Navigating Busy Streets

Years ago, my wife and I visited Chicago. Chicago in the summer is one of my favorite places. One reason for my love is the ease of getting around via the Metra rail system. You can’t go everywhere on the train, but if you are willing to walk, you can travel throughout the city easily. On this particular visit, however, there was a time when we had to take a cab. Taxis are common in tourist areas.

Moments after stepping into the cab, I got scared. I thought we were going to get in a wreck. I was on the edge of the seat, using my foot to push an imaginary brake pedal as I saw the driver swing out in front of cars. After the first near miss, I told the driver we weren’t in any hurry. That comment did not slow him down. The next time I believed an accident was imminent, I gave the driver a warning about the car I was sure would hit us, but nothing happened. By the time we reached our destination, I was shaken up, but the driver swerved out into traffic once again and sped quickly away.

After I calmed down a bit, I realized what happened. You see, when I drive, I make decisions based solely on my actions and predict that conditions will basically remain the same. Actually, I often assume the worst, and make my choices based on predictions that the other drivers will act badly: they won’t stop at the light, they will pull out in front of me, they won’t be able to stop fast enough if they are tailgating. The taxi driver, however, interacted with the other drivers. He made ongoing predictions about how other drivers would react to the actions he took. He assumed if he stuck the nose of his car out into the other lane the drivers would slow down to let his car in. He judged people’s reactions and adjusted what he was doing. If he saw that the traffic was backed up, he knew could drive through a light that had already changed from yellow to red. He did a taxi dance with many partners in the busy city traffic.

The driver had undoubtedly been driving a cab for years without an accident. He probably had no idea why I worried I would be stuck in the back of his cab waiting for the police to arrive to the scene of an accident he caused. He was a skillful driver. He could not afford to wait for an opening on Chicago’s busy streets. Time is money. He had to be aggressive. His skill came from knowing how to interact with other drivers. He understood how his actions would modify the actions of others and he adjusted to how others were driving.

Skillful communicators are like the taxi driver. They see communication as an ongiong exchange where what people say and do affect what others will say and do. In a way, they negotiate during their interactions to create meaning. Less skillful communicators are more like me, the passenger in the cab. Less skilled communicators think only that what they themselves say and do counts. The other person merely reacts, either understanding their messages or not. Sure, these weaker communicators react to feedback, but they are not fully aware that meaning is jointly constructed. In the taxi driver model, the feedback both parties receive is continuous in face-to-face situations and shapes the messages as they are sent. It’s not action then reaction (or message then response) resulting in another action followed by a reaction. It’s simultaneous mutual influence affecting what ends up being said by both parties.

Thinking about communication as the taxi driver thought about driving is a little scary because we lose our sense of control over the messages we are creating. We really don’t know what meanings will be constructed when we communicate. The outcome is always uncertain. We think we are in the driver’s seat, but how we get to the destination depends the roads, the traffic control devices, the rules of the road, the weather, and most importantly, our interactions with other drivers.

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