Is a traffic jam a tribe?

Is a traffic jam a tribe?

For many the commute to and from work is a daily ritual. I don’t just mean this in the slang ‘repetitive waste of time’ sense of the word either. It’s also true in a very primordial, tribal sense.

Think of it like this: driving to work is like going on a mammoth hunt. It’s you and your workforce kin, side by side, going in to fulfill your societal responsibility. It’s a nomadic movement you engage in daily in order to sustain the survival of yourself, your family, or your position within a social network. But unlike the epic odysseys and pilgrimages of yesteryear, the modern commute is a journey essentially stripped of any physical effort, human interaction, romance or adventure.

Oddly enough because of this, the commute isn’t really a journey at all. I’d argue it’s more a necessary psychological transition from one state of mind (home/rest) to another (work/action). It’s more mental than it is physical, and it’s in this sense that it comports more closely onto the profile of a ritual than of a journey.

In 1909 a popular French ethnographer called Arnold van Gennep described the ritual as a cluster of symbolic activity which passes through 3 distinct stages; separation, liminality, return. The first and last stages are easy enough to understand; separation is the act of bringing novitiates into a special or somehow separate time and space. This could be anything from wearing ceremonial clothing, depriving a sense, using a different language, or entering a sacred building. Likewise, return is the informing of this group of their new responsibilities and the areas of culture they’ve (re)gained access to.

You can sort of see this with the commute. As soon as the engine is turned on until the moment it turns off we enter a different mindset. Suddenly our sense of space shrinks down to our dashboard, blind spots, a small radius around our metal box, and a loose awareness of Point B and the fog of war between. Also, our sense of time becomes remarkably teleological, or in other words, it’s funneled toward a very definitive endpoint. When driving we slip into a sort of spatio-temporal tunnel vision, and when we arrive at our destination (be it work or home) we’re greeted with a new set of duties and priorities.

The Ritual Process

But so far that’s nothing really special and could apply to anything; it’s the second stage of liminality which is most interesting.

During a rite of passage, Van Gennep saw liminality as a central period of disassociation where everything hangs in the balance. The past is left, the future has not yet arrived; relationships are tossed around and cultural symbols are used unconventionally. Identities invert and disappear. Consider how a wedding couple will stand alongside the priest at a pulpit, or how graduands briefly share the stage with faculty. Things are put in a new perspective as novitiates are brought to the edges of their culture, and once there, turning back, are able to see it at its maximal form. It’s kind of like the cultural equivalent of skydiving, or seeing Earth from space (AKA the Overview Effect). It’s through this vectorial passageway that we’re then able to enter into a new layer of social existence.

Intrigued by this idea of liminality, Victor Turner explored how this stage brings out a “generalized social bond”, or what he defined as ‘communitas’ in his 1969 book, The Ritual Process:

It is as though there are here two major “models” for human interrelated­ness, juxtaposed and alternating. The first is of society as a structured  differentiated, and often hierarchical system of politico-legal­ economic positions with many types of evaluation, separating men in terms of” more” or “less”. The second, which emerges recognizably in the liminal period, is of society as an unstructured or rudi­mentarily structured and relatively undifferentiated communitas, com­munity, or even communion of equal individuals who submit together to the general authority of the ritual elders.” (1995, p. 96)

I admit, this all sounds a bit artsy fartsy – it seems to suit the purposes of academics more than it accurately captures the messiness of human culture. But that said, there’s more than a kernel of truth to it, especially when considering the commute as a modern ritual.

For one, it’s no secret that we tend to become a different person behind the wheel. In a way we sort of surrender our sense of self as our vehicle and number plate become more important identifiers than our face and name. Expanding our peripersonal space in this way may make us more aware of our surroundings and sensitive toward possible threats against us and those in our immediate vicinity. This results in a double-layered form of a psychological phenomenon called deindividuation, where our individual identity is bound up in our vehicle first, and in the traffic flow second. We go with the flow by subconsciously mirroring the behaviour of others.

