Are you a good cyclist?
So there we were. In the left turn lane waiting for the red light to turn green. He’s in front, I’m in back. A mini-van grumbles by and stops next to me, and I hear a woman’s voice moaning:
IIIII doooon’t beliiiiiiiieve it!!
I ignore her. Pretend I don’t hear anything. A driver already shot out across the road and almost ran us down. I was not in the mood for any more irritation. But she keeps talking:
Twwooo BIKERS. In the left turn lane!
I turn to face her. Jason does too. An elderly woman with white hair. She really looks pleasantly surprised. There is no malice in her voice or facial expression. She blurts out the last thing she can before the light turns green.
GOOD BIKERS! GOOD FOR YOU FOR FOLLOWING THE RULES!
Now it’s my turn to be shocked. What do I say in this situation? Thanks? Fuck off?? Neither seem appropriate, so I blurt out the first thing that came to mind:
A lot of us do! WE’RE NOT THE ONLY ONES!!
She made no acknowledgment of hearing me. But I hope she did.
Exceptions to the Rule
I know she thinks that she was complimenting us, and in some ways she was. Except, it felt more like some weird positive reinforcement conditioning exercise than a friendly exchange between strangers.
And, it really got me thinking. While I’m slightly annoyed at her reaction and comments, I’m glad that I responded the way that I did. This is rare for me, as I usually admonish myself for all the cool comebacks I think of hours after the incident. So, go me!
What’s the Big Deal?
Many readers might think I’m overreacting or overanalyzing this situation. Maybe some think I should have just said “thank you” and left it at that. Unfortunately, I disagree, because this type of thinking is the foundation for a lot of problems in society.
That most cyclists are reckless and dangerous is false. Yes, I have seen a lot of cyclists run reds and dart across traffic. Yes, I have seen cyclists ride around at night without a helmet on and barely visible to traffic. However, I have also seen a lot of cyclists who obey all rules of the road. Who are lit up like a casino at night. Who ride respectfully towards drivers and pedestrians.
But the reason so many people are able to go on thinking that most cyclists are scofflaws and irritants is because they don’t even notice the cyclists who are “good” (however they define good). If people already assume that cyclists are law-breaking jerks, then they wont really pay attention to those cyclists who follow the laws. So, then, they mostly notice (and remember) the cyclists who confirm their stereotype.
No, I’m not making this stuff up. What I’m talking about is a phenomenon that has been extensively studied and validated for over 50 years in social psychology--Confirmation Bias.
But…She Noticed You…
Yes. She noticed us, which would seem to contradict what I’m saying. Except it doesn’t. And here’s why.
She exclaimed how surprised she was to see us acting in the way that we were. She congratulated us on being “good cyclists.” Note that she made no indication that she realized how incorrect her stereotype was. It is highly unlikely that seeing us did not disconfirm her stereotype.
Unfortunately, my guess is that all she did was turn us into an exception to the rule.
Rather than realize a stereotype is false, it’s much easier for us to convince ourselves that it’s an exception. An oddity. A rare case. That, in the vast majority of cases, our stereotype holds true.
This is part of the reason that I shake my head when I see cyclists criticizing one another for breaking the rules, especially when they grumble about how it “makes us all look bad.” I guess it does, but we’re fighting the human brain here. Even if only 6% of cyclists run the red, those who think 94% run reds will only pay attention to those 6% anyway!
Don’t get me wrong. I’m clearly not advocating for cyclists to go out there and ride recklessly. I want everyone safe and happy, and home in one piece. But can we please stop hating on each other because we’re worried about what drivers will think of us?
But I digress. As usual. So back to the problem of confirmation bias…
Are You Really Complimenting Someone?
The problem of confirmation bias occurs for just about everything, especially systems of oppression. Everyone has done this as some point in their lives, and some more than others. It’s part of having privilege, and it happens because critical thinking and self-reflection aren’t highly valued skills in society.
For example, I had a ‘facebook fight’ with someone because he posted something about how all he can find to date are “girls” when he wants “women” blah blah. I retorted that maybe it’s because he refers to women as “girls” and that he was putting women down as a group. His response was to sort of compliment me by saying that I just “don’t get” what he’s saying because I’m a “real woman.” Ugh. Gross.
(( p.s. Everyone needs to stop calling adult women, “girls.” Thanks! ))
Back when Jason and I were just dating, we were at a party hosted by my parents’ friends. A few of them sat by us and declared how much they liked Jason because he wasn’t like “those other scumbag Hispanics.” Double Ugh.
So, my friends, be careful when you’re out and about in the world and you want to “compliment” someone. Everyone stereotypes, it’s part of how our brain helps us function in the world. But, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to stereotype. It just means you have to work hard at catching yourself in the act. It’s important to think about this in other contexts (like racism and sexism) because if it’s happening for other issues, it’s going to happen for cycling too. It’s all connected.
It’s not a compliment when you’re simultaneously putting down the person’s whole group.
It’s not a compliment when you turn a person into an exception to the rule.
It’s not a compliment when you don’t realize that you were just stereotyping someone, and your stereotype was proven wrong.