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Friday, August 1, 2014

THE WHITE LINE

BRYCE ON SOCIETY

- What does this parable tell us about ourselves?

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Herman owned a large swath of property out in the country, sitting on a few hundred acres of farmland. The property had been in the family for several years and Herman profited greatly from it. Now, as he was getting older, his sons had picked up the management of the farm and Herman could slow down a bit. Late in the afternoon, he would often find himself sitting on his front porch drinking an iced tea. It was quiet and peaceful, maybe more than he cared for. The farm was wedged between two rural towns and the road stretched around Herman's farm causing motorists to travel several miles out of the way.

This didn't seem right to Herman. The people of the county had always been good to him and he wanted to somehow devise a way to show his appreciation and help others. He then got it in his head to build a road through his property and let people drive through it, thereby cutting down the distance between towns from fifteen miles to five.

Herman took it upon himself to build the road. He had an old bulldozer which was still in good shape, and he carved out a straight two-lane road and covered it with tar and gravel. He wanted to keep the road simple as he expected people would use good judgement, but for safety purposes, he painted a white line down the middle. Before opening the road he posted a simple sign on both ends saying, "Please practice courtesy on the road and drive safely - Your neighbor, Herman." He didn't post any signs to denote a speed limit, and there was no need for stop signs as it was simply an express lane through his property.

The local newspaper heralded the new road and praised Herman for his generosity. Local government officials were concerned though and wanted to take charge, but Herman steadfastly refused as he knew government had a tendency to complicate matters.

When the road opened, people began to drive on it almost immediately. Herman enjoyed the attention and would sit in a chair next to the side of the road and wave at the passing motorists. This became a daily ritual. It appeared Herman's plan was working fine. People were maintaining a reasonable speed and practiced a little courtesy on the road. Herman kept studying the traffic flow and was amazed how well people followed the white line.

Herman started to think about how a simple white line seemed to control driving patterns. He wondered what would happen if he moved the white line, just a little. He selected a section of road to be used as an experiment. There he repainted the white line by moving it to one side by twelve inches. This meant one side was slightly squeezed and the other wider. In another section he squiggled the line to give it a wavy appearance.

The next day, Herman sat in his chair and watched the drivers on the road. Interestingly, drivers who encountered the "thin" section of road slowed down and observed the line. Conversely, drivers on the "wide" side picked up speed. Remarkably, people would begin to swerve their car on the section marked by the wavy line. Herman thought this was particularly amusing as the road was straight.

Next, Herman removed a section of the white line and replaced it with a line of small circles, triangles and squares. He observed people slowed down when approaching this section, as they didn't quite understand the meaning of the symbols, but respected each side of the road nevertheless.

The next day, Herman removed all of the anomalies and put the white line down the middle of the road again.  This appeared to relieve the drivers and harmony returned to the highway.

From this exercise, Herman concluded people want uniformity and discipline in their lives. They are ready to accept simple rules for the purpose of cooperation. Although they could work around variances, they seemed to prefer some predictability through standardization. Such discipline meant people could think about other things as opposed to worrying about changes in the rules of the road.

Under this arrangement, Herman discovered most drivers operated their vehicles in a cooperative manner. There was no bumper-to-bumper slow downs, people would wave others to pass them at opportune moments, and there was no cursing or one finger salutes. It was just a nice comfortable ride which everyone enjoyed.

One day though, a young motorist discovered the road and drove pell-mell across it. Not only did he drive fast, but he dodged and weaved between cars, honk his horn and yell at drivers as he passed. After witnessing this, Herman became concerned and waved the motorist over to the side of the road. He discovered the young man's name was "Joe" and Herman judged him to be in his early twenties.

After Herman introduced himself, he asked the young man to slow down a bit and be a little more courteous on the road. He reminded him that this was his road and he allowed others to use it. Joe just laughed loudly in Herman's face, gunned the engine, and sped away, leaving tire tracks in the road.

Joe ignored Herman's request and continued to be a pest on the road. Whenever Herman tried to wave him over to the side of the road, Joe would just speed by him and laugh. Some of the motorists began to complain to Herman about Joe's antics and asked him to do something about it.

Despite Herman's numerous attempts to stop Joe, it was to no avail. He even considered adding speed bumps in the road, but that defeated Herman's objective of creating a comfortable ride. Nor was Herman interested in establishing a traffic cop to prevent Joe from using the road. He just wanted simple harmony on the road, but such was not to be. Finally, Herman couldn't tolerate Joe or the criticisms anymore. He realized his noble experiment had failed. Consequently, he closed the road to everyone.

The lesson here should be obvious, despite the simplest rules or laws, there is always someone who wants to violate them. They may think they are above the law, that it doesn't pertain to them, or they simply take pleasure in disrupting the lives of others and status quo. Bottom-line, Herman and the townspeople learned the hard way that it takes only a few to disrupt the lives of the many.

It is interesting what we learn from painting a simple white line. It influences how we will act and socialize, thereby denoting our perception of others, such as respect, cooperation, and basic common courtesy. A white painted line tells us a lot about the type of people we are, not to mention life in general.

Keep the Faith!

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Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M&JB Investment Company (M&JB) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at timb001@phmainstreet.com

For Tim's columns, see:   timbryce.com

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Copyright © 2014 by Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.

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  - Did Watergate teach us anything?

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