Before I get very far into this post, I ask you to read as generously as possible. It’s not that the ideas here are complex or half-baked, it’s more that I fear that this will come off as rather benign or trite unless the reader actively helps by making it their own. My motivation to write about this potentially touchy-feely topic—the influence of attitudes and dispositions—comes from an organic experience in my own life: the daily commute to work.
For the past two years, I’ve gotten up every morning to take the bus in to campus. As I have mentioned here before, my employer pays bus fares for all of its employees (ostensibly because it cuts down on campus parking costs and provides Vanderbilt with a greener image). For the first year, I commuted from Bellevue, one of Nashville’s suburbs. The ride in was about 25 minutes, so the 25-30 of us on the bus each morning—and the even larger crowd going home every afternoon--had a strong sense of community. We discussed news and politics together; we traded war stories about our different work places; hell, several of us even went out for beers on a couple of occasions. While I can’t see it was my favorite part of the week, the friendship and camaraderie certainly helped start and end the work day in a pleasant enough fashion, assuring that I went into the office with a fairly positive attitude.
At the end of this summer, when my Bonnie moved to town, we moved closer into the city, and my bus ride to work is at best a 10 minute ride on a different route. Nonetheless, there are others who catch the bus at the start of its route and hence have been on the bus almost as long as I used to ride in from the suburbs. As a result, when I first started riding, I had some level of anticipation about the new community of riders I would be joining and looked forward to interacting with a different group of people with an entirely different set of work experiences. However, when I started riding this route, it was deadly silent nearly every morning. Not only did the riders seem glum when I got on, but the bus driver was consistently and almost intentionally rude. Not only would he always pull the bus up far beyond wherever you stood to get on, not only would he never respond to a “Good Morning” or a “Thank you,” but he—I kid you not—would sometimes speed past people he saw running to get to the bus stop and point at them, as if he had won a game by getting the bus beyond their reach. He was an odd bird, no doubt, and complaints made to Nashville’s MTA seemed to have no influence on his behavior.
The good news: every six months, the drivers are given different routes. Evidently, the drivers changed hands at the beginning of March. The difference in attitude on my own route has been amazing. All of a sudden, people who have never talked to one another are chatting. There are always conversations running when I get on the bus now, and I’ve started getting to know people that I’ve sat near for months without having spoken a word. Everyone on the bus accounts for the change with the change of bus drivers. What’s interesting is that, given that we’re all adults, there was never a rule that kept us from conversing before. We simply didn’t, evidently following the lead of the attitude of the driver. It was as if a group of adults were knowingly and unknowingly cowered into silence by the attitude of a person who had no real control over our lives or well being beyond getting us from point A to point B.
OK, so in certain ways, it’s only a slightly interesting story. In other ways, however, I think we should find it fascinating. This isn’t a laboratory study; this isn’t simply speculation. I organically witnessed large changes in behavior with the change of one factor—the attitude of the “leader.” While every situation has different dynamics and power relations between people are overdetermined and multidimensional, this organic experiment has certainly got me thinking about how my attitudes influence others in formal and informal group settings. And yes, while I know it’s a lesson we’ve all known before now, it’s somewhat nice to have this reminded that—and this is clearly where I fear becoming benign—every interaction is yet another chance to improve our general emotional atmosphere. How I put such a revelation into play on a daily basis is a matter that deserves some thought.