The Art of Nonverbal Communication series: Baselines and Driving

Luke Danial - Nonverbal Communications and Driving
Luke Daniel

Ever noticed while driving you can sometimes tell what the other cars around you are going to do? It’s a crazy thought, but vehicles are nothing more than tools under the control of, you guessed it, humans. Because of that fact, we have the ability to create a Baseline of Behavior for each and every driver we may come into proximity with.

When we talk about nonverbal communication and how we use it daily, while driving is no different, each time we interact with or share space with other humans, there is information to be gained and observed.

The Big Four Behavioral Categories

Professor Albert Mehrabian’s research showed that human communication is broken down into three areas. The language used (words that are chosen to be spoken) accounts for only 7% of the information trying to be conveyed. Tone, or how we choose to say the words that come out of our mouths, accounts for 38% of that information. The remainder of the information we are expressing is done through our nonverbal cues or body language.

Now tie this concept to Paul Ekman’s Micro Facial Expressions research, and we can start to see how the Big Four Behavioral Categories begin to form. Ekman proved that there are uncontrollable micro facial expressions shown on the face without the subject’s knowledge.

Knowing the above breakdown gives us the insight to focus our attention on the nonverbal cues that we see all the time.

There are only four major behavioral categories that people will fall into or portray behaviors from. All nonverbal behaviors, including micro facial expressions observed, can be placed into one of the four categories. Those four categories are:

  • Dominant – Someone who is attempting to be dominant will be as “large” as they can in the space they have. They may be loud or have their possessions spread widely in common areas, to name just a few.
  • Comfortable – Someone who is comfortable will have their body placed in a position(s) that do not allow them to react quickly. They will not be hyper-focused on their surroundings and most likely will have minimal situational awareness.
  • Submissive – Someone in the submissive behavioral category will attempt to make themselves as “small” as possible. This is a direct reflection of the Freeze response in all animals.
  • Uncomfortable – Someone who is uncomfortable will be positioned to escape or create distance between themselves and the threat (either real or perceived). This is caused directly by the Hindbrain’s desire to survive and avoid dangerous situations.

Now the question remains, how do we utilize that while behind the wheel?

The Scenario

You’re driving home from a long day of sitting at the office. The boss didn’t have any offsite meetings, so you’re beat from all the sitting around. It’s about a 25-minute drive home, and the traffic isn’t bad, but it’s never light either.

About halfway through the commute, there are signs stating the left lane (#1 lane) ends in 1500 feet – 458 meters. Traffic should start to merge right. You have strategically placed yourself in the #2 lane as it has the fastest, most consistent traffic flow.

Brake Lights are now visible in the distance, and as you check your mirrors, you notice there’s a car flying up the left lane.

Your brain has taken in all this information and is trying to orientate to what it’s seeing.

It’s is already putting together the idea, or hypothesis, that the driver who’s flying up the left lane will need to get over soon and at their current rate of speed that will be achieved by cutting you off just as the #1 lane ends.

Your brain is playing out the scenario of whether the driver has enough room to make it in front of you or if you are going to have to decelerate to allow them into the lane.

Time and distance are not forgiving. While processing this information, you’ve been traveling at 75 miles per hour, – 120 KPH or ~112 feet per second – 33.3 meters per second.

The car in the #1 lane is now next to your vehicle, and you can see the driver looking back and forth between you and the now visible end of the #1 lane.

It’s time to truly test the hypothesis that was formed. You and the other driver are now less than 4 seconds from the end of the lane. As the defensive driver, and one that’s aware of their surroundings, you decide to apply the brake slightly, allowing the driver to push past you and take the #2 lane as their lane ends.

The Breakdown

The combination of knowing the #1 lane is ending and seeing the car advancing at a high rate of speed in that lane gives us the ability to formulate a hypothesis as to where the other driver is going to decide to change lanes.

We are fully aware of the environment we are in; we know the lane is ending. We know there are brake lights visible ahead, after the #1 lane ends. We know we are traveling at 75 MPH – 120 KPH (~112 FPS – 33.3 MPS) and that we have limited time and distance to maneuver.

The speed limit is 75 MPH – 120 KPH. Meaning the car that is advancing and closing the distance to you is traveling at a higher speed. They are pushing past the normal flow of traffic. And they are still in a lane expected to end.

Through the information that was quickly gained and understood, you can articulate that the other driver is being dominant (or is in the dominant behavioral category). They are trying to take as much “space” as possible and are attempting to push themselves to the head of the pack.

You, being in the #2 lane, maintaining a steady and consistent speed would be in the comfortable behavioral category. You are aware of what is happening around you and are not fearful of an impending incident.

As soon as your brain intakes the stimuli of the dominant driver, the surrounding environment (brake lights in the distance), and the ending lane (perceived threat), it changes the chemistry in your brain. As the driver, you will most likely shift into the uncomfortable behavioral category, becoming acutely or hyperactively aware of the situation prior to having connected all the dots.

When you observe the driver looking back and forth between you and the end of the lane, that’s the dominant driver testing whether you will allow their dominance or not.

As a trained and true professional whose job is to manage risk, it’s not about ego or being dominant; it’s about being safe. Because you were able to read the nonverbal cues of the other driver and you created a baseline of behavior (even while driving), you can apply the brakes sooner, allowing the other driver and yourself to be a little bit safer.

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