting where they needed to go, and no one was crashing into anyone else, so they obviously knew what they were doing, they were just doing it differently than I expected. They have, so to speak, a smaller bubble of personal driving space than I’m accustomed to in Utah. I asked a few friends from Ohio about it, and they said “oh yeah, that’s really common here–if you get in close behind someone you can either draft them and improve your mileage, or you can speed and let the cops pull them over instead.” Once I understood the new rules and customs of Ohio driving, my driving experience improved greatly, and I realized that Ohio drivers are actually very careful and polite–you just have to know what’s going on.

Of course, when I asked a friend from LA about California driving customs, he laughed and said “no, we’re all horrible drivers,” so maybe my theory falls apart.

Now, keep in mind that this theory still has ample room for stupidity: you can’t explain every dumb thing somebody does just by background, because sometimes people do dumb things even within their own context. Utahns have no idea how to use a roundabout, because up until a few years ago we really didn’t have any, and that’s fine; we’ll figure it out eventually. On the other hand, Utahns also don’t have any idea how to use a four-way stop, and there’s really no excuse for that because we’ve had four-way stops forever. There’s no magical local customs you can learn for getting through a Utah four-way stop, it’s just a mess no matter where you’re from.

So I suppose, in the end, my point is that different people are different, and that doesn’t make them bad. Beyond that, I suppose my auxiliary point is the completely non-revolutionary idea that traveling makes you more accepting of other people’s differences, which is a good reason for everyone to travel as much as possible. See how other people live, and realize that despite being different from you they’re completely happy with the way things are, and you’ll start to see the world in a new way. It’s kind of frightening, actually, but ultimately makes the world a much more awesome place.

20 Responses to “Different /= Lesser”

  1. There is a great anthropology movie filmed 20-30 years ago. It shows two tribes in Africa and how they interact. By the time you’re done watching the 10 minute clip you think, “they’re all crazy.” Then the film backs up, shows you the same footage, but explains what is happening. By the time you’re through watching this second part, their actions make sense.

    Our anthropology professor told us that we shouldn’t use the phrase weird; she instead suggested the word different, just as you mention.

  2. Bryce says:

    Hmm . . . I’m going to have to disagree with you on parts of this one, mainly because I think that when it comes to driving, there’s such a thing as good and bad. Is it good to stay parked in the fast lane, driving 40 in a 65 zone? No. Is it good to stay even with the car next to you for mile after mile, effectively blocking off the road for anyone else? No. Is it good to drive 80 in a blizzard, just because you’re in an SUV? No. Is it good to swerve in and out of traffic? No. Is it good to cut people off and not let other people in? No.

    All of these things are bad. Some are unsafe, some are just plain irritating, but I think you could do a statistical analysis of an area’s driving patterns and come up with a fact-based statement along the lines of “________ drivers are worse than __________ drivers.” Now, whether or not Utah would be worse than, say, Maine, is up for debate. When most people say things like “Utah drivers are terrible,” they’re using arbitrary, personal, anecdotal evidence along the lines of “I’ve seen a lot of bad driving in Utah. More bad driving than in my home state.” But they likely are more victims of a confirmation bias–they stop seeing all the examples of good Utah drivers and only focus on the bad ones. Each bad driver is just a confirmation of their hypothesis and adds to their list of evidence. Meanwhile, they happily ignore all the good driving they see every day.

    That said, Utah has terrible drivers. :-)

  3. Steve D says:

    Yeah…I’m with Bryce on this one. And for some reason the thought of a statistical study of driver quality per state gets me excited. Must be because I stare at spreadsheets all day.

    I do get what you are saying though, Dan. There ARE certain things that are regional that follow your “different /= lesser” theory. But man, sometimes bad is just bad. Coming from California, my opinion is that Utah drivers are bad in several aspects (and perfectly acceptable in others). I commuted 80 miles a day for a year and a half here in Utah, and have seen things that no amount of “region specificity” can explain away. It was the same in California. Bad is bad is bad.

    Of course, none of this even remotely holds a candle to drivers in Mexico City. Good heavens. I still have nightmares about that…I am not even joking.

