Moving Relationships

Befriending the Automobile to Relieve Anxiety

Jameson M. Wetmore

 

As Sara began the long drive up one of Ithaca’s infamous hills, she became a bit worried. Her hand-me-down car was beginning to lose the momentum it had built up on the approach. She heard the engine become more and more strained for power. As she began to question her car’s ability to make it to the top of a hill, she suddenly blurted out "C’mon Betsy C’mon!"

In a sudden, frustrated plea, Sara had done three interrelated things. First she had talked to her car. Second she had given her car a human name. Third, by acting as though she was communicating to it as she would a human being, she had anthropomorphized it.

Sara had never named a piece of technology before, nor had she ever thought of her car as a living thing. But over the subsequent months she reflected on this experience. She decided that the name "Betsy" was appropriate for her automobile, despite the fact that she had first used it before she even realized what she was saying. The name conjured up images of cows for her and was thus good for a car that, according to her, was the traditional cow colors of black and white and "drives like a cow since it has no pick-up." From then on, Sara would occasionally talk to her car and refer to it as "Betsy" especially when the car was acting "cow-like" or "stubborn." She no longer thought of her car as only a collection of mechanical, hydraulic, and electrical systems. She sometimes viewed it as a friend or partner in the driving process as well.

Introduction

At first this story about Sara’s experiences seems to be humorous or at least foolish. Modern science argues that an automobile is not alive, much less human, and thus it seems illogical to treat one as if it were a living thing or human being. But it is unlikely that Sara has occasional fits of madness when she calls her automobile by name. She was a well-adjusted senior at a world-renowned university when she was having difficulty making it up that hill. It is also not likely that she merely conjured up the practice to amuse herself or her friends. She had screamed at "Betsy" before she even realized what she was doing. So what was the meaning of these actions?

To understand the answer to this question I interviewed 15 people and examined a similar number of stories from travel journals, magazine articles, and biographies written over the past century. In this essay I will explore Sara’s experience and similar stories about people who have befriended their automobiles, given them names, and talked to them on occasion. I will argue that the precise instant that Sara named her car was not arbitrary, but rather that the actions she took were a way of alleviating the frustrations she was experiencing. I will show that the practice of envisioning an automobile as a companion is often wrapped up in concerns about reliability and safety and can be a psychological response to calm the anxiety that such concerns cause. Interacting with an automobile as though it were human opens up a way of conceptualizing its "incomprehensible" mechanical problems and offers a method of communicating with an automobile that is understandable to people who are more comfortable with human interactions. This relationship, in turn, is occasionally used as a way to calm a person when the driving situation appears dangerous. Thinking of the driving process as a team effort helps give the driver the confidence that often results when more than one person is working together toward the same goal. Conceiving of an automobile as a friendly companion is a method many people use to assimilate the sometimes troubling technology into their everyday lives.

Assimilation

I want to use this study to show how personal assimilation of processes and artifacts is an important part of the story of technology in society. The SCOT approach to the history of technology argues that initially different social groups negotiate the meaning of a technology. If a general consensus is reached, a single meaning becomes dominant, and the technology’s basic use and material construction is defined. Once this is achieved, however, negotiation does not abruptly end. The process of accepting a technology must continue on an individual level. Each person who uses a technology must learn how to integrate it into their life.

This is not always a seamless transition. Assimilation is difficult for people who view a device as physically menacing, a threat to social order, or simply as too complicated to use safely. In these situations the negotiations an individual has with a technology are often readily visible.

For instance, in their "Users as Agents of Technological Change" paper, Ron Kline and Trevor Pinch argue that many rural people were initially rigorously opposed to the automobile. Most farmers saw it as a vehicle that tore up their roads and flattened their livestock. It threatened their sense of order. Eventually rural people grew to accept the technology, but only after some negotiations took place. For instance, many farm people used the automobile to plow their fields and power various pieces of equipment. This translation of the automobile into their own terms and particular uses, Kline and Pinch argue, made the technology much more agreeable to rural people. It helped them to overcome their fears and integrate the technology into their lives.

