Why do People (Still) Pick Up Hitch-Hikers?

By: Bernd Wechner
© April 1, 2002

Why do People (Still) Pick Up Hitch-Hikers?

Why do People (Still) Pick Up Hitch-Hikers?

Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: April 1, 2002

I once took a slightly histrionic look at the virgin hitch-hiker standing by the roadside, wondering if anyone would ever stop, and if so why? I mean there's this goofy person standing by the side of the road waving a thumb or a sign, you've no idea who they are, have a split second to make up your mind, and then slam on the brakes ... All seems a little unlikely at times, especially to that first time hitcher with only hear-say to base any hint of confidence on and a pile of nerves activated by the novelty of this fish-in-a-bowl experience.

Well they do stop, and they have their reasons of course. But why? Good Samaritans? Well maybe, but most people would suspect it's for the company. You're driving alone, and here's someone to talk to, and hey, you can help them out at the same time, why not. Certainly there's a question of predisposition, you don't debate the issue with yourself on the spur of the moment, or if you do you've long driven by before you draw a conclusion (possibly muttering regrets to yourself about not having lent a hand).

Well company is certainly a prime motivator in many ways, but it is a little too simple to leave it there. When I read Mario Rinvolucri's wonderful treatise on hitching though, it opened my eyes to something I'd not considered before.

Consider this: the relationship that hitch-hiker and a hitch-hikee share is rather unique - unparalleled in fact. I can think of no analogous situation. The relationship is reliably transient, you will in all likelihood never see one another again. It's reliably anonymous, only slightly more so in the one direction than the other (the driver does have licence plates, but few hitchers note them down after all).

There's almost no face to face contact, the driver at least focusing (one hopes) on the road. Entering the car involves an unusually restricted and fleeting view of one another through a car window or passenger door. I've often registered subtle surprise at our respective appearances (or sizes) on those odd occasions I suddenly stand face to face with a driver due to a toilet or petrol stop on a long shared trip.

The relationship is tangibly tinged with a feeling of debt on the part of the hitcher and of righteousness on the part of the hitchee. The latter extending a perceived favour to the former.

Conversations tend flow on account of a feeling that they should, the hitcher feels an obligation to talk, or to listen whichever suits the situation. But silence is a little uncomfortable.

You're not going to be judged by this person, well not for long anyway, you needn't live under the shadow of any judgements in the long run. So you can afford to expose a little of yourself, take a little risk. There's everything to gain, and very little to lose. So the conversations tend to be much more open, revealing, and venturous than those in ordinary life.

I can testify to it. I've enjoyed this very phenomenon for years. It can be kind of like a confessional, or a counselling session of sorts. I've laid it all on the line at one stage or another. I've heard it all. And at times a lasting relationship of sorts has grown of it. I lived for some three weeks with an Italian woman, who picked me up on the road. We're still in touch. One of many stories.

Homosexual advances are rather common for these very reasons. I've received more homosexual advances in other peoples cars than anywhere else (toilets and change rooms coming in a close in second) and it's a little perturbing to be honest. But what better place to 'come out' so to speak. No one will ever know, the worst thing you face is rejection, but a very transient rejection at that.

Mario has stories of criminals picking hitchers up while on the run, immediately after the crime even, confessions on occasion ... I've been picked up by an armed robber just out after 20 years in jail,sharing his regrets ... a friend has been picked up by three Spaniards in a stolen car!

There are of course many reasons why people stop, but one thing seems sure, the question is not so simple as you might have thought at first. Is human psychology ever?

I think it fitting to close the question with Mario's words, he certainly brought me to think about it more than I had before:

    So the short answer to the question: Why do people give lifts? is: because they need to. They give lifts because of themselves, not principally because of the people asking for the lifts. Hitch-hikers are the supply and the demand comes from the drivers. As in commercial exchange the existence of a self advertising supply creates a further demand. The existence of a thumb-waving hitcher makes the man driving alone suddenly realise he would prefer not to be alone. Hitch-hikers should rejoice that lift giving is so firmly based on driver self-interest -- if it weren't, if only altruistic saints gave lifts, London to Edinburgh would be quicker walked than thumbed.

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