Stress, fear and civic behaviour

The tram was packed with visitors. It came to its final halt exactly where it had started. The driver announced, "Thank you for joining us on this tour of NASA's Johnson Space Centre. We hope to see you here again. You will disembark from the right and right alone. Good bye."

Each row of seats had exits on both the sides. No one tried to disembark from the left. Everyone got off, one at a time, from the right and walked away like a herd of most obedient kindergarten kids.

What makes people follow instructions so obediently in one place while the same or similar people take pride in breaking every rule elsewhere?

In the six hour long drive from Minneapolis to Chicago, we saw only one vehicle break traffic rules. The SUV zoomed past at a speed well over the limit, changed lanes recklessly and reduced to a dot in the horizon. Just one out of hundreds! Is the country blessed with naturally law abiding citizens?

A taxi driver was the protagonist in my recent close encounter with death. Declaring "Sir, I am the Michael Schumacher of Egypt", he took off on a daredevil drive through the chaotic streets of Cairo at breakneck speeds, changing lanes at will, zooming past the wrong side of a trailer that had its indicators on, tailgating large trucks till they moved aside…and deriving great pleasure looking at my tense face on the rear view mirror!

Days earlier, I faced the most chaotic immigration process ever. The fact that I passed through the immigration counters long before my passport was stamped wasn't the only major surprise!

Is the country cursed with law breaking entrepreneurs en masse?

We all have such extreme experiences. That begs the question, why. Can it be true that respect for law and decorum depends on genes? Beware, an argument in these lines shall smack of racial prejudice!

Or is collective behaviour a function of the pressure a city is under? If the visitors to the space centre had to fight for seats in a minibus, with seats only for a third and the next bus an hour away, wouldn't a few visitors try to sneak out through the left exit?

Remember Muscat in the nineties when one could drive around the city for days without hearing a honk? Today, one gets honked from behind with even a second's delay in taking off on a green light!

City under pressure sounds like a reasonable explanation. But then, why does one queue up patiently in a stressed city like New York? There must be another angle to this.

It is fear of law and the degree of difficulty in evading it. In countries that we admire for civility, fear of the enforcement authorities is paramount. The wayward SUV was caught by the cops soon after!

Fear of punishment for breaking law is real. This fear drives respect, respect shapes behaviour, behaviour pageants as civility, and this civility is interpreted as maturity. We ought to distinguish between 'law abiding' and 'law fearing' people. The first category is scarce.

Any attempt to brand a populace on civic sense is irresponsible. The level of stress and perception of law enforcement connive to produce peoples' civic behaviour. Look out for the prevalent combination of these two in any city. The residents' collective comportment shall never be a surprise.

The author is a freelance writer based in Muscat. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely his and not of Times of Oman.

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