The Canadian Way: “After You”

Allow me to suggest that the best measure of a civilization’s vitality is not the number of palaces and monuments it erects, nor is it the strength and splendour of its armed forces, nor even the longevity, education, and wealth of its citizens. It is traffic.

And let me further suggest that by this measure, Canadian civilization is thriving.

Both these propositions may seem dubious on their face. Fallacious, even. But I assure you they emerge from the ruminations that occupied your correspondent’s time while stuck in a Nigerian traffic jam.

If that statement does not impress and convince the reader that my claims are entirely correct, the reader has never been stuck in a Nigerian traffic jam.

The Canadian traffic jam you are familiar with is unrelated to the Nigerian phenomenon of the same name. The number of cars is an order of magnitude greater. So is the filth spewing from their tailpipes, and that filth, mixed with Nigeria’s bountiful supply of heat and humidity, produces air that closely resembles a thick, brown broth. To sit in a Nigerian traffic jam is to know what it feels like to be a potato in a simmering stew.

But those are only differences of degree. What is special about the Nigerian traffic jam is the behaviour of the Nigerian driver.

Picture the most aggressive, bullying, sociopathic driver on a Canadian road. Then imagine that driver after he chugs a few Red Bulls and learns his girlfriend is cheating on him. That is the average Nigerian driver.

Lanes, signs, laws, and basic human civility count for nothing.

Drivers seize any opening, on the road or off, to charge ahead. They push and push and push and push. Cars constantly nudge up within inches of each other, and no one, ever, willingly allows someone else to go ahead.

Inevitably, this produces paralysis.

Now, this description may strike readers as unkind toward Nigerians. And it is. Individually, Nigerians are no more likely to be aggressive sociopaths than Canadians or anyone else. Indeed, the Nigerians I have met are lovely and generous people. Until they get in a car.

The explanation for this schizophrenic behaviour is not psychology. It is logic. If everyone around you ignores the rule of the road and drives like Mad Max, you can, if you wish, smile and wave other drivers on. But you’ll be doing an awful lot of that because no one will reciprocate and you will spend hours sitting right where you are. Thus, you have no choice: You must ignore the rules of the road and drive like Max Max.

Civility cannot flourish without an expectation of reciprocity. Only if I believe others will say “after you” to me will I say “after you” to others.

In a word, civility requires trust. Of course this goes to much larger matters than how long we remain stuck in traffic. Indeed, some theorists argue that the trust which makes civility possible is, in fact, the single biggest determinant of a society’s success or failure. Thus, it’s rather apt that the words “civility” and “civilization” look an awful lot alike.

One time, back in that Nigerian traffic jam, I took a break from pondering the fate of humanity to explain to my Nigerian driver how a Canadian four-way stop works.

The person who stops first has the right to go through first, I said. That’s the law. Break it and you may be punished. But the drivers themselves decide the order in which people come to a stop and it’s often not clear who should go next. So people routinely smile and wave and say “after you.” That’s not the law but almost everybody does it.

As a result, four-way stops work well, except when someone says “after you” and the other person says “no, after you.” That can makes things momentarily sticky. But it’s soon cleared up.

He thought I was pulling his leg. And why wouldn’t he? The level of civility seen every day at fourway stops across Canada is unheard of in countries around the world. That doesn’t mean Canadians are, individually, better people than others because that civility isn’t the product of careful moral deliberation.

In fact, we seldom think about civility at all. It’s habit, ingrained in the culture and in us. We just do it.

And it improves our lives immeasurably, not only by making four-way stops work and traffic flow, but also by making everything function better, including the economy our prosperity depends on.

It also makes life a lot more pleasant.

Best of all, it’s contagious. Think about all the immigrants this country takes in. An awful lot come from countries where saying “after you” – or holding a door open for someone else, or queuing in line – is a ridiculous thing to do.

But after some time here, what do they do when they come to a fourway stop? “After you.”

And that, on this day and all others, is a reason to be proud and grateful.