Hitch-hiking: A Course in Personal Development?

By: Bernd Wechner
© February 1, 1998

Hitch-hiking: A Course in Personal Development?

Hitch-hiking: A Course in Personal Development?

Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: February 1, 1998

I was recently reading an interesting report on hitch-hiking in Germany by the Federal Bureau of Police there (Bundeskriminalamt or BKA in German). They make a very strong distinction between short- and long-distance hitch-hikers. Of the two they say:

    In the year 1984 the (East) Berlin police recorded 9 murdered hitch-hikers of which 7 were short distance hitchers and 2 were long distance hitchers.

My first impression was kind of like, "wow, that's a lot of dead hitchers!" And it is. Before your alarm bells start ringing wildly and you go out and burn all your hitcher's guide books, though, I should put it into context. The authors are prudent enough to observe that:

    Between April 1981 and February 1988 the Berlin Police registered 59 crimes among short distance hitch-hikers in Berlin. Of these 53 occurred after 7 pm.

The message there of course is that hitching home from the pub or disco of a night is what kills most hitchers by a long way. But I don't want here to talk about risks just yet; there will be time for that later. Instead, I'd like to turn back to the first quote, taking note that only two out of nine dead hitchers were long-distance hitchers.

Well, there are two ways you might explain a discrepancy like that. Firstly, there may be many more short-distance hitchers than long-distance hitchers, and I have to confess that's a strong possibility. The authors don't enter into any speculation on the matter though and it remains a mystery for now.

The other source of such a discrepancy might be that long-distance hitch-hikers are less likely to be killed than short distance hitch-hikers. That too is a strong possibility and let me explain why, leaning on yet another quote from the BKA. They write:

    . . . the risk of falling victim to a crime while hitch-hiking is strongly defined by the process of interaction between the driver and passenger.

What are they saying here? Well, I don't want to present pages of extracts here, and you'll have to accept my representation, I guess. Essentially, they argue that hitch-hiking crimes (with the exception of pre-planned crimes) don't just happen to you, they are much rather the product of a process of interaction between the driver(s) and passenger(s) and each of the players has a hand in the game and a chance to control the outcome. They are describing a social game here, not a physical game. It has to do with a relationship (driver-passenger) and the evolution and management of that relationship.

Well, I was pleased to read this from the German police, to be honest. It added a voice of respect, so to speak, to an idea that had been bouncing around in the back of my mind for a long time. Let me approach from another angle and see whether you agree.

Hitch-hiking is unusual in my experience in that it puts the hitch-hiker in a situation where, for the most part, some form of conversation or entertainment is expected. It's a rare ride where the driver and passenger travel in silence. So there is little option as a rule, and the hitch-hiker is more or less obliged to converse if not actually pressed to it. Add to that the fact that the partner in the conversation, the driver, is a person not taken from the hitch-hiker's own social circle, but could be anyone. As a result, the hitch-hiker is often sitting beside and conversing with someone they may have nothing to do with, by choice, in their day-to-day life.

To further complicate the situation, there is a kind of pressure to get on. The hitch-hiker has time to spend with this driver and it's in the hitch-hiker's interest to get along and avoid any stress, so to speak. I mean, who wants to spend an hour or more in a car with a pile of stress in the air? Most of the time it's a bit hard to say "Well, you're a bloody idiot, and could you please just let me out right here thank you."

This applies from time to time when the driver is clearly a racist, sexist, bigot or any other type of fiend the hitch-hiker may in actuality carry considerable disrespect for. In the extreme, this driver may even be an axe-murderer after all.

Now we're getting onto the BKA's territory again. That is, unless this axe-murderer has set out with preconceived intention of killing (and the BKA argue that while this is possible, it is no more likely that you'll run into this kind of person while hitch-hiking than anywhere or anytime else in your life), the question of whether or not he does kill is one in which the hitch-hiker has a stake and a hand to play. Depending entirely upon how the hand is played, the hitcher may live or die.

This is an extreme expression of the more general observation that, depending upon how the hand is played, the hitch-hiker may maintain an agreeable relationship with the driver or suffer a stressful confrontation. This is true if the stressful confrontation is only the exchange of some bad feelings, judgments, unpleasant body language or violent blows. The expressions of a smooth relationship and a dysfunctional relationship will be very situation- and participant-specific.

