Clarity bestows power

Might is right than on Indian roads. There are few places where this is more true. Cars give way to buses and lorries, motorbikes make way for cars, cyclists step aside for all of the above. Naturally, pedestrians are at the bottom of this muscular pecking order.

Life as an Indian pedestrian is harrowing. At Indian traffic signals, there is no time allocated for people to cross roads. Vehicles do not stop at zebra crossings for pedestrians. People cross the streets risking their lives each time. 56 pedestrians are killed everyday on Indian roads.

Given these circumstances, a few crowded roads seem impossible to cross as a pedestrian. In these situations, I have seen the seasoned Indian pedestrian resort to a trick. Whenever there is a small gap in the traffic, they stride into the road, put their hand up and cross it. The oncoming vehicles brake and allow the pedestrian to safely cross. To an unaccustomed eye, this act might seem like a Biblical miracle!

I have been on both sides of this situation, as a pedestrian holding his hand up and striding across, as well as behind the wheel of a car, seeing other pedestrians perform this act. On both occasions, I sensed a strange kind of power bestowed on the person holding their hand up and walking across. Most motorists respect this gesture without honking or expressing any other kind of frustration. I have often wondered how this happens – how a puny pedestrian can upend the feudal hierarchy on Indian roads. How could such a simple gesture give the pedestrian so much power?

A friend of mine gave me the answer to this conundrum. By holding their hand up and crossing, the pedestrians resolve ambiguity on the road. It finally made perfect sense.

Whenever a pedestrian waits side of the road, there is always some tension in a motorist’s mind. He is often not sure of whether the pedestrian would cross or not. This tension causes a cognitive drain on the motorist’s mind. Alternatively, holding one’s hand up and walking across resolves this ambiguity. The motorist knows for sure that the person ahead will cross in the seconds that follow. The pedestrian, rather than sitting on the fence, makes a commitment to cross the road. This eases the motorist’s cognition. He respects the pedestrian’s conviction, applies the brakes and let him cross the road.

Whenever there is clarity in action and this clarity is communicated effectively, it gives some authority to the person who performing the act. This authority is enough to momentarily upend the feudal hierarchy that is otherwise set in stone on the crowded and chaotic roads of India. This principle, of having a clear plan and communicating it effectively, could also be true in other settings, where we wish to cut across authority and hierarchy.

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