One afternoon when I was 12 or 13, my brother and I were riding our bikes in our neighborhood when my dad happened to be driving home from work. From the top of a street with a steep incline, he saw us tearing down the hill, zigzagging from one side of the road to the other, having a blast. The fun was short-lived, though, because when we got home, we got a lecture about courtesy on the road. “What if there had been a car behind you?” Dad asked. “The driver wouldn’t have been able to pass you. When you’re on a bike, you’re supposed to stay to the side of the road. You’re supposed to ride on the same side as the traffic that’s going the way you are.” My brother and I countered by saying that there hadn’t been a car behind us, and we were aware of the safety rules. It cut no ice with Dad. His point was that we didn’t know when a car might come up behind us, so we should obey the rules all the time, and know what was going on around us. He’d had a strict Prussian upbringing, and he passed it along to us.
By that time, we were no strangers to the idea of paying attention to others. Since we’d been old enough to understand the difference between “self” and “other people,” we’d been taught to be considerate and polite. Unfailingly so. It was drummed into us that we had to take those around us into account, and especially to defer to those older than ourselves. I think that kind of training was prevalent for my generation, and I’ve carried it with me all my life.
When I worked on an engineering magazine some years ago, the editor wrote an article about a manufacturing process, incorporating the phrase “situational awareness,” explaining that it’s an aviation term he’d learned in flight lessons; he flew small prop planes. The term refers to a pilot’s need to be aware of everything relative to his aircraft: altimeter readings, landmarks, horizon, weather, any other craft in the vicinity, and so on. Anything that might affect the flight must to be taken into consideration, because, well….failure to do so could be fatal.
I’ve thought about that article many times since it was published, as I immediately realized its watchword describes the lessons I was taught as a kid. The courteous, civil thing to do is to keep track of what’s going on around one’s position and react accordingly.
In today’s “me” world, though, it seems there isn’t much of that type of civility on display. We’ve all had to come to a dead stop in a narrow supermarket aisle dotted with floor displays, when another shopper has positioned her cart smack in the center of the navigable lane while she hems and haws over which brand of shampoo she wants. She remains oblivious unless/until we ask her politely to shift her cart so we can pass. We may or may not be on the receiving end of a glare at that point. Or in the same supermarket, we might be about to step into the check-out line when a guy with a loaded cart blithely cuts in front of us without even looking. Most of us will then merely fume silently or mutter under our breath. Then there’s the driver who, occupied with a phone, will veer over into another lane and only realize it when the car he almost rammed honks in warning, whereupon he will abruptly jerk back into his own lane, usually with no gesture of apology. My husband and I were treated to a perfect example of total lack of situational awareness this morning, as we were carrying our kayaks across a road to a beach. A teenager on a bike zoomed right across our path, then abruptly stopped and abandoned her bike. We had to make a quick juke to avoid stumbling over it. I’m pretty sure she never noticed us. Had Dad been there, the tongue-lashing would have been severe.
Thoughtfulness and politesse are passé anymore, it seems. There’s the busyness factor, with people continually, urgently rushing here and there for some important reason, so they are to be forgiven for “overlooking” anyone in their way. Distraction is a major culprit, too, and obviously, there are more sources than there used to be. Perhaps in the case of those who interact digitally as much as face-to-face, there’s lack of practice, a dearth of knowledge of what used to be social conventions. I think, though, that when it gets down to brass tacks, the simple explanation for lack of situational awareness is not caring about it. Certainly, it takes an effort to be watchful, to be conscious of one’s space and what’s going on around it. It means looking outside oneself, instead of being completely centered on oneself. It also requires concern for the other craft in one’s orbit, and it could be that that’s asking too much in the 21st century, unless one is in a cockpit.