Ironically, it could be this misfiring of empathy which compels us to make bad collective decisions which only make the situation worse. This awesome site by Bill Beaty runs through a few reasons why. From invisible accidents, to unnecessary jams caused by the zipper phenomenon or rubbernecking; almost all of them can be linked with the tendency for us to copy the aggressive actions of the drivers around us. Although this behaviour seems intuitive because everyone else is doing it, the density of congested traffic caused by this method (to close gaps, creep, tailgate and be defensive) corresponds to the movement of particles in a gas→liquid state, as researched by Takashi Nagatani in his 2002 report The Physics of Traffic Jams. In a system where the less solid the better, this attitude is counterproductive.

Feedback loop

But there’s an even bigger hurdle preventing a roadside rendition of kumbayah, and that’s the language of the road itself.

Alongside personal disassociation, Turner recognises that a key part of the liminal stage is a language of symbols, shapes, colours and other abstract signifiers outside the regular realm of communication. Inside the car, our capacity for language is limited to a horn, indicators, brake lights, and the occasional hand gesture. Not prime tools for discussion, but then again that’s probably a good thing. Outside the car there’s arrows, signage, lane markers, pedestrian crossings, and as semiotician Stuart Hall notes, traffic lights – the epitome of this system:

Red and Green work in the language of traffic lights because ‘Stop’ and ‘Go’ are meanings which have been assigned to them in our culture by the code or conventions governing this language, and this code is widely known and almost universally obeyed in our culture and cultures like ours – though we can well imagine other cultures which do not possess the code, in which this language would be a complete mystery.” (1997, p. 26)

Everything on the road says “Go, go, go! Don’t stay here! Keep moving!”, and rightly so. It deliberately avoids connection and is set up for movement. It’s the necessary villain keeping us apart. Every now and then though the language breaks down and we get glimpses of the humanity lying underneath it all. A fire engine needs to get through, we all move to the side. There’s a power outage and we have to use co-operation and eye contact to decide when to cross an intersection. A driver flashes their lights to warn you about cops ahead. You get in a fender-bender and need to deal with an apologetic driver, or an angry one. Roadworks, courtesy waves, motorcyclist nods – there are genuine human moments when the spell of automatism is briefly broken and we’re forced to interact with the people around us. But for the most part this rarely happens.

Makin' love on the free-love freeway

Everywhere the commute in its current format is a ritual gone wrong where communitas actively works against us. It’s got all the potential; it’s a time where we’re suspended between two states of consciousness and engage in a symbolic language of codes and objects; it’s an effective dream state where our actions are fluid and collective, unfurling into an immediately repercussive narrative around us. And yet it’s more apt to say that the “roads are a nightmare”.

The modern commute is a profoundly time-consuming, anti-social experience, tantalisingly close to something salvageable yet stubbornly out of reach. There could be ways around it though. National Drive programs might help, but people are increasingly using their iPods on the road over radio. We could expand our hand gesture vocabulary, or carpool more. We could even get rid of roadsigns and traffic lights all together, as has been done in many cities with surprisingly positive results.

What do you think? How can we break the spell, let out our inner caveman and kindle that campfire?

Looking forward to seeing your suggestions and comments below.



113 thoughts on “Is a traffic jam a tribe?

  1. I for one have never put this much thought into my morning commute, but after reading this, I totally get what you’re saying. Cool concept, thinking of a traffic jam as a tribe. You are very sociological! I don’t know a whole lot about sociology, but I studied public relations, which involves thinking a lot about people groups, too, just from a little bit different perspective, I suppose. Anyway, very much enjoying your blog 🙂

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  3. In the first part of this post you captured most of the worlds routines. And I totally agree with what you say. I believe if we all had a better public transport system, with a nicer layout that was more pleasant to go on, quicker to get to than driving and did not have our youth destroying it at every chance, we would all be more social and in a better state of mind arriving at work as we would have probably had a conversation. Even a smile and hello can make someones day.

