“behaviour that is respectful and considerate of other people; the practical application of good manners.”
As you drive into Frome, the small town were I live in southern England, you will come across an intersection I have taken the liberty of naming The Intersection of Politeness. To locals it makes complete sense and epitomises the generous, compassionate nature of the town. Visitors however likely call it The Intersection of Oh Shit Have I Paid My Car Insurance. It has no roundabout, no stop sign, no lights; it simply relies on the great British tradition of over-politeness. It is my morning entertainment and my morning coffee; the moment I truly wake up on my drive to work, smiling and wondering who will turn into the oncoming traffic first, them or me.
It has started me thinking about politeness, and over-politeness, and the need for direct eye contact.
A little bit of explanation. As Bath Road heads down a hill towards the town centre, you can choose to turn right into Welshmill Road, usually a straight-forward driving scenario. At other similar intersections if you were turning right you would give way to the cars driving straight ahead in the opposite direction, waiting for a gap in traffic so you could turn right, right? And, if you were turning out of Welshmill, you would give way to all overs on Bath Road, waiting your turn in simple T-intersection-rule fashion. Right?
No, incorrect. This is not the way to function at the Intersection of Politeness.
You see, the thing is, traffic is so heavy (by Somerset standards), and the people so generously polite, they don’t want to leave you sitting there in the intersection for too long, blocking up the street. People turning right into Welshmill sometimes sit and flash their flights at those turning right out of Welshmill, indicating for them to go first. People minding their own business driving straight up from town sometimes flash their lights at those waiting to turn in front of them to go right into Welshmill, indicating for them to go first. And sometimes, people flash back at those who are flashing at them, in a ever-increasingly-confusing-handball-of-politeness, resulting in nobody really knowing who is going first, or what the traditional rule was to begin with. I am starting to lose all sense of traditional road rules, like my muscle memory for driving has become irreversibly confused and can’t find its way to the indicator lever. Once I saw three cars all turning simultaneously at the “wrong” time, weaving between each other, musically avoiding a build up of cars amongst three sets of flashing headlights.
It’s incredibly dangerous and incredibly beautiful. It requires a consideration of your fellow drivers which is unprecedented, and you have no choice but to join the game, simultaneously increasing your own generosity and consideration of others. Every flash of a headlight is like a gentle voice whispering “oh no, please, you go first, I insist”.
Once, confused and not yet properly awake, I accidently backed into the car behind me. The woman behind saw that I had been waved on through, yet I lost my nerve and as she crept forward I rolled back to wait “my real turn”. Of course, I jumped out of my car to apologise and check for any damage. She remained in her car, and as I approached her window, she rolled it down and from under dread-locked purple hair she waved me away with a smile and a “don’t worry about it”. Like flashing her headlights at me through her kind eyes. I drove away and checked my own bumper for damage later, somewhat confused about who had even been at fault there.
A great deal has been written about the great British etiquette of politeness. If you are from a straight-talking country as myself this can sometimes take some adjusting. A week after moving to London, my friend’s Facebook status pleaded: “Say what you mean London!” – a frustration understood by expats grappling with situations when politeness progresses into over-politeness. Perhaps we Australians are a lot more rule-orientated than we like to believe. We like to know that all the players on a field know the game plan and will turn right at a T-intersection when it is their turn, regardless if they sit at that intersection for half an hour with nobody letting them in, barking obscenities at the rude thoughtless others creating “all this bloody traffic”. When left without the rule book we sometimes are also left without our manners.
But the rulebook here is manners.
There is some noise within the local community to fix the intersection. I understand the safety aspect, but I don’t really want it to change.
The Intersection of Politeness is my daily experience of kindness, when someone lets me go first. It is my daily reminder to be generous, when I choose to let another person go first. It encourages me to pay attention to eye contact and to read situations beyond the rules, to make judgements about what is fair and reasonable, regardless of what “should” happen. It is my practical application of good manners; my chance to be quintessentially British without the need to open my mouth to speak. Mostly, it is my morning entertainment and my morning coffee; the moment I truly wake up.