  4. admin says:

    See, you’re pointing out the classic Utah examples, but I just don’t see them. With the exception of the snow, actually, Bryce’s description sounds more like California to me than Utah. When I’m in Utah I rarely ever feel like someone’s going too slow in the fast lane, but when I’m in California I feel like I can never get away from it. I grant your point about empirically unsafe driving, and obviously I’m not trying to say that every driver in every region is great. But I really believe that a lot of the things people complain about in any given region are based primarily on alternate expectations.

  5. Steve D says:

    No doubt a lot of it boils down to being accustomed to a certain manner of driving, but most of Bryce’s descriptions (other than the fast-lane driving) are things I see all the time here in Utah that I didn’t see in California at all. Or Colorado. Or Idaho. Your thought that different /= lesser may be true for a large variety of things, but likewise “familiar /= acceptable” is also true. Just because I am used to people’s inability to merge with any measure of regularity, and just because I have grown accustomed to dealing with it, doesn’t mean it still isn’t bad.

  6. admin says:

    You guys got me intrigued, so I looked around for some reliable accident stats and found this: motor vehicle crash statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

    http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/departments/nrd-30/ncsa/stsi/usa%20web%20report.htm

    I haven’t even looked at the numbers yet, so I’m encountering the info at the same time you are. Let’s look at Utah first:

    http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/departments/nrd-30/ncsa/stsi/49_UT/2009/49_UT_2009.htm

    I kind of wish there was something about accidents in general, but it looks like all this covers is fatalities. Fatalities per 100 Million Vehicle Miles Driven sounds like a good way to compare the vastly different population sizes, though. In Utah, in 2008, it was 1.06.

    Now California: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/departments/nrd-30/ncsa/stsi/6_CA/2009/6_CA_2009.htm
    Their ratio comes out to 1.05, so very similar but they do have us beat.

    Now Colorado, which I don’t actually hate but which I get endless amusement from pretending to hate: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/departments/nrd-30/ncsa/stsi/8_CO/2009/8_CO_2009.htm
    Their ratio is 1.15, which justifies in part my imaginary hatred. Take that, Denver.

    How about Ohio, since I mentioned them in the article: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/departments/nrd-30/ncsa/stsi/39_OH/2009/39_OH_2009.htm
    Their ratio is 1.10, probably because of all the scary tailgating.

    Now Maine, where Bryce lives: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/departments/nrd-30/ncsa/stsi/23_ME/2009/23_ME_2009.htm
    They’re at 1.06, identical to Utah.

    And now, because I’m curious, New York: http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/departments/nrd-30/ncsa/stsi/36_NY/2009/36_NY_2009.htm
    Oh wow, 0.92. They blow us away.

    What I really want is a page that ranks the states, so I don’t have to build my own spreadsheet to see which state is worst and best and average and so on. Can anyone find that on this site?

  7. Allison Hill says:

    I’ll tell you exactly why Ohio has a higher number. It is because of the native Ohioan’s complete lack of ability to remember or prepare for inclement weather or traffic congestion. Every rain or snowstorm, every rush hour, every CLOUD brings on a state of panic that sends people stampeding into stores to buy water and toilet paper.

    Your post interests me though, when I first moved here someone made fun of me for accelerating so quickly on freeway entrances. I thought about it and realized that on I-15 and I-80 in SLC the on ramps are very very short, sometimes up a big hill, and even accompanied by the need to quickly change 4 lanes before you are sent to the other side of the world. But in Columbus you have sometimes nearly 1/2 mile to get up to speed and almost always downhill. Now send those people to SLC and see if they can get on I-80 at 7th east. Not likely.

    Another interesting subject on the same lines are various region’s attitudes toward reasonable distances. How far is too far to drive to work? the movie theatre? stores?

  8. Titus says:

    I learned to drive in Utah, and always found that California drivers were basically the same as Utah drivers but in higher concentration. What happens when you put a bunch of people who aren’t used to dealing with traffic in one of the most populous cities in the nation? Los Angeles.

    Living in Baltimore, the drivers are much easier to deal with. Most of them grew up in a city and know how to drive in one (and therefore outside of one). They know the secret trick of driving: paying attention.

