Saturday, January 3, 2015

Of Bumper Stickers and Façades

In the Dallas area, we spend a lot of time in traffic.  It’s a drivers’ city, where destinations are spread out. Thus, we can be found navigating high-fives, wondering if every new highway will be a tollway (and wondering what happened to freeways), and sitting at red lights. As curious as I am about people, I don’t often look at the people seated in the cars around me at stoplights. For some reason, it seems invasive. I don’t know why I feel that way; perhaps it’s because of all the leering men I noted staring back beginning at far too young an age. I simply don’t look, and I don’t like it when people look at me. What’s to see? I’m sitting there, waiting for the light to turn green. Just like everyone else.

I do, however, note everything about the cars around me. I often pass my time taking in the subtle details that tell far more than many people realize. The location and size of dings, which door handles are worn the most, Louisiana plates dated prior to Hurricane Katrina, enough clothes in the back seat to fill a closet, or a pristine car with several coats of wax all tell something about the life of the car’s owner. Some experts (though admittedly I can’t remember which experts) say you can tell how clean someone’s home is by the condition in which they keep their car; some even say that a cluttered car reflects a cluttered mind. That’s what “they” say; I’ll leave my own opinions on that out of this particular post.

Instead, I would like to focus on the fact that people know that their car, to a large degree, reflects who they are. This is why they purchase stick-figure family decals, Jack-in-the-Box antenna balls, and Christmas wreaths for their cars. Perhaps most importantly, an entirely new means of communication was invented prior to WWII to transmit messages from one car owner to another: the bumper sticker. They’re incredibly interesting and genius, if you think about it. Limited by size of sticker and ease of reading a font, a select few words must be chosen carefully to communicate the intended message. Think Twitter messages, only shorter! Some popular choices include names of political candidates, “My Child is an Honor Student at _____”, and 1-800-Baby-Due. In the 1980’s, “Sh*t Happens” was a popular choice. I laughed when that one was immortalized in the fictitious account of its inception in the film Forrest Gump.

I was not laughing the other day, however, when I read a vanity license plate before taking in the other messages on a car that had me rolling my eyes and judging the person in front of me. Have you ever just known that you probably didn’t like someone based on his or her car décor? Be honest. Whatever you hold as your core values, someone is driving around right now with messages that challenge them. What finally irritated me enough to write this post wasn’t a political message, a stance on abortion, or the claim that “My dog is smarter than your honor student.” No, it was something far sillier. A vanity plate read “DIVA69” while the message on the plate-holder exclaimed, “If it don’t make $$$, it ain’t worth it.” As I waited for the relentless red light to turn green, I thought hmmm: this person considers herself a diva. Why would you want to be thought of as a diva? Is it empowering, or is it spoiled? Willing to give the benefit of the doubt on that part, I moved on. “69.” Was that just for shock-value? Really? So middle-school. But wait – I really shouldn’t assume. Maybe this person was born in 1969. Maybe her last name is even “Diva.” Maybe. But what about that license-plate holder? To me, that was a clear message to the world that said, “I’m materialistic. Money matters more than anything to me, perhaps more than people do.” That was when I became pretty sure that this woman and I would probably never be friends. I teach, so I’m obviously about people much more than money. I, too, have a vanity plate, but it’s named after a literary character. We are just different people. As I reminded myself not to judge too harshly, that I don’t know anything about her life, really, and that even if we are vastly different, there is something to learn from everyone, I noted the type of car she was driving. Truly expensive. Okay, I thought. She might have had to fight tooth and nail to get what she has, and she is proud of her accomplishment. As I imagined this fiercely independent woman who rose to the top despite numerous obstacles, the light turned green. It turned out that she needed to turn left but wasn’t in the turn lane. Clearly, she didn’t want to wait in the long left-turn lane and had planned all along to force her way in. So much for not judging. I admit to not taking kindly to people who don’t wait their turn. Life has thrown obstacles in all of our paths, but some of us choose to be nice.

So what would my car say about me, and would it irritate people? As a Star Trek fan, one of my early favorites was “Beam me up, Scotty – there’s no intelligent life down here.” I haven’t seen that one in a while, but I’m sure I could find it online – if I wanted to send that message out about myself. You see, that early favorite does say a lot about me; I was (and still am) part of a nerd culture that embraces science fiction. More specifically, I identify with Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful vision of the future, where all people live in peace on Earth, and the focus is on learning, exploring, and protecting life rather than conquering societies and petty bickering. Hunger, war, and homelessness have been eradicated in that vision, but there is another, darker side to that sticker’s message. “There’s no intelligent life down here” reflects the SF community’s tendency to think itself superior to many other people who just don’t “get it.” As insightful as I deem myself to be, and as much as I strive to learn on a daily basis, I do admit that I still have problems relating to people who just don't "get it” – who don’t want to learn, to improve, to be kind. So while I think that the message I loved as a kid is a bit harsh, three decades later, it still resonates with me more than I’d admit by placing it on my car.

The one identifying feature on my car is its plate. Though named for a literary character who offers protection, support, wisdom, and healing, it shares its name with a historical figure. I’ve had people come up and ask why I have that name – a name associated with rebellion – on my car. This is a clear reminder that we really can’t assume much based on all of these messages, as the reasons behind why people chose them is as complex as the messages themselves.

We shape how people perceive us with what we wear, what we post on social media, our words and body language, our actions, and yes – through bumper stickers. Not privy to our thoughts, others must look at these cues to get to know us. How do we want to be seen? What façades do we have in place? Do our messages match what’s in our hearts and minds? I’d love to read your feedback on what messages you’ve chosen to share with the world, especially via your car. Please respond with a bumper sticker or decal you’ve owned, or just one you see that you find amusing or irritating.

P.S. – More research to consider: “People who opt to exhibit their individuality through these decals may take part in more acts of road rage. Colorado State University social psychologist, William Szlemko, found that aggressive driving is linked to the number of markers a person has on his/her car, regardless of the messages portrayed.” Source:

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