    • I might be in the minority on this one but I actually like graffiti on public transport/in general. I think it’s an interesting form of communication which breaks normal social protocols of where/when we can write/express ourselves. In that way it’s similar to starting up a conversation with a stranger on the train or bus.

      How do you think we could make public transport more conducive to conversation? Personally I’d like to see board games. Maybe Mortal Combat machines to play off with people in other carriages (for trains at least).

      • To make public transport more conducive to conversation we would really need a miracle. Call me a pessimistic but people now do not like to start casual conversations. With everyone owning smart phones/iPods/mp3 players, everyone just sits with their music in. Something even with a TV screen displaying news which would be a conversation starter. This just came to me, but something on the back off a ticket? It has something, I dunno what, maybe a phrase, star sign predictions, anything that you could strike a conversation with.

        In trains, if the government had the money…. A nice build in wii, where carriages could play off against each other would be awesome!

  4. I certainly become a different person behind the wheel. I start speaking loudly and rudely to everyone around me. Even though I know they can’t hear me, it makes me feel better.

  5. This captures a lot about our daily commutes that I’ve pondered quietly over the last couple years. I particularly agree that there is a redefinition of self upon entering a vehicle. It seems we relinquish our personhood to become a driver.
    Astute observations, thanks for the time you put into this.

  6. This is very well written. Great post!
    This, “we tend to become a different person behind the wheel,” explains why we see so many people singing at the top of their lungs in their vehicles, or, worse, picking their nose! 😀 (c’mon readers, you know you are all guilty of both…)

    On a serious note, I am an avid advocate of public transportation. Unfortunately, I live in a metro that has one line of public transport–a 60-minute ride from the gigantic shopping mall to the host of hotels & dining in the downtown metro, with an airport stop in between; please, take the time to consider what we want from people visiting our lovely city… 🙂
    But whenever I travel to Europe, I gain greater appreciation for the public transport. I have always felt public transport is a journey–you meet the craziest and most normal people, you are forced to interact with your neighbor, you have to physically overcome obstacles, and you gain a greater appreciation for the intricacies of state function (well, the last one is a stretch, but it’s what I get from it! :-)).
    Congrats on the FP!

    • Thanks! It’s the same story here in Sydney, anyone here will attest to the bad public transport infrastructure. It’s funny, the carriage is the journey itself, not so much the dead space being travelled between. Any memorable experiences/encounters travelling the trains in Europe?

  7. Ahhhhh I totally agree! I know that I act like the most impatient person in the world when it comes to waiting in traffic. But let’s be honest, it is a pretty big waste of time… congrats on FP! Great post! ~

  8. I get what your saying here. In some ways, But I also found community in the driving as well. I drove from Virginia to DC every day for a year. Cant remember, but it was something like 15 miles and took and hour. But I could tell by the people around me if I was ahead, on time or behind in the commute. And during that time I recognized faces and that was how I knew where I was in that time line. Interesting.

  9. Great post! I am following you now! My name is Carlos, if you ever want to know about Ocean Paddling news follow us back. Cheers!

  10. “Effective dream state” – I regularly find myself in that state while driving. Often I start in one direction and my mind takes over and takes me to another, more automatic destination. And often I get to a destination without knowing how I got there.
    Enjoyed this post very much. I will be more cognizant of my surroundings, if just trying to make contact with other drivers.

    • Thanks Millie! That’s automation taking over, research says it only takes 4 consecutive days for thought patterns (like knowing a commute) to become ingrained.

      Do you think you could start practicing the courtesy wave (if you don’t already) and making eye contact/waving to other drivers for a couple of days in a row? Let me know if it sticks.

      • I’m definitely going to try the eye contact thing. I’m from south Georgia, so the courtesy wave is ingrained in me! We wave at complete strangers, haha, but I’m slack on the eye contact. Will let you know how that goes.

  11. So, the cattle cars of public transportation are so dead—emotionally and conversationally—because we’re all busy with working our spatio-temporal tunnel vision, and being social would disrupt our transition. That actually makes sense.

    • I think it only happens like that because we treat work and home as separate places, and therefore something to psych ourselves up for.

