Thursday, September 3, 2009

23 minutes

So an American drives into a tunnel...

No, this isn’t the start of a bad joke, but rather an experience I had just this week. I left work at 4pm on Tuesday forgetting it was the start of Norwegian ‘rush hour’.
The four o’clock hour used to signal that the afternoon part of my workday was halfway over (I worked a lot, what can I say?), but in Norway it signals the revving of the engines for the journey home. It still feels like I am cheating someone if I leave at 4, but when in Rome and all that.

I live 3.2 kilometers from my office (yes, exactly - I tracked it), so it normally takes me less than ten minutes to jet between the two locations. But Tuesday… oh, Tuesday. On Tuesday, I lost 23 minutes (yes, I tracked that, too) of my life that I shall never get back.

I entered the aforementioned tunnel, which is just over a kilometer long, and realized immediately I had made a grave mistake. There is normally a bit of a back up, but as I was one car length in, it became apparent that there was something wrong. I sat in the same position for about 2 minutes, edged forward a car length, another two minutes… lather, rinse, repeat.

After about ten minutes of tunnel crawling, my seatbelt began to feel a little tighter, my forehead started to throb, my chest tighten. I swerved my head every which way to see what was holding up the line (I even tried to lean out of my sunroof, much to the amusement of nearby tailgaters and much to my shame in the recollection).

What was blocking the way?
How long would it take to get through?
Why was no one moving?
Why didn't I go to the bathroom before I left work?

Now I am not a laid-back person even at the best of times. But the gripping ambiguity of the situation was sending me over the edge quickly*. So why was this 23-minute experience so fraught with anxiety?

Dutch researcher and all around culture guru Geert Hofstede says that there are five dimensions to culture, with one being the concept of uncertainty avoidance. Hofstede describes uncertainty avoidance as the ability to handle vagueness and ambiguity and ultimately reflects an individual’s quest for Truth (with a capital T). My quest for Truth that day was really just to know how many minutes I was going to have to sit in my car before the sweet, sweet respite of gray daylight emerged from the other end.

According to Hofstede’s research, Americans tend to have a high tolerance for uncertainty and do not need to know the ‘what comes next’ in every situation in order to feel comfortable and secure. Clearly Hofstede did not ask me about this predilection. Norwegians also fall into this same category, meaning they do not believe in one ‘best way’ of finding Truth. Because I didn’t personally identify with either of those situations, I did a little digging to see with which country I was most closely aligned when it comes to uncertainty avoidance.

It would appear I share a philosophical kinship on this topic with China.
Who knew?

The bottom line is that I have learned my lesson and will no longer leave the office at the same time as every other Stavanger Sentrum employee. I will no longer enter a tunnel when I can see it is already backed up. And if I do enter said tunnel, I will not have a flat out panic attack if I don’t move along quicker than 3 kilometers an hour. Instead, I will think about Hofstede and the fact that a billion other Chinese people would likely be panic attacking right along with me. Even if it is 23 minutes I will never get back, it’s not the end of the world either.
* I realize this makes me sound like a crazy person, but I promised to always tell the truth in this blog. And the truth is, I am a crazy person. I just usually do a better job of hiding it.