So now we come back to the observed possibility that the long-distance hitch-hiker is less likely to be murdered than the short-distance hitch-hiker. I'm suggesting, of course, that the long-distance hitch-hiker has much more experience at hitch-hiking, and as a result much more practice at getting along with a diverse range of people. As a result, the long-distance hitch-hiker may have better relationship management skills, may be better able to avert a confrontation or may be a better diplomat basically, than the short distance hitch-hiker. The short-distance hitch-hiker, with a ride of a quarter hour or so, can just hold his breath and get out when the moment comes.

That, in any case, is my personal experience. I have ridden with bigots, racists and violently emotive people on occasion. Believe me, I had to find a way to converse fluidly, exchanging ideas and notions, without offering the true depth of my feelings. In another situation, on more solid ground, I would have been much more aggressive. I have no trouble shouting down racists and bigots from a position of comfortable security. I admit it, I'm a coward. Sitting next to a driver I met only moments ago, on the driver's territory, carrying a certain gratitude for the ride and all, I am not about to stand by my deepest principles, at least not too loudly and vehemently. If I do at all, then it is in moderation and softly. In essence, I am compelled to be diplomatic.

My suggestion then, is that regular hitch-hiking compels a person to practice diplomacy, that regular hitch-hiking can help to develop a personality, to strip away the brash certainties of youth, bring one face to face with the diversity of human opinion and nature, and compel one to learn how to get on with people. In short, hitch-hiking can work as a course in personality development.

Outward Bound, by the way, is an international school that offers all of these things in an endurance course, putting you together with 10 other people and making you live out of one another's pockets for a month of ordeals. They have nothing though to do with hitch-hiking — they have enough insurance problems as it is. I undertook just such a course in 1991, and the similarities strike me as noteworthy, though Outward Bound goes to some trouble to create confronting situations between participants, while the hitch-hiker has to cope with them only haphazardly.

In closing, let me quote the BKA's report once more with relation to women hitch-hiking. They say:

    Women hitch-hike because this is accepted as an ordinary practice among certain social groups. They gain thereby the self-confidence boosting experience of being able to overcome even delicate situations.

So they are saying that women who hitch-hike gain confidence over time as they realise that they have a hand to play in managing their relationships with drivers; that they are not mere pawns to whom things happen, but active players in the game; that they master delicate situations from time to time and the experience helps them to win further success on the playing field. This seems to me a good bridge between this month's article and a future article in which I'll talk a little more about women and hitch-hiking.


The BKA report is of course in German, and I have presented translations. For the sake of fairness, I'll cite the original text for two of the quotations in the article above — those that present ideas rather than mere numbers. For the sake of amusement, I'll also present the translation into English that the Alta Vista on-line translator provides, I trust you'll prefer my translations . . .

    Original: Abgesehen von vorsaetzlichen Gewaltstraftaten, denen man beim Trampen wie andernorts zum Opfer fallen kann, wird das Opfer-risiko beim Trampen in besonderem Masse durch den Interaktions-prozess zwischen Fahrer und Mitfahrer gepraegt.

    Alta Vista: Apart from deliberate force criminal offences, which one can to be fallen with the Trampen as in another place to the victim, the victim risk is coined/shaped with the Trampen in particular by the interaction process between drivers and passengers.

    My translation: Apart from pre-planned crimes, to which one can fall victim while hitch-hiking or anywhere else, the risk of falling victim to a crime while hitch-hiking is strongly defined by the process of interaction between the driver and passenger.

    Original: Die Ergebnisse der Untersuchengen erklaeren dass Frauen Traempen, weil dies zu normalen Gewohnheiten bestimmter sozialer Bezugspersonen zaehlt. Sie machen dabei die das Selbstbewusstsein foerdernde Erfahrung, auch heikle Situationen ueberwinden zu koennen.

    Alta Vista: The results that analysis gene explain the fact that Mrs. Traempen because this among normal habits of certain social reference persons ranks. They make thereby its the promoting experience to be able to overcome also delicate situations.

    My translation: The results of the analysis suggest that women hitch-hike because this is accepted as an ordinary practice among certain social groups. They gain thereby the self-confidence boosting experience of being able to overcome even delicate situations.

If you're feeling generous and want to express gratitude for the work presented here, by all means donate some money.