      I’m not suggesting we walk around the office in our dressing gowns but maybe merging the good aspects of both home and work life will help ease that transition and make breaking it a less jarring experience.

      Thanks for your comment!

  12. Great blog, and I’m really pleased to read your thoughts on commuting – and a little surprised that so far no-one has responded with this one simple behaviour; smile! I have been trying to change some areas of myself that I woke up to discover lurking where a happy sociable person used to be and bad-tempered driving was definitely one of those unpleasing traits. So a while ago I slowed down, started giving way to other drivers, waving hi or thank you – and smiling. It probably infuriates the poor drivers stuck behind me, but I have several ‘drive buddies’ now who look out for me and wave or nod – my sub-tribe maybe? And its just now getting to the point where we sign ‘yeah, it’s snowing again’ or ‘hey, cute dog’. It makes me feel nice, I arrive feeling improved, socialised and relaxed (usually!) Rather than letting the commute be negative or ‘anti’ time, start a social experiment!

    • Hey that’s great to hear! I do the same – it’s so easy to make such a small and positive change and affect the people around you. Have a good day!

  13. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!
    I love your analogy, but especially love your illustrations! I was a medical illustrator back in the day..
    Thanks for the follow! I am following you back. 🙂

  14. Getting out of Burning Man in exodus is like a 12 hour traffic jam. By then, you definitely know your car-neighbors. They share food and drink, and jump in each other’s RVs. I should carry treats in my car for my morning commute to work!

    • Try something new, even if it’s as small as courtesy waving, waving, making eye contact, or smiling at other drivers. Let me know how it goes!

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  17. This is a really fascinating post. Without wishing to incite sexist comment, there are also big differences in the mindset between men and women behind the wheel. In my experience, women are much less likely to communicate by making eye contact with other drivers, which, as a man, I often find disconcerting… but men are instinctively more protective of their road space and more eager to defend it. When driving is unpleasant, it’s usually due to the driving styles of other men.

    “Every now and then though the language breaks down and we get glimpses of the humanity lying underneath it all. A fire engine needs to get through, we all move to the side. There’s a power outage and we have to use co-operation and eye contact to decide when to cross an intersection.” – This is part of why I enjoy being on the road. Because however mechanised and automated we try to make the roads, every little movement and every little decision will always be a human one, and driven by human impulses. (That is, until we all have self-driven vehicles – and how boring that’ll be!)

    • I know there’s research to suggest men aged 18-26 tend to be more aggressive/risk-taking drivers, but I’m not sure across the board. Everyone drives inherently defensively, and whether that takes an overly timid style or an overly aggressive one, it will still slow down traffic. Which makes aggressive drivers more impatient and timid drivers more cautious, and so on and so on.

      You have a good mindset! Would be great to run into you on the road. I mean, not crashing, just passing. You know.

  18. I think we need more public transportation!
    Driving is stressful in part because the roads are crowded and it can be very difficult to predict other drivers’ behavior. With more people commuting in buses with well-trained drivers, much of that stress could be eliminated.

    • That’s true but a cheaper option may be better driver education, or simply changing your mindset when driving. When placed in a vast interdependent system, like a traffic flow, small individual people can affect significant amounts of change around them.

  19. definition of a tribe is a social group, the definition of a social group is A social group can be defined as any two or more people in social interaction who share expectations and responsibilities to the group and who share a unifying characteristic or sense of purpose.

    Surely the last thing a commutator wants at 7am in busy traffic is to be social, all they want is to get to work, get the day over with and get home. Unless your me, when I was at uni I had a 70 mile round trip and hitting traffic in and out the city, there is nothing better then while stuck in traffic is to wave and smile at the driver in the car in the next lane, with loud cheerful music playing with my passenger and I dancing. Try it, its fun.

    • That’s the thing though, there’s potential for community built into the commute which we just aren’t tapping into. If we did make it a more inherently social experience perhaps the “just-want-to-get-this-over-with” mindset will dissolve.

      35 miles to get to uni must’ve sucked.

