Everyone can remember at least one deep conversation they had in a car, wherever that was with a friend, partner or family member. Maybe it was even with your Uber driver after a particularly alcohol-fuelled evening.
There is something about cars that helps you to cut the bullshit and gets us really talking. We stop hiding behind our defences and allow the conversation to enter difficult territory.
That might be sharing how much you’ve been struggling, or finally confronting someone. You might feel inspired to share your deepest ambitions and dreams. Or maybe you’re ready to admit something you’ve never said out loud.
But why does this feel easier during a car ride?
It’s not often in life that we have the same goal as someone else. This may be why you quickly become close to colleagues, often admitting things to your work bestie that you usually wouldn’t say to a near-stranger.
For the most part, we’re going on our own path that intersects with others briefly. You might meet a friend for coffee, but then you’re heading to daycare to pick up the little ones while they’re going to the gym. You might cook dinner for someone, but then you’ll return to your own paths.
But during a car ride, you have the rare occasion of having a shared journey. You are travelling to the same destination. Even if you’re dropping them off before you go to your own home, you’re first travelling together to their address.
This shared purpose and destination can provide a feeling of intimacy, as you’re grouped together. Social psychologists have long researched the impact of group behaviour, and how we can feel such a grouping based on any number of factors, including a sports team, a fandom or a class. In this case, your grouping is based on that shared destination.
This closeness will lead you to open up more than you usually would, and feel like you’re on the same page. You assume they will be on your side, and they’re likelier to be as well.
It’s rare to be facing the same direction as your conversation partner. Most of the time, we sit or stand opposite the person we’re speaking to - unless you’re that one couple in a restaurant that have to be stuck together like glue.
But during a car journey, we have the unique opportunity to be seated directly beside someone as we converse with them. As a passenger, you might turn to look at the other person, but the same (hopefully!) can’t be said of the driver.
This removes eye contact almost entirely. We recognise eye contact to be one of the most important facets of social connection, and yet removing it has a huge impact. Because while eye contact can allow you to feel connected to someone, it can also be confronting.
The eyes are supposedly the window to your soul, and if I’m sharing some inner trauma or embarrassing story, I might not want to gaze into your soul at the same time. So facing a window or the road can allow you to feel like you’re almost speaking to yourself, and provide a distraction so you’re less aware of the intensity of what you’re sharing.
When we face someone, our mirror neurons are likely to be firing off. They’re vital in empathy, and lead us to mirror someone’s behaviours, expressions or emotions. Even though these are important in conversations, they can also distract us and force us to respond too quickly.
Sitting side by side means we can take our time to speak and respond, shunning traditional conversation etiquette and polite talk.
It’s also been shown that holding eye contact requires a consistent level of mental effort. So perhaps once that is removed, we find it easier to channel our energy into the conversation and keep it flowing.
I spoke to Tee Twyford, a leadership coach and founder of HUSTLE + hush, and she listed this as one of the main reasons why car conversations are so fruitful.
Here’s what she had to say, “Sat in the car, especially side by side, has a lovely metaphorical energy of putting a problem or challenge between us. It brings us closer. We’re on the same side, coming from a level playing field and looking out into the conversation with a shared perspective.”
Sometimes on a long car journey, it can feel like the rest of the world ceases to exist. It’s just you, the radio, the open road… and the person beside you.
You become removed from your familiar territory and with it, the social restrictions. You might feel slightly less tethered to people back home, and feel comfortable revealing their secrets or interactions you’ve had.
Your enclosed space can also feel like more of a safe space, so you’re willing to open up further and admit things you usually wouldn’t.
Research suggests we feel safer in small spaces, likely due to an evolutionary need to find a secure and protected area.
So you feel like you can be more honest in this protected area, and that they’ll protect you (or your feelings).
The movement of a car ride usually makes me quite sleepy, but it turns out that this movement is one of the main reasons why cars are ideal for deep conversations.
Tee said, “There’s also something powerful about the forward movement of a car journey that lends itself well to shaking things up and encouraging momentum. As the journey speeds along and the scenery passes us by, it encourages us to put aside things that may have prevented us speaking more openly in other settings and offers us the chance to make some progress on a topic where we’ve felt stuck, stagnant or have struggled to see a way forward.”
We’re mirroring the journey we see outside in our conversation. We’re seeing the wide world and allowing ourselves to be as open. Or maybe that sleepiness just makes us a bit calmer when discussing things!
This can sound like a bad thing, and sometimes it is. I still remember being eighteen and getting absolutely roasted by my mum on a car ride. I don’t even remember what I did, but looking back, I’m sure she had good reason to be furious with me.
Being stuck together sounds negative, but sometimes we need that push, that perfect situation.
Alison Blackler, a Mind Coach who runs 2minds, found that this forced proximity is key to those incredible conversations.
She said, “Good conversations often happen because ‘there is no where else to go’ and while body language can be really important to gauge another’s reactions, not having eye contact can feel less intense.”
“A car journey means that you are ‘stuck’ together for a set amount of time, and relatively relaxed. There are less physical distractions and time can feel different – almost less hectic. When people are sitting next to each other, this can be less confrontational so more difficult conversations can work well. The lack of eye contact often means that each person takes their time to think and respond, which is so different when looking at each other. As talking is the secondary action when driving and because the driver is not fully engaged on the one task of having a difficult conversation, it might feel like there is less of a need to be defensive.”
A car ride can make you stop running, and provide a neutral ground for an important conversation.
A car journey is not the place to corner someone into an awful conversation. They might feel attacked or get defensive due to the enclosed space. Your fellow passenger should be a willing participant in this conversation. Don’t use a car as a way to trap someone into a conversation, but rather a chance to go deeper than you usually would.
And it should go without saying, but if the driver is not confident in their ability, or you’re driving somewhere more difficult than usual, keep conversation to a minimum! Safety first, please. Like Alison said, talking is the “secondary action when driving”, not the first.
I asked Alison for some tips for handling difficult conversations in a car ride, and she recommended the following, “Let the other person know that you would like to talk about something before the journey rather than just spring it on them. Give the journey a bit of time to start before raising the topic. In any difficult conversation, it is effective to talk more about how you are feeling rather than blaming, accusing or talking about what the other person is doing. Use ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’. Be ok with some silence – both parties need to be able to process what has been said.”
And now that you know why we have our best conversations during car journeys, you can plan one next time you need to confront someone or have a deep talk. If you need to chat to your partner about finances, or admit a deep-rooted issue to a friend, it’s time for a classic road trip!
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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