I believe that respect is a two-way street.
When I left the heart of Silicon Valley more than a decade ago to be with my then-boyfriend, now -husband in a small market town in the UK, one of my first administrative tasks was to pass the test for my British drivers’ license. I was told that even though I had been driving for more than half my life, I should hire a driving instructor to help pass the test.
My instructor, a man that was older than my father, would meet me on Saturday afternoons and we would drive up and down the sleepy Henley streets, where the narrow roads that were built for horse and carriage did not quite accommodate the American and Japanese imports that were becoming more popular. As we turned down one particular road, the one on which I lived, I noticed that there were cars parked on both sides, leaving room for just one vehicle to pass. As a car approached, I was relieved that it pulled aside, not wanting to get into a test of wills between drivers in front of my instructor. As I drove on, out of the corner of my eye I saw my instructor raise his hand at the driver of the car that had let us pass. Henley was a small town, I thought to myself, maybe they knew each other.
That night, on the way to a friend’s house for dinner, I noticed that my boyfriend did the same thing. A car pulled aside for us to pass, and up went his hand. I asked if he knew the driver, and he replied that he didn’t, he was just saying thanks, being polite, respecting the other driver.
As the years passed, and I became more assimilated, I found my hand automatically rising in thanks to my fellow considerate drivers. But now I would be the one quickly to pull over for other drivers to pass. It gave me a real sense of happiness to do this. Each time I pulled over, I would get a smile and a wave in return.
When our growing family moved to San Diego for my husband’s job, I kept my hand waving habit. Our street fed a busy intersection, and I continued to respect fellow drivers –letting people merge in, giving up a parking spot, letting people pass. Rarely would anyone acknowledge this kindness. Soon I tired of being nice, and stopped letting people in.
One morning, I was late picking up my daughter from preschool. It was a hot Southern California day, the heat rising like steam from the asphalt. A long line of cars were waiting to merge in. A man in the front of the queue in a silver BMW tried to catch my eye, but I avoided him. I was late and not in the mood to be nice. As I stared through the haze, lulled by the sound of traffic, I noticed two car seats in the back of the man’s car. I imagined two toddlers the ages of my own children in the back of this man’s car. In my mind, I could just see the tops of their blonde bouncy heads
I suddenly motioned to let him in, and he smiled, and mouthed “thank you.” Then he raised his hand. It was a simple gesture and I smiled back, remembering all those years ago when I learned to let others go first. And to say thank you.