Courtesy and Crowding

Continuing my theme of posts with no clear bottom line but a mystery for readers to solve, here's a puzzle inspired by my recent travels. When I lived in Los Angeles in 1990-1991, I had the impression that drivers were unusually courteous. Having just spent two days in the City of Angels, I got the exact opposite impression. Here are three possible explanations:

1) Angelinos have become less courteous in the last 17 years;
2) As I've gotten older, I've become more crotchety, so that stuff that didn't used to bug me, now does;
3) When I came to L.A. in 1990, I was moving from Boston, which has notoriously discourteous drivers (conditioned to be that way by driving on too-narrow roads); I've come for this most recent visit after living and driving for a month in Ithaca, where drivers are courteous, it being a college town without a whole lot of traffic.

I'm inclined towards explanation number 3 and more generally towards the view that crowding people makes them surly. That's the upshot of John Calhoun's studies of the effect of crowding on rats, and it jibes with much anecdotal evidence that people who are overcrowded become stressed out. Angelinos are NOT crowded in their living space; the city is notoriously spread out; however, L.A.'s highways are terribly crowded (and have been so for decades); incidents of road rage may be less common than when the phenomenon first came to public attention, but it's hardly surprising that the term first appeared in L.A.

And now the mystery: Why are the citizens of one of the world's most notoriously crowded countries---Japan---also notoriously polite? I'll offer a hypothesis and then invite others: Japan has been crowded for so long that its culture has had to adapt to the fact of crowding, through ritualized politeness that prevents actual stress-induced discourteousness and rage from surfacing. If this hypothesis is correct, then the question is why such a culture hasn't yet evolved in highly crowded American cities.

Posted by Mike Dorf