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Is Honking Generous?

Here is a somewhat amusing question that I pose with a smile on my face, but which I also think provides an interesting example to think through some complex ideas on what generosity is. Is honking generous, or is the lack of honking generous?

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To unpack this question, I first need to provide some background. This idea originated from a conversation I had with a buddy at Rice University. We had both just transplanted ourselves and our families across the country to pursue postdoctoral fellowships in Houston. As people non-native to an area often do, we typically began our work-related discussions with some small chat regarding aspects of everyday experiences that were different from where we were from. Of course traffic is a shared complaint for most people new to the Houston area. But this particular consideration of traffic took an interesting and unexpected turn.

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My friend said he was noticing that people in Houston take longer to honk at a traffic nuisance than people do where he is from, which is the Northeast. Having grown up in South Bend, Indiana and traveled regularly to Chicago, I could relate to experiences of major honking. Plus, when I spent a summer in New York after college, I was waiting outside a coin laundry shop when I saw two men get into such a fit of honking that they both stopped their cars in the middle of a busy street, and came face to face to yell at one another. Then they got back in their cars and drove off, no punches thrown.

With this backdrop of prior experiences, my friend was wondering whether people in Houston, and perhaps the South more generally, honked less and took longer to honk because they were generally more courteous to one another than people in our prior northern locales were. In this case, he was wondering whether the absence of honking, or at least delayed honking, was a form of southern hospitality, which could also be thought of as a version of relational or interpersonal generosity.

Perhaps people gave the benefit of the doubt in being less apt to honk immediately, and then honked only when necessary. He spent a few minutes mulling over what it would take to collect data on this: perhaps having observers stationed around town in major metropolitan areas located in different regions of the country to count number of honks and duration between incident and honk. He then quickly moved on from the idea, realizing that it was unlikely he would ever be able to read results on whether or not his hunch was true.

In the years since this discussion, I have often drawn upon this example when teaching. I like to engage students in similar thought experiments, inviting them to think about questions they have about society in their everyday experiences and use this example to highlight the ways that one can think through what kind of data would be needed to investigate a claim such as this. Drawing on examples from existing research, especially the research in which I am engaged, is often challenging in introductory-level pedagogy. It is too tempting to dive into all the complexity, when the goal is rather to invite the initial thoughts and provide an open-ended context in which to explore hunches. Ultimately, I hope to have students be energized about the notion that research can be a tool for investigating our everyday circumstances, and to strengthen their critical thinking muscles for recognizing that more may be occurring than our common sense notions often support. It is nice then to have related examples.

In this pedagogical context, I invite students to not only think about what kind of data would be needed to investigate these ideas, but also to consider possible theories. "Assuming this hunch is correct, and there are in fact differences in honking durations across regional locations, what else might explain this?" Having taught at the University of Arkansas, whose students come from a mix of southern and midwestern locations, I found this kind of discussion to be a way for students to engage the similarities and differences in their prior locations. Along the way, some students from northern locations theorized that perhaps honking was actually generous.

The reasoning was as follows. Generosity in this case is defined as giving good things to others freely and abundantly, and engaging in actions that are intended to enhance the wellbeing of others. With this definition in mind, the students reasoned that, if honking was intended to benefit another, such as when one honks to alert another of danger, then honking is a form of generosity. The action is intended to protect others from harm, and could be selflessly mindful of another's wellbeing.

Alternatively, students who had lived in places with a great deal of honking would chime in to say that honking can amount to a form of noise pollution. Indeed, there are studies that investigate the negative effects of living in places with high traffic noise. Students relayed stories of civic actions to curb honking, often drawing upon the notion that to be generous to one's community involves waiting to honk until an emergency.

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Perhaps then we need some way to distinguish honks that are indicators of aggression, commonly referred to as "road rage," from honks that are intended to be helpful. To complicate matters further, there are also honks to say hello, which can be misinterpreted from the commuter who is not the intended recipient of this friendliness and could spark an aggressive reaction back, such as a counter-honk that is meant to relay a question as to why one was honked at in the first place.

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In the end then, we are left with an open question: Is honking generous, or is the lack of honking generous? While I engage this question with some humor, I also think unpacking it helps to reveal some of the complexities involved in seriously thinking about the concept of generosity more generally. This broader question - What is generosity? - is something I and a co-author engage in greater depth in our book, and GenerosityForLife is a great resource for considering multiple definitions of generosity.

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