Anyone who has ever boarded a crowded public transportation bus has witnessed this phenomenon: a line of people stand outside waiting to board. But the people already on board — standing in the aisle — refuse to scoot back so that the passengers outside can get on. Even when the back of the bus is nearly empty.
The infamous look of stress comes across the bus driver’s face, as they resort to shouting the same request over and over and over.
“Please move towards the back of the bus, people,” the drivers say.
Only by the third or fourth repeat of the phrase do people actually begin to move back. And even then, they do it slowly and grudgingly.
Can this problem be solved?
On my way to work one morning, during the first snowfall of the winter in Chicago, I witnessed one stone-faced woman take a stand. We were sitting down across from each other, and the bus had just stopped to pick up another load of passengers.
As predicted, the line didn’t budge, and the people outside waited patiently for the standers to wake up and move down the aisles. The bus driver shouted his request once. No movement.
Then — quite unpredictably — the woman across from me looked up with bulging eyes at the stagnant line of passengers.
“MOVE BAAAAACK,” she howled.
Like a herd of sheep, the line of passengers moved swiftly, all the way to the back of the bus.
I had never seen this occur with the bus driver — the one who we would presume to have more authority than any of the passengers. What was the difference between her and the bus driver? Did one have more authority than the other?
There are a few possible explanations, but I think the best one is that the passengers were so caught off-guard by the woman, that their brains were forced to process what she was saying. Contrast that with the predictable iterations of the bus drivers, shouted towards a crowd of people distracted by gadgets and books.
There very well may not have been anything unique or revealing about the situation, but I believe there is. Perhaps it shows us that novelty can be as persuasive as authority.
The implications for public relations are that unpredictability may be one of the most effective paths to gaining consumer attention. Commit to the unexpected, no matter how small the action. Those who break through predictability may have an authority all their own.
What are your thoughts?