Ready, set, set, set…

For many years, some Danish crosswalk lights have been showing not only how many seconds you have to make it across the street, but also how long you must wait before the light turns green.  This started out as a nudging experiment, and it is a huge success with much fewer pedestrian/vehicle collisions in these crosswalks.

What is going on here?

When we don’t know how long we have to wait, we might “chance it” if we are in a hurry to catch a bus or are rushing towards a meeting.  Had we known that the lights would change in five seconds, we would gladly have waited.  Likewise, if we know that the lights will not change for another 30 sec, we might take out our phone and send a text, meditate, look at the pigeons, do some neck rolls,… or just BE.

The model has been taken to other traffic situations, with a countdown signal 100-200 feet before an intersection e.g.  If cars are lined up waiting for green lights, the drivers don’t need to be in “get ready mode” longer than necessary.  And bikers know whether to tread the pedals hard or be safe to coast.

To a certain degree, this idea was already incorporated in most European traffic lights: It is Red   → three seconds Amber (together with Red) → Green.  Amber with Red means “get ready” so while the lights are only Red, you know you can relax.  American signals go directly from Red to Green with no “get ready” signal.  (We are advised to wait three seconds before we enter the intersection, anyway, not to get T-boned by somebody rushing over for “dark amber” red light.)

When we don’t know when to expect to go, we are in perpetual “get ready” mode; the same part of the nervous system that activates the “fight or flight” response.

We may not even be aware of it.

Does this apply to other situations than traffic lights?

Think about a time when you were entering a room where you hardly knew anybody, and a lot hinged on a good outcome.

  • A job interview
  • Meeting the in-laws-to-be for the first time
  • Teaching or keynoting
  • Going somewhere that because of gender, age, class or… you were not “the norm”

We know and acknowledge that these are stressful situations. (At least we acknowledge it when we are the oddball ourselves.)  Part of what makes them stressful is that we don’t know how people will react to how we behave or what we say.

When we don’t know what to expect, we are in perpetual “get ready” mode; the same part of the nervous system that activates the “fight or flight” response.   We may not even be aware of it.

Predictability is an important element in trust.  We trust ourselves when we are pretty good at guessing the next move of the people around us.  When people behave like we predict and are otherwise cooperative, we also trust them.  We don’t necessarily trust all individuals because some may be “difficult”, but when we can predict how to maneuver around them, we trust in our own efficacy in the situation.

We trust people less if we don’t know them or if we assume their reactions are far from what we could guess – unless we actively choose to trust them despite this uncertainty.

In a comment, SB Rawz wrote: “A colleague who spent most of his life in Europe before a move to the States once told me that in the States, the pressure of good communication is put on the speaker while in Europe (or at least the areas in which he lived), the impetus is on the listener to assume best intent, listen hard, etc.”

What might happen in discussions if we have a high level of general interpersonal trust vs. if we don’t?

If I trust you by default, and you say something unexpected that could otherwise tick me off, I am more likely to think that I might have misunderstood what you meant and eventually check back with you.  If you say something that could be interpreted positively or negatively, I am more likely to opt for positive – why would I think a person I trust would want to hurt me?

If our trust partly is based on predictability, would it make sense that living in a place where everybody around you is like you and behave like you makes it easier to be trusting by default than if a significant number of people came from somewhere else and behave unpredictably?

If I don’t trust you, and as my “fight or flight” system is already activated by assumed unpredictability, I am more likely to interpret a neutral but ambiguous comment as a snide than as a compliment, and if you say something “out there” I might more readily punch on it.

Would it make sense that people, not knowing what to expect in an unpredictable environment, will be more careful with their words if they wish to build up a relationship?

And would it make sense that people, already stressed out for whatever reason, not just the strangers around them, might more often react with an activated “fight or flight” system?

Research shows that general trust – the idea that other people can normally be trusted – is about twice as high in Scandinavia and the Netherlands as in the US (30-40% vs. 70-80%.)  Whether that is the leading contributor to the impetus on listening vs. speaking thoughtfully isn’t researched.  But, as it mirrors my own immigrant experience, I believe there is a strong case that SB Rawz’s friend could be on to something.

So, my question with this post – think with me here – is: how can we reduce the number of situations where we are put in get ready, set, set, set… mode?

Might our communication patterns become smoother if we started adding Amber before the Green light and got rid of this and other unnecessary stress elements in our already overloaded lives?


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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