Danny Wallace and the cold case of brinkmanship at the Tesco car park
Danny gets in a little spot of bother
A man keeps beeping his horn at me.
It’s like he’s using it as his own bleep button, censoring the furious words that are also coming out of his mouth.
“I’m sorry!” I try to mouth, but he’s having none of it. He is furious that I kept him waiting because I didn’t know if he was letting me in or not. It was a classic ‘after you’ moment that has backfired badly. He seemed to be letting me go first, but then he didn’t want me to go first. His face is puce now, because I’m apparently driving too slowly, and when he’s not hitting his horn he’s hitting his steering wheel.
Well, swear away, Sweary Simon (sorry if this is offensive), for all it’ll do is delay you!
Why? Because his outrage causes me to slow my car right down – right down to what you could call a legal ‘pootle’ – and I now raise my eyebrows and give him a slow shake of the head in the rear-view mirror. As someone who has written a whole book on rudeness, I should really not be behaving in this highly provocative manner, but it’s vital that he now think I pity him.
Beeeeep! he goes again, and he is going absolutely mad in there. He looks like the coyote once again outsmarted by Road Runner. Although for that analogy to truly work, it should be me going beep beep.
But as we roll through the streets, and turn left together, then turn right together, I begin to slowly realise something: either this man is now following me, or we are going to the same place.
Uh-oh. We’re going to the same place. He must have realised this too, because he’s stopped beeping now. He’s dropped back a bit as well. I speed up a little and sit up in my seat. I glance nervously at him in my mirror. If this was a sitcom, it would turn out he was my new bank manager, or the local vicar. The truth is more mundane. It’s Saturday and we’re both off to Tesco.
This will be problematic for three main reasons.
1) We’re both going to get out of our cars in a minute.
2) We have both started to pretend we want confrontation. Him with his swearing and honking, and me with my sneery, patronising behaviour. He has the makings of a maniacal dictator who might at any moment order a military parade to show off his might, and I am the arrogant Western elite.
3) Neither of us is likely, on closer inspection, to be the sort of man who would go through with a fight in a supermarket car park based solely on one minor traffic disagreement, but it is vital that we both now pretend we are precisely the sort of men who would welcome this escalation for almost no reason whatsoever, simply in order to maintain our own sense of superiority. This is precisely how nuclear stand-offs begin.
But I frown upon nuclear stand-offs. And look – I tried diplomacy; I tried to mouth the words, “I’m sorry!” after his misfired ‘after you’ but he was having none of it. His failure to let me go first means we’ve engaged in dangerous brinkmanship, pushing each other’s buttons and finding ourselves in a Cold War we each blame the other for.
We’re at Tesco. The car park.
It’s rammed. We both know we want to find spaces miles away from each other.
“Oh God,” I think. I’m going to have to work on my walk. We both are. We’re going to have to puff out our chests and swagger to the automatic doors. Then immediately speed up and peg it round that shop like we’re on Supermarket Sweep.
He parks a row away from me. He swung his car into his space a little too quickly, trying to send a message that he is not fussed about me and therefore can drive his car quickly. I slowly positioned mine, trying to show him I am confident enough to park slowly and have no need of impressing him. I hope it impressed him.
Then we open our doors almost simultaneously, both pretending we’re not keeping an eye on the other. This is it. And then – YES. The pressure is too much for him. He buckles. He pretends to dawdle. He’s acting like he’s spotted a mark on his car which he has to stand there and rub off. He is play acting!
“Hahaha!” I think. “I am the real man! Victory!”
I swagger towards the automatic doors, but it is like my swagger has given him new anger. He begins to walk towards the doors too. I quicken my pace so we do not arrive there together. But he has already quickened his, in order to overtake me. He is too slow. I am already there. I am about to enter Tesco before another man and this is the greatest day of my life!
But wait, Danny. Think of the fallout. The endless jangling nerves every time you round an aisle and see him there again. The tensions at check out. And what if we end up driving home together, too?
“After you,” I say, turning, and letting him go first.
“Thanks,” he says.
And that is how you let someone go first.
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