      • 35 miles thats nothing, I have to travel that to get to the cinema, 14 to McD’s, 35 to Burger but I do live in a small Royal city along side around 5000 people. It dates back to 11th century, but neoithic storage pits and a round house remains have been found. I am 10miles to the beach, 15miles to the hills and peace and quiet….. I live in Scotland.

  20. A while ago I learned to find my zen mode as I listen to music. I pay attention to traffic, but I find a special state of calm. This helps me break the tail-gating habit and maintain a safe distance while just cruising along in a sea of packed cars.
    I’m also fortunate enough that for the past year or so I have had a job that most days I can ride public transportation the 45 miles to work.

  21. Now public transport is tribalism, being social by being forced to sit next to total strangers, when I have ever used public transport, there is normally 1 seat left, which is next to the person on day release from the local mental hospital, or I have the seat with the empty space and as we pass the local mental hospital the person sits next to me. What makes it worse they then start being social, I like social, social is good but not when the person sitting next to me starts brushing their pant legs, telling me that they wished that the little people would stop climbing up their legs………………….But one thing really annoying about that is, I wish they would stop brushing them onto me…..

    • Not sure if you’re being serious or not?

      Often the best way to interact with someone who has a mental illness (or is recovering from one) is to try distract them from their psychosis by just engaging in normal conversation. “So how’s your day been? What are you doing today? What are your hobbies?” and then also talking about yourself and what you’re doing.

      Treating them with respect like that will temporarily relieve them of an otherwise ever-present condition.

      • I dont no if you read my blog, well the one i am trying to rewrite after deleting the database by accident the other day, but I live in constant pain due to certain conditions and this leads to breakdowns sometimes . I live with mental illness and unless you have been through it you dont understand it. Oh people may say ‘ I feel depressed ‘ but depression is not to be taken lightly. No Mark I wasn’t being serious about the little people, it was really little blind hamsters. BTW if this is spelt incorrectly and bad grammar, forgive me I am in bed, watching StarShip Troopers while replying on my phone 🙂 exciting life.

        • I couldn’t tell if you were trying to make a serious point about connecting with people on public transport or whether you were taking an opportunity to ridicule those with mental illnesses.

          The language you used when you said “what makes it worse is when they try to be social” and “but one thing really annoying about that is, I wish they would stop brushing them on me” is what made me think you were simply taking the piss.

          But because I wasn’t sure, all I offered was some advice about how you could possibly have a meaningful connection with people like that.

          My brother suffers from schizo-affective disorder. I know full well about the severity of mental illness.

          • People with mental illness, do not wish to be treated with kid gloves, people trying to ‘communicate’ that comic line about the little people, was told to me by someone who lived with bi polar and spent most of their adult life in and out of hospitals.
            Let me ask you, would you sit next to a total stranger on public transport and you ‘suspect’ them of having a mental illness just because they say or do something out the norm, ‘How was your day, what are your hobbies?’ I know what I would tell you.
            I would want is to be treated normally, not a special case, someone to be different. Would you sit next to a ‘normal’ person and ask the same questions?
            I work with children and have done for over 20 years, I have qualifications left right and centre but one thing we learnt and one thing we teach which is more important then anything else that we do is……See the child, not the illness….We have moved forward and made changes to treatment of people with illnesses and because of that so have the people with the illnesses.

            As I said previously I suffer bouts of sever depression and the thought of anyone pussy footing around me so they don’t upset me, they don’t talk to me, or avoid me I would hate But I don’t want people to ask me mundane questions either like ‘Oh what hobbies do you have’…….My reply is ‘Oh I murder people who ask mundane questions’


            • Ok sure, I guess everyone is different and responds to things differently as well. I do tend to talk to the people around me on public transport though, so it wouldn’t be treating them specially if I did strike up small talk. Thanks for your comments!

  22. Last year I commuted one hour each way. We had a carpool going between 4 of us. It was alright for the most part unless there was a work fued playing out, then it could be awful. But for the most part carpooling with people you can connect with is really rewarding.

