Why in tarnation are they honking?

Driving too slow and they’re being a speedy asshole?  Maybe.  Getting woke up when sleeping at a traffic light?  Perhaps.  Getting honkingly admonished for pedaling through a red light?  Mayhap.

Why do we use our car horn?  What are we saying?  Why some more than others? 

I may have used my horn once last year, reluctantly, but I’m a shy type of guy.

The car horn is our primary means of audible communication when driving, unless you have a CB which is its own speech community and not in question here.   Besides the horn, crude sign language (middle finger or fist shake), indecipherable cussing, blinkers and brights are our other means to speak through vehicles.  As a pedestrian or cyclist, your options are fewer.

Leaving out the issues of road rage (that’s a whole other psychological shit-mess), I spent some time pondering the language of the horn.  This is how it started.

Quick story:

I was walking with my daughter a while back when a car honked as it came down the alleyway.  I couldn’t see the car yet.  Before crossing that particular alley, you have to peak your head around because the garage obstructs the view.  I was about to peak my head.

Honk.  Honk.

Instantly and involuntarily, I felt angry.  I shook it off.  The car let us pass.  I waved in thanks, sincerely.

My reaction, that unintentional anger, bothered me for days.  I couldn’t help but wonder why did I get so mad, why the visceral reaction?  Why does the car horn instantly mean some jerkface is being a dick?  When in reality, it’s our only audible way to communicate with a vehicle, with both respect and disrespect.

This seems to be with cars or trucks only.  I can’t picture a “ringring” of a bike bell ever pissing me off.  Or a jogger saying “coming through”, then with me flipping them off in response.  What gives with the car horn?

 So I’ve been keeping a mental inventory of horn communication.

Here are some words that the horn sounds “beep” or “honk” could mean to you.  This is what I have so far:

The Horn

  • “Screw you!”  –  When someone is beeping for no good reason.  Their life sucks and they don’t know how to deal with it and they want to take it out on everyone driving and walking and biking.  Simply put, Road Rage.
  • “I’m coming through and you might not see me.”  –  This is the incident I described above.  A courtesy beep for unknowing pedestrians.
  • “Hey buddy, wake up, light’s green.”  –  When someone is sleeping at the light.  I’ve been there before, getting woke up, a third shift type of thing.
  • “Hey dude, quit texting, lights green.”  –  Probably the most common phrase for the horn nowadays.  In my opinion, this is definitely NOT a gender related issue.
  • “You almost hit me!!”  –  There is no purpose to this honk besides releasing some emotion.
  • “You hit me.”  –  It’s too late, damage is done, last bit of communication before face the accident.
  • “Hey baby!”  –  Catcalling via horn is popular followed of course by the actual catcalling.
  • “Viva los peatonales!”  Honking in protest with protestors.
  • “Horny”  No doubt Honk if you’re horny still exists.

This horn form of communication has gotten us, those without radio communication that is, through the last century I guess.  Is it enough?  Even The Roadrunner could inflect his “meep-meep”.  The best we can do is sound out every syllable of what we want to say or get a customized horn and whistle Dixie like The General Lee.  Bullhorns were in trend for a spell, but they’re probably better off being reserved for the police.

The different ways to non-audibly communicate from a car are also very neato.  The main ones are with the hand signals for turning or stopping (on a bike this is your blinker unless of course you actually have blinkers on your bike).  The headlights are used to let someone pass or to let a driver know if his lights are off when they should be on.  The one use of headlights that impresses me most is when someone is warning you that a cop is up around the bend.  There must be a law against this, okay, but I think it’s a pretty cool way to pass a message.

There may be no solutions in our future, but it is interesting to note how we humans with our insanely complex language, both verbal and non-verbal, can function audibly with one sound in such a dangerous environment. 

It baffles me, how that one sound can bring so much ire even under the most benign of circumstances.  Is that because the honk is used for anger too much?    

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