What zipper merging can teach us about human interaction
Some people are late bloomers and other people are late mergers, like me. Late merging is a maneuver used in driving on a highway when there’s a sign that says “Lane Closed Ahead,” and it’s a metaphor. Separating people by how they merge in traffic is another way of binary sorting that feels familiar but is often unfair.
What the other side doesn’t get is that late mergers do the zipper because we believe it is the right thing to do for ourselves and for our community of fellow drivers.
By “the other side,” I mean the people in vehicles on the highway who rush to form a long line in the left lane to wait in and feel righteous about the minute they see the “Right Lane Closed” sign and then get mad at the people who pass them on the right and need to move left at the merge point. We are not cheating. We are helping – and we can’t help it.
We read reports and hear news stories that we believe to be true. Filling up the right lane to capacity until the merge point is the most efficient use of time and space, say the traffic engineers. It keeps things flowing. If we had bumper stickers they might say “Zipper mergers go with the flow.”
“The maneuver is known as the late merge – or zipper merge, for the way that cars taking turns getting into a lane resembles the teeth of a zipper coming together. The move, in which drivers in dense, slow-moving traffic remain in the lane that will be closed and then pull into the other lane at the merge point, helps ease congestion and drivers’ frustrations, experts said,” reported The New York Times, one of numerous media sources touting the genius of late merging.
Being a zipper-merger type sounds exciting, but what it really means is that we are the people to whom others react quickly and viscerally and sometimes very harshly. It’s frustrating and sad, frankly, because we are judged based on misunderstanding.
Pull the zipper-merger maneuver on your way home from work, and bam! To the people waiting in line on your left, you immediately become the jerk who cuts the line.
As you drive by (as you should) toward the merge point, passing the line of halting vehicles, and then slip in without having to stop, you are regarded by some as highly offensive, entitled in their eyes, and rude. You are a cheater – and probably a member of the coastal elite.
Fellow zipper mergers know a little what it’s like to write a newspaper column.
Some people get so mad. And so quickly! It’s like they do the equivalent of leaning on the horn in their comments on social media in response to an article that sets them off with a buzzword or position about a topic that doesn’t square with ingrained expectations. There is no effort made to understand any possible altruistic motivation behind the column, like the zipper merge, or even to understand the actual point of view of the author.
Some readers are like some drivers – they see someone or something and react with fierce, knee-jerk, partisan sorting and are quickly offended. A phrase or a word is like a switch: A light goes on and these readers become outraged.
They want to block words and opinions with which they disagree, like the people who maneuver their cars and trucks just enough to block late mergers and make it so everyone has to wait in line.
Little do they know their passionate disagreement is based on a faulty premise about the writer’s motives and intent. What they don’t see is that everyone has a shared interest in reaching their destination safely and on time. Zipper mergers and good columnists are just doing what they think is best and what they are supposed to do. They get in whatever lane is the right one based on the news and reports they believe to be true.
I was not always a late merger, and doing the zipper still causes some angst. The New England manners I was indoctrinated with by my parents and grandparents make me pause and question briefly my actions as I’m blowing by the cars in line toward the merge point, but then I remember that my parents and grandparents are polite, not stupid. If they knew what I know they would do the zipper, I’m certain, and they include both Republicans and Democrats.
So in which camp do you fall? Imagine you are driving down Interstate 295 south from Augusta to Portland. It’s summer and there is construction and heavy traffic. You see a sign that says “Right Lane Closed” and you see a very long single line of cars queuing up politely in the left lane. Their speed slows dramatically and they creep along in a line of cars so long there is a long stretch of the right lane empty before it eventually closes, as the sign warned it would.
Do you feel a duty to get in line at the back, applying good manners and Yankee stoicism to the situation, or do you keep driving in the right lane until the merge point because reports about the science and rationale for the zipper merge make sense and feel good?
Things are not always what they appear, and people and organizations change.
Sorting people and judging them by their political stripes can be as misleading as sorting zipper mergers with cheaters. There’s usually a reason why people do what they do – or, in my opinion, there should be.
As published in the Portland Press Herald