      • You might want to see these:
        Most of these have been taken by newspapers. These usual traffic jams, coupled with VVIP infrequent movements (yeah we have a strange VIP culture here; I’d be writing about that soon) and infrastructure development (bridges, flyovers, underpasses, et al.) make situations worse.
        I remember spending close to 6 hours in one of the worse jams there have been. Oh, and did I mention the ‘CNG lines’?

        • Karachi traffic

          A quick picture for the viewers at home lol.

          No, what is CNG? A quick Google search shows it as a type of fuel? Also I’m eagerly awaiting your post on Karachi VIP culture.

          • Well, CNG is Compressed Natural Gas; yes it is the most common and popular type of fuel used in Pakistan, extracted within the country, cheap and clean compared to the Gasoline (Petrol) imported from middle East. Over the last year, Natural Gas shortages have restricted the fuel’s availability to a few selected days per week. There is always a long line at the gas stations, by long I mean around 50 vehicles ahead of you; CNG takes longer than gasoline to fill up. Waiting times range from 15 minutes to over night!

            CNG traffic jam

            Notice carefully, there are two lines running side by side…
            P.S. VIP Culture post due by this weekend 🙂

  23. On my way to work this morning, as many other mornings, but today more than ever, i questioned myself with, “what am i doing with my life? why do i insist on traveling the same road at the same time for the same reason over and over and over again? and why when i choose ‘alternative routes’ i get the same results? what is my lesson? Whether i leave home early, on time, or late, i always get to work a bit late. Unnecessary traffic. what kind of life is this? there are too many cars, highways are always inconstruction to expand for the demand of roadways. again, what is my lesson in this? why must I be frustrated in the morning as i go to work because i feel like a robot in these streets. why has commuting become so increasingly unenjoyable?”

    and for the life of me, i couldn’t figure it out. by the time im at work, that feeling goes away, nonetheless, its a feeling that repeats itself every morning on my way to work.
    your post hit me like a wedding ring on a bride’s finger! thanks 🙂

  24. Finally getting around to reading this! Great writing and very deserving of the Freshly Pressed. I love how you recognize the unfulfilled potential of the morning commute as a social experience and my favorite part is when you describe the brief moments of “genuine human connection”. I also enjoyed reading the ideas in the comments (board games on the train would be epic!). I wonder, are there others out there who also see the need to change the status quo in order to bring us closer together? Human connection is such an essential part of who we are but it’s not reflected in our society. This has really got me thinking about what my part is in all of this, will I be the one to be in a social setting looking at my electronic device, or will I be the conversation starter? Thanks for getting my wheels turning!


    • No worries! As always, greatly appreciate your comments and readership. It’s like huge walls have been erected over the past century to keep people as atomised as possible.. it’s an odd phenomenon.

      Part of this blog is to realise what those walls are, why they’re there, how they got there, and how to break them down. I’m glad you’re enjoying it!

  25. Hi Mark, Interesting post. Incidentally i recently wrote a post ‘Driving personalities and Past Life theory’ on how we assume different personalities when we get behind the wheels.

    Congrats on being freshly pressed.

    • Nice Mandar,

      I’d say I’m a gentle horse, but I’m guessing most people would say that lol, seeing as it’s the most flattering. Maybe somewhere between a horse and a scorpion. Thanks for dropping by

      • Keep up with your Gentle Horse Avatar 🙂 and scorpion cusp.. I am a Horse person too. That’s what I think.Thanks Mark, for checking my posts and following.

  26. Great blog. Congrats on your FP!

    While we might say that the commute is anti-social, another take on it could be that drivers are using the liminal state to reestablish their position in the social hierarchy. One of the functions of this state is that it removes previous status.

    You know how, when on foot, we let the high status person go through the door first? The way we hold a door for a little old lady to respect her status as an “elder”? Well, the same principle happens on the road: cutting someone off, or otherwise getting ahead of them, is a way to gain “status” within the “ritual of the commute.”

    When looked at this way, the “ritual” model helps explain the competitiveness on the roadways.

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