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Hi, mum!

Hi, mum!

Next time a person swears at you in traffic, why not wave giddily at them so they'll spend the rest of the day wondering which acquaintance they had just insulted.

It might also prompt them to consider the great human frailty - that we so often treat strangers in a way we'd never try with our friends.

It's a flaw of our nature on display every morning in traffic queues, as people cut each other off, then mutter in disbelief when strangers do exactly the same to them.

Imagine, however, if we knew everyone in the cars beside us? If the person trying to merge frustratingly late was our mother, or the man we're overtaking dangerously was our best mate or son?

Respect for our own is why your average Aussie doesn't chuck a chip packet out the window of his car on his own street - because the person who'll most likely have to pick it up could be a neighbour, even a family member.

However, on an anonymous freeway, it'll probably be a faceless council worker doing the cleaning, so ... out the window goes the chip packet.

One of the fundamental limitations of our monkey brains seems to be we can only empathise with a finite number of people - usually our friends, family and colleagues - before many of us trail off into apathy and then, too often, outright contempt.

And when you won't delay your passage through the world by three seconds, to allow another car to merge, that's the germ of contempt.

In that moment, where we'll casually put another person's life in possible danger so we can get two metres closer to a red traffic light, you see so much of what makes us human.

Wars, crime, violence, corruption - they all sprout from our willingness to do stuff to strangers we'd never do to our friends.

In Malcolm Gladwell's 2000 book The Tipping Point, he writes of "Dunbar's number", a theory that states the fixed size of our brains sets a cognitive limit to the number of stable social relations we can share.

That number is usually estimated at 150. More than 150 friends and we start to lose track - Hello, Facebook! - which is why organisational units, whether tribal, military or in business, work so well if kept under that figure.

I get the feeling that if a lot of people knew of this "cognitive limit", it'd work as a rationale for them acting rudely in traffic, their face staring rigidly ahead as they burn you, telling themselves "well, it's impossible for my brain to care about any more people".

And maybe it is. It can certainly get overwhelming having celebs, charities and politicians telling us we need to weep for Sudan, the homeless and every one of those kids whom Joseph Kony kidnapped.

But what if our continued evolution is not about letting hundreds of new people into our brains (and hearts), but just the one stranger in front of us?

Instead of being able to empathise with 150 people, maybe we should try 151?

We need let only one person merge on the road - not two or three - but, if everybody did this, perhaps traffic jams would disappear.

Imagine, then, if we applied the same "care" to the one stranger who has to pick up that littered chip packet, the one whose wallet we return with the money intact, or whom we acknowledge was first at the bar?

I know it's nothing new, but "doing unto others as you'd have them do unto you" seems quite a radical sentiment nowadays. It certainly has a ways to go before catching on.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.

39 comments so far

  • Empathy and losing it in traffic are not the same thing. Anger at traffic (not talking about road rage) is merely a frustration caused by overcrowding. How many people carry on on a leisurely holiday drive when they are stuck behind a car? Amplify that where you are stuck behind 2000, your car needs expensive petrol, other drivers who lack skill are closed in with you, the boss will be up your clacker if you are running late, you're late to pick someone up etc and ka boom. In fact go a step further crime rates are greatest in overcrowded slums. Economic circumstance combined with the stress of no personal space adds to the risk.

    What you say about empathy tho is very true. It is a fundamentally one of the best qualities to develop. On one provision, it must be reciprocated in how we treat each other. Constantly giving and not getting anything back is exhausting.

    Being empathetic and knowing someone cares in return is one of the best feelings in life. Constant expectation and duty being met with indifference, nagging or otherwise wears at the soul. Part of this problem is unhealthy expectations.

    Be empathetic within in limits and look after yourself always. That is not selfish it is good sense.

    Date and time
    May 28, 2012, 8:36PM
    • I agree we have an overpopulation problem but I have spent months, years even getting along fine with my fellow drivers until the other day I was bullied by some horrid soccer mum in a euro 4WD who clearly had a very fuedalistic attitude towards society.

