Scoppe: Look hard enough, and you’ll find a pattern — whether one exists or not

Associate EditorDecember 10, 2013 

Cindi Scoppe

— A FRIEND of mine is constantly complaining about getting stuck in traffic behind Toyota Priuses that won’t drive fast enough and won’t get out of the way.

I had never noticed that problem — and I drive a lot more than he does, and tend to be a lot more impatient with too-slow drivers.

So out of curiosity I made a point of looking for that phenomenon. After more than a year, I still haven’t found it.

What I’ve found is what I already knew: that there are a lot of people who drive more slowly than I’d like them to. Some drive hybrids, to be sure; but others drive gas-guzzling SUVs or rickety old clunkers or obnoxious muscle cars or … well, you get the picture.

In fact, I haven’t been able to detect any sort of pattern as to the type of vehicles that go too slowly. In the left lane. Holding me hostage behind them.

So why is my friend convinced that this is a Prius problem? Could what happens on the highway when he’s driving really be that different than what happens when I’m out? Or could it have to do with the way our brains tend to focus on those things that affirm our preconceived notions, and to retain stronger memories of those things that annoy us than those things that don’t?

Could the fact that he just doesn’t like Priuses and what he considers the self-righteous attitudes of people who drive them make him fixate on slow Priuses and ignore all the other vehicles that are holding him up?

Could it be that all of us are too quick to look for patterns in behaviors that annoy us, to greater or lesser degrees, and to find them in our own biases, rather than considering that maybe there’s just a certain portion of the population that’s going to act in ways we don’t like, regardless of any other pattern we might be able to detect?

I wonder if we don’t all tend to do this not just with our own personal predilections but across larger stereotypes. I wonder how often, when someone treats us badly, we automatically assume it’s because of something more than that individual person?

Perhaps we should consider the fact that there are simply some people who are self-centered and short-tempered and obnoxious and rude and in other ways difficult to deal with.

I have no idea what percent of the U.S. population has those characteristics; I know I can be all of those things on a bad day. But let’s say it’s 1 percent. If so, that means that, on average, one out of every 100 people we encounter is likely to give us an obscene gesture if they don’t like the way we’re driving, or ignore our friendly hello, or not bother to look up from their cell phone to notice that we’re waiting to ask them a question. If given a pretext, one out of 100 just might ask what we consider rude questions, or even call the police if they can make up a reason to do so.

Another friend was complaining recently about getting cussed out by a driver as she was trying to cross the street. Well, complaining isn’t precisely the right word; she was livid. And she thought the driver was rude because my friend was white and the driver was black.

And I found myself wondering: Was the woman rude because she was black or, more likely, was she just a rude person who happened to be black? What would my friend have blamed if the driver had been white? Or would she have found that less offensive?

And isn’t the reverse also true? Do black people sometimes assume that white people look at them suspiciously or give them shoddy service because of their race, rather than considering that maybe it’s because the business they’re visiting has lousy service, or the person they’re dealing with has a short fuse that’s set off by the slightest irritation? Could it be that a white person would be treated just as badly under the same circumstances, but that she wouldn’t blame it on race because the obnoxious person was also white?

Clearly, there are times when black people are treated shabbily because they’re black; more times, I suspect, than I and other white people would like to acknowledge, and more times than the reverse. Just as there are times when black people treat white people badly because they’re white.

I tried to figure out how many people I encounter on a typical day, and I gave up after considering the number of cars I pass or am passed by or meet on my very short non-rush-hour drive to and from work (60? 80?) and the number of people I see at the office (40 or 50), and the number of people at the grocery store (three or four dozen fellow shoppers, on a slow day, two people working in the deli, three in the bakery, the woman giving out samples, the butcher, the produce manager and assistant manager, the man stocking the dairy section, and the frozen-food section, the check-out clerk, the bag boy, the manager, and on and on). And that’s without stepping foot inside a restaurant, or walking down a city street, or including the people who call and email, or stopping by the bank or the dry cleaner or running any other errands.

If 1 percent of the population is rude or obnoxious or short-tempered or difficult to deal with — or just having a bad day — and if I encounter a couple of hundred people a day, then I’m almost certain to have a bad experience with someone, oh, once a week. Without a doubt once a month.

What that means is that the chances are pretty good that the bad experience will have nothing to do with anything about me — my gender or my age or my race or any other physical characteristic. And the chances are pretty good that the bad experience will have nothing to do with the gender or age or race of the rude person — or even of the sort of car he drives — and everything to do with the fact that some people are just jerks.

Ms. Scoppe can be reached at cscoppe@thestate.com. Follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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