    Basically, most bad drivers just aren’t giving driving the priority it deserves. It is more important than conversation, food, makeup, scenery, and other thoughts. None of these other things (usually) cause deaths when they’re neglected for a few minutes.

    Does car drafting actually work at 65/75mph? It seems like the following distance required to get any benefit would be very dangerous. Also, police can pull people over for dangerous following distances. Wouldn’t a police officer ticket the tailgater in a pair of vehicles speeding by 15mph due to the extra infraction?

  9. Rob Wells says:

    I’m glad you have some stats, because I really think that most claims that “X state has the worst drivers” can be chalked up to confirmation bias. We might only run into one or two really crappy driver during an entire commute–so, one or two cars out of thousands–but if we spend five minutes stuck behind them, then that one car is the only one we remember; we ignore the thousands that were driving perfectly fine.

    Personally, when someone freaks about an entire area’s drivers–when they claim that it’s more systemic than individual–I think that says more about the complainer than it does about the drivers.

  10. Steve D says:

    OK Rob, you’re right. Not ALL Utah drivers suck. Just you. Actually I kid. I found you to be quite the safe driver.

  11. Cyhyraeth says:

    I live in a small rural town that’s got its fair share of creative drivers (to put it politely). What I find hillarious is when we take a cross-country road trip, and can accurately guess the driver’s province of origin by their driving habits alone without ever getting close enough to see the licence plate.

  12. Allison Hill says:

    I have always found Rob to be a disturbingly safe driver as well. Disturbing because he drives like a maniac yet somehow you never get worried until you get out of the car and think about it.

  13. erisian23 says:

    being from utah originally, i have a bit of insight i could share.
    essentially it is that people acclimatize to the drivers around them.

    utah drivers are not bad, if you are used to being around them. you grow to understand norms and standards that cue you to take certain risks and eschew certain situations.

    in oregon, those norms are completely different. when i moved to PDX, they were all bat-shit crazy. a decade later, they are the norm. i know the local quirks.. but it is now obvious when a non-local or recent transplant is on the road with the rest of us.

    on the same thought, when i go home to visit and those “crazy utah drivers” try to run me down in a crosswalk, it is a bit of a culture shock. i had forgotten the cues.

    essentially parroting what Marion J, Bryce, and Steve D have already stated, but..

  14. Rob Wells says:

    Allison, I don’t think you’ve driven with me for a long time. Pretty much from the time Holly was born (8 years ago) I permanently gave up speeding (well, more than about 5 over).

  15. Now you know why Ohio has the most accredited Emergency Medical Services Training schools and the highest numbers of EMTS in the country. Most of us here in Ohio have a hard time with our city of columbus, not to mention Cleveland and Cinncinati… I am a native and I don’t think your first reaction was wrong… I just think most Ohioans are actually wreckless. But I appriciate your effort at understanding :)

  16. Rory Connelly says:

    By the way … I went to buy another copy of your book today… you were sold out, and the supplier for my bookstore said they were back ordered… very popular in ohio… don’t worry, I told her to order it anyway

  17. Allison Hill says:

    Rob, ah but the memory lingers…

  18. Spudd86 says:

    @Titus Yes, you can measurably gain fuel mileage by drafting at freeway speeds, however this doesn’t actually mean USEFUL mileage gains… but you can measure them :P (This is from Mythbusters, they tested drafting behind a semi, and found that you can measure it at somewhat reasonable distances (still to close for the driver of the truck to see you, but not totally insane either))

    I think that it’s pretty much universally recommended that you should leave between 1 and 3 car lengths of space depending on speed… and if you’re not doing that it doesn’t really matter where you’re from it’s still a bad idea.

  19. fardawg says:

    It isn’t Ohioans that are bad drivers, it’s the crazy city folk. When we were in Washington last year some crazy woman actually tried to force us off the road after her attempt to force her way in between us and the car we had to follow failed. It was the same in Richmond Virginia. You let one car length between you and the lead car and they try to push their way in. And as for bad weather? I don’t know where you were in Ohio Allison, but in the north east we make fun of out of staters freaking out over a little rain or snow and crashing constantly. When we came back from NC it wasn’t until we got closer to OH that people began driving sanely.

  20. fardawg says:

    That said, there are nuts in every state. It probably depends on what road and what time of day.

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