The Culture of Horn Honking

medium_5475747169This is simply meant to be a light-hearted post, nothing worthy of deep thought or reflection. I am an American who lives in Italy and just returned from a 13 day visit to India. I am fascinated by different cultures and how societies work. You can often pick up on differences by how different cultures utilize similar means. For this post I will explore the use of the car horn.

In the U.S. I will argue that Americans largely use their horns to warn or complain. We honk when we want to make people aware of danger. We honk when we feel a great wrong has been done to us on the road. Someone has violated the law (as we see it) or someone has made us very angry with their driving methods. But on the whole (maybe apart from New York City) we are not a culture that regularly communicates through our car horns. That is different from Italy and India.

I have lived in Italy for the past five years. And now we are actually in transition to return to our home culture in the U.S. Italians love their cars and their car horns. It was a little unsettling when we first moved here to constantly hear car horns. My observation is that Italians use the horn as a regular means of communication, but mainly out of being annoyed. If you wait more than two seconds after a traffic light has turned green, you will get a long blast from a car horn behind you. Italians are a very passionate people. Therefore their communication is passionate as well, verbally and through their car horns. But it doesn’t mean anything negative. They simply express their “in the moment” feelings readily. The car horn is just an extension of their present feelings. You have to understand this here or you will think everyone is simply rude. But they are not, they are just temporarily annoyed with you and letting you know. You can still be best friends and enjoy a cappuccino together.

India has almost a billion people. Apparently, every one of them owns a car. I have never seen this kind of traffic or heard so many horns in my life. But my observation is that the communication pattern is different. Americans honk out of anger and “injustice.” Italians honk out of annoyance and to simply express their temporary emotion. Indians see driving like Americans see snow skiing. At least this is my grid for understanding their “car honking” culture. It is like an American snow skier simply saying “on your left” or “on your right.” Skiing etiquette dictates that you let the skier in front of you know that you are about to pass them on the hill and to let them know which side you are on. I think it is the same way for Indians. They drive all over the road and use any lane available to them, no matter which way the direction of traffic is suppose to be going. But they will clearly let you know that they are “on your left” or “on your right.” Their facial expressions never change-for the honker or the one being honked at. The trucks even have hand painted signs on the back that say “please honk.” They are not angry or annoyed. They are not informing you of some law you have broken. They are just using skiing etiquette. For the passive passenger-like me-the whole experience can be quite frightening and confusing. But once you see how skilled the average Indian driver is to navigate traffic in his own context-and you see more clearly the “horn honking culture” at work-you can relax-a little!   That is just how I see it.

Here’s to life in the fast lane, going the same direction, seat belts buckled, using our horns to their greatest end!

(photo credit)