The highway is definitely not a space created for verbal communication, as cars rely on signal lights and loud honks to interact with fellow drivers. But according to new research out of the University of Kansas, there is one thing on the highway that’s talking on behalf of drivers: their bumper stickers.
Walter Goettlich, a doctoral student in sociology, drove over 10,000 miles on the interstate system throughout the eastern half of the United States to gather data and conduct interviews to learn about the ways we interact with bumper stickers, and how they manage to form a conversation of their own along the asphalt. Goettlich presented his research this past weekend at the American Sociological Association’s Annual Meeting in Montreal.
Predictably, bumper stickers also cause observers to pass judgments about their owners. A New York Yankees sticker indicated arrogance to a respondent, while a Harley-Davidson sticker implied a “good guy” to the same person. These associations are often as much based on the person viewing the bumper sticker as they’re based on the bumper sticker itself. That is, unless it’s something more self-explanatory, like, “My Son is in the U.S. Air Force.”
In the case of the more esoteric of bumper stickers, meanings can be misconstrued. Goettlich gives the example of the “shocker” bumper sticker, a hand symbol you probably know, but he evidently didn’t. Apparently, after some research, Goettlich realized the stupid, immature implication of the gesture and its misogynistic title, but he also learned that it happens to be a symbol associated with the JDM custom modding car subculture.
Either way, it’s the kind of thing that would elicit an eye roll from most female drivers.
“As I’ve discussed above, the abstract notion of objective authority is not a concern in the construction of meanings, imputation of subjectivities, or the extension of interaction spaces around bumper sticker texts,” Goettlich writes.
Eye rolls or not, Geottlich argues that bumper stickers still play an interesting role in the way we communicate non-verbally along the highway.
“It’s a form of social encounter,” Goettlich says. “I think it’s important to pay attention to this, especially as many political pundits and social critics lament declining public involvement. In these kinds of spaces, especially highways, malls, and airports, how do we maintain social connections? And what are the limitations of these connections, particularly if we already have somebody pegged or labeled as something?”