The My-Bad Beep and the Thank-You Flash

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thank you car cropA couple of months ago I was driving my 13-year-old son to baseball practice, and I inadvertently got in the wrong lane at a stop light. I had to cut into the right lane, and the guy behind me beeped in annoyance.

“I know,” I muttered. “Sorry.”

“Think he heard you?” my son teased.

We talked about how useful it would be to have a way to communicate something other than anger or danger with your horn, and he came up with the “My-Bad Beep.” It would make a different sound, and the other driver would know you were apologizing and taking responsibility for being in the wrong.

Several weeks later, we devised the “Thank-You Flash.” When you want to thank another driver for giving you the quick high beams and letting you make that tricky left turn against oncoming traffic, you would flash your lights back, but they would be a different color.

“A grateful color,” I said. “Pink?”

“No,” he said. “Blue.”

Now every car will come pre-installed with the My-Bad Beep and the Thank-You Flash! And the world will be a better place in which to drive—a courteous, well-mannered, responsibility-accepting place … even in our hometown of Boston! Now that’s one heck of a fantasy.

As long as we’re fantasizing, how about if each person came pre-installed with a My-Bad and Thank-You button of some kind, making it dramatically easier to apologize and express appreciation. These are critical interpersonal skills.  Let’s make them simple!

(Okay, back to earth now, Sandra Bullock.)

Remorse and Gratitude. Two primal human emotions, yet for very different reasons they can be so difficult to express. No one wants to be in a position of regret—we all hope we’ll do the right thing all the time, but we won’t, will we? We’ll screw up. That’s us, we’re human. And once we screw up, we hope that we’ll be adult enough to admit it, but we won’t always, because it’s hard. Sometimes accepting responsibility and delivering a sincere apology is absolutely excruciating.

Gratitude can be easy to express, and we hope that we’ll always remember to thank every single person who does something nice for us, but we won’t because we’re in a hurry or we’re distracted or we think we’re owed something. We’re human, we can be flakey, and occasionally we’re entitled jerks.

It can also be hard to express gratitude in a way that satisfies the degree of thanks we want to communicate. “I can’t thank you enough.” There simply aren’t the right words or gestures to do justice to how grateful we feel. And so, we say “Thank you!” and it feels like we just gave this wonderful, generous person a big old plastic bag full of nothing.

As a fiction writer, remorse and gratitude are top shelf liquors on the bar of storytelling.  A story in which the characters never do anything they regret, and fully appreciate everything they have when they have it? Come on, that’s no story at all. (Unless the characters aren’t actually human, but still, I don’t think it would hold my interest.)

So, in a seeming non-sequitor, just in case you are living in a cave on a deserted island on Pluto and missed the incessant playing of  “Santa, Baby” in all the stores, I’ll remind you that we are now in the season of gift-giving. We may not have the My-Bad Beep and Thank-You Flash installed in our cars—or in our hearts. But we know how to say I’m sorry, and we know how to say Thank you.

And just maybe those are the best gifts of all.

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