Last week, after fights broke out at gas stations due to long lines from a post-Hurricane Sandy fuel shortage, much of the New York region initiated gas rationing. Drivers with license plates ending in odd numbers could queue up for gas only on odd days, and vice versa. All over New York City, taxis and private cars were backed up for blocks, crawling forward into gas stations amid waits of 30 minutes or more, overseen by the NYPD cops.
Bloomberg Businessweek scoped out a bunch of stations around the area to survey the top behavioral trends, then turned to experts for commentary: body language experts Patti Wood (author of the newly released Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions…) and David Givens (Your Body at Work) and University of Hawaii psych professor Leon James, author of Road Rage and Aggressive Driving.
The Coffee Klatchers: Drivers, especially cabbies, getting out of cars in long, slow lines and having coffee and bagel klatsches alongside their cars.
Wood: “That’s very tribal that they take care of each other like that. They’re like the cowboys out there getting on and off their horses. It’s a coping mechanism.”
Givens: “It shows just how nice we can be as humans. Eating and drinking is one of the most social things we can do together as primates other than sex. It’s pre-adaption to keep us from killing each other, because ordinarily people get pretty mad waiting in line.”
James: “They’re in a similar situation, so they’re forming camaraderie, social-networking face to face. It’s a support group. But it’s in conflict with the competitive subtext, which is, ‘Will I get my gas?’”
The Bold and the Busted: Drivers trying to sneak into the gas station from the other direction who get blocked by the cops. In some cases, cops asked to see their IDs.
Wood: “When we’re in a car—especially larger, more expensive ones—we expand our sense of personal territory to the size of the car. Cops approaching such transgressors go into lock-and-load position, putting their feet 10-12 inches apart and their arms akimbo to signal authority.”
Givens: “There’s always going to be that small percentage of people who do that—like anarchists. It’s a sociopathic, narcissistic frame of mind where they don’t experience guilt.”
James: “That’s one of the sub-roles of society and our culture. Break the rules and be proud of it. Some people who adopt that approach to life will do it everywhere there’s an opportunity, not caring that they’re hurting the community.”
Partying Pumpers: Gas station workers getting festive as they usher cars in, dancing and singing to each other, making a game of it.
Wood: “They’re making this play instead of drudgery. High waving and heads up in laughter all signal to drivers that this isn’t a struggle for survival. Rounded, smooth, curved hand cues read as friendly, while sharp hand cues read as dangerous. When we flash our eyebrows up at 15 feet from a stranger and smile, we signal, ‘It’s safe here.’”
Givens: “It’s a festive time. Anthropologists call times like that Saturnalia, meaning that all the rules are off. It gets people out of the rut of ordinary day-to-day life. That’s how it started in the Middle Ages, when the poor people would have a grand feast every few months to forget about the hum-drum.”
James: “It’s a party atmosphere, an unusual thing going on, like a carnival. Unusual situations will make people feel festive, as long as they’re not in danger.”
The Nervous Risk Takers: Line-waiters with license plates ending in odd numbers on an even day, or vice versa, hoping cops or workers won’t notice.
Wood: “They are probably sitting there engaged in self-comforting behaviors like rubbing their nose. They are probably also avoiding eye contact—heads down, shoulders in to protect the front of the body. Maybe they are gripping their steering wheel from below to keep their arms in their lap.”
Givens: “They’re the gamblers. It’s the thrill of playing the slot machine. The chance of getting through makes them think, ‘Wow!’ They’re probably looking straight ahead to pretend the cop isn’t there. Cops tell me that bad guys in a car do that all the time.”
James: “They’re trying to get around the rule and get more for themselves, like shoppers who take more than 10 items through the 10 items or less line. They want something extra even though they know it’s wrong. But they’re thinking, ‘I’m the exception.’”
The Multitaskers: People working on laptops in their cars, laptops propped on steering wheels.
Wood: “We’re workaholics. They feel like they’re not wasting time. It also protects the front of the body, the heart window. It would feed that ego center of the brain that’s rewarded when you make quick, shallow decisions on the computer.”
Givens: “They’re the people of the future, taking advantage of the downtime. Even when they’re not driving, they’re driven.”
James: “That makes a lot of sense, because to wait without doing anything is one of the most difficult things for people to do. Do you know now that people take out their iPhones in the restroom? Being involved in a wireless device stops the worries and the pains of life.”