      Do unto others? Sure. Hand me the rocket launcher and the ak!

      Date and time
      May 29, 2012, 12:20PM
  • Actually thinking this article has pissed me off in a sense. In that I truly see a lack of empathy in this country. People pretend and put up all the right social cues but it is empty rhetoric. Why not admit you don't give a shit, it isn't your concern or you are too busy for bland sentiments.

    Example, the unemployed, lowly servant workers, the obese and disabled, asylum seekers, etc are treated like shit. Yet those same people will suck up to and bow down in deference to some celebrity, higher up, boss, overlord in the forlorn hope that some crumbs may trickle down to them. pathetic.

    Date and time
    May 28, 2012, 8:41PM
    • It's easy.
      Be nice.
      Be kind.
      Make space.
      Try it.

      Does not make you an idiot or a bad driver.
      Don't be an arsehole.

      A menial (not) registered nurse
      Date and time
      May 28, 2012, 10:37PM
      • I agree. It's not hard to be pleasant. Especially in regards to things like peak hour traffic, queues etc. Letting one or two people in line isn't the end of the world. It isn't going to make you 20 minutes late for work or ruin your day. In fact you'll probably forget about 5 minutes later. Everyone just needs to chill and be nice to others.

        Deja Vu
        Date and time
        June 01, 2012, 12:25PM
    • "Urban Overload". The reason that cities are full of mean and angry people.

      Date and time
      May 28, 2012, 11:28PM
      • So true, and it's getting worse. Studies on mice/rats have proven that the more people you put in a confined space, the more conflict and aggression builds. But you wont see that in the leafy green suburbs of the real estate speculators...

        Date and time
        May 29, 2012, 1:22PM
    • Why do you need empathy to do the right thing? There are certain ways you should behave and certain ways you shouldn't behave, it's that simple.

      I don't refrain from throwing a chip packet out of the window because someone else will have to pick it up, and only slightly because of the damage to the environment; I refrain because of the "clean up your own shit" principle - I am responsible for my actions, and the consequences of those actions. If there are negative consequences I should deal with them.

      Likewise with letting people merge. A significant responsibility of living in a society is cooperating with others in that society.

      Date and time
      May 28, 2012, 11:46PM
      • "It can certainly get overwhelming having celebs, charities and politicians telling us..."

        Pah. It only gets overwhelming if you listen to them, and a liftime of being bombarded with "THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PROBLEM IN THE WORLD TODAY" crises does more to make one apathetic to pleas for cash money from pollies, celebs and charities. I always donate to the salvos though (used to also drop whatever I could spare to those folks who would collect for the AQA but I do not see them any more).

        Being nice/empathetic/understanding is easy. When you want something in return. However, it feels quite a bit better when you're doing it just in the hope that you help make that other persons' day a little better. It is something I started to do when I realised I was being rude to people who would stop and say something as I walked my (admittedly adorable) dog. Nothing gained from being an arse.

        Thought I'd also toss this in there - lots of people commit crimes against their friends and family. Rape, theft, murder and assault are often committed by someone known to the victim.

        hired goon
        Date and time
        May 29, 2012, 6:16AM
        • are you suggesting that mateship isn't what it is cracked up to be ... top mate Shane Warne doesn't seem keen on sharing a road, we don't like sharing our suburbs with folk in flats and the numbers of folk volunteering for local footy club, scouts, CFA has fallen greatly over past generation. I've mate who grew up in Iran ... I love her family. They are so close and supportive of each other ... contrasts with my own experience. I remember once while driving in the country coming across a fallen bough on the road; myself and children got out the drag it out on the way. then a local came up in his FWD ... he carefully drove around the obstruction and kept on going ... that's the real epitome of Australians

          Date and time
          May 29, 2012, 7:22AM

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