William Safire’s “On Language” column in the NY Times Magazine this week reports the returns of a reader survey on how best to express thanks when driving. Not surprisingly, the plurality of readers (23 percent) indicated that “The Wave” was their preferred form of thanks. Frankly, I’m surprised that percentage wasn’t even higher given the fact that I don’t know anyone who does any thank you signal besides the simple wave (and I’m pretty much shocked that multiple people listed the Namaste as a viable option).
What would be a more interesting survey question is how drivers apologize in the car. Is there any substantial agreement on how to signal that you’re sorry after you just cut someone off? I don’t think there is. Let’s look at some options for signaling “I’m sorry” while driving:
- In the rare case that I make such a driving transgression that requires an apology, I generally remove my right hand from the steering wheel and then wave/shake it frantically while simultaneously raising my eyebrows. This is my natural reaction but unfortunately it seems to give off more of a “Don’t kill me” vibe than an “I’m sorry” vibe.
- Another option is to remove both hands from the steering wheel and put them up in the air, as you would if the police were confronting you. This is a bit closer to “I’m sorry” since it is generally a signal of concession. However, removing both hands from the steering wheel may be dangerous enough to lead to another transgression that requires another apology. This could lead to a continuous and detrimental cycle.
- Perhaps the most direct option is an electronic “I’m sorry” sign just above the rear license plate. If you make a faux pas and cut someone off, just press a button on the steering wheel, lighting up the “I’m sorry” sign. It’s not dangerous and very direct. The problem, I think, is that it’s too low in cost. It is so easy to do that the driver you cut off likely won’t take it as a meaningful apology (“He could have at least done the frantic shaking of the right hand!”). In fact, the sign might encourage risky driving behavior since drivers know ahead of time that they could easily signal apology with a click of a button. Not to mention the potential ugliness of such a sign.
Can anyone offer a better option?