In his study of railroad experience in the 1800s, Wolfgang Schivelbusch also argues that conceptual change is important in assimilating technologies. He notes that many people had problems dealing with the visual stimuli generated by train rides. Many people at the time were used to viewing details as they traveled. Even on a reasonably fast horse or coach ride, the rocks that made up the road and the flowers that lined it were readily visible. The speed of railways, however, reduced these nearby objects to a confusing blur. This change in visual stimuli caused anxiety for many people. In order to ease this confusion, people had to develop new ways of visualizing the passing landscape. Schivelbusch argues that people developed a "panoramic travel" view of the countryside where they focused their attention on the distant horizon rather than the wildflowers they were used to viewing. He described this negotiation process as follows: "While the consciousness molded by traditional travel found itself in a mounting crisis, another kind of perception started to develop, one which did not try to fight the effects of the new technology of travel but, on the contrary, assimilated them entirely." By shifting their perception in this way, individual people were able to ride on trains in a greater degree of comfort. Such comfort inevitably increased their willingness to use the railway for transportation.

In this paper I will argue that anthropomophism is a method some people have used in similar negotiations with their automobiles. Even though the automobile has attained closure in the United States as the predominant method of vehicular travel, individuals who use them must still assimilate them on a personal level. Because automobiles are a source of anxiety for many people, this is not always a simple process. Not all automobiles are the flawless, shiny objects that are sometimes discussed in automotive histories. They are just as often a ten-year-old hand-me-down station wagon that doesn’t always start when it rains. Cars have the potential to break down at inopportune times, perhaps leaving the driver in a dangerous place or causing him or her to be late for an important occasion. In addition they are sometimes dangerous to use. Car crashes claim the lives of tens of thousands of Americans each year. When these fears are overwhelming, it can be difficult for a person to use an automobile. Conceiving of a car as a companion can help mediate these concerns and make it easier for a person to use. The ability for individuals to use a car with relatively little stress helps give automobiles the predominant place they hold in American culture today.

To demonstrate how people have used anthropomorphism to alleviate their anxieties about technology, I will first discuss how those I studied anthropomorphize their automobiles. I will draw upon examples from personal journals and recent interviews to show the various ways people interact with their vehicles as though they were human and point out some of the links there are between this practice and fears of failure. Next I will analyze how conceiving of a vehicle as a human being can help mediate some of the anxieties that can be generated by a fear of car failure. I will then look at how this conception of a car as a trustworthy friend can also help alleviate fears generated by the dangers of driving. Following that I will briefly contrast this practice with other types of automobile anthropomorphism. Finally I will speculate as to how the idea of assimilation through anthropomorphism may be a practice used by people to deal with a broader array of technologies which they find troubling.

Developing a Relationship

The people that I interviewed and the authors of the articles and books that I focused on had all developed a personal relationship with their automobile-a relationship which, as will be shown, was intricately wrapped up with perceptions of reliability. They typically did this by naming it, giving it a personality, and giving it a gender. These three interrelated attributes created an identity with which they could interact.

The first requirement that many of the people I studied argued was necessary for the production of such an image was an affection for the automobile. This is most easily seen in the fact that several of these people had at one time or another owned a car that they did not care for. These cars were often not given anthropomorphic names or if they were, they were rarely treated as a human being.

One man I interviewed addressed the difference between cars that are liked and those that are disliked when he reflected on the one car he had not named: "I wanted to name it, but it had no personality. It was a 78 Brown VW Dasher. Nothing stuck. It never had enough personality. My girlfriend at the time proposed ‘Maxime,’ but I didn’t have enough affection for it, so it didn’t deserve a name."

Another interviewee made a similar argument about the needs to have affection for a car to give it a name and a relationship. She previously drove a 1981 Diesel Mercedes named "Max," but has recently had to get a new car because her old one often would not run in central New York winters. The Ford Explorer that she now drives was given the name "Eldon" by her family, but she rarely ever refers to it as such. Whenever she spoke of "Max" during the interview she usually used the name "Max" or referred to the car as "He." When she spoke of her Explorer, she usually used the word "it." In addition she noted that she does not talk to her new car. Why? "I don’t know. It has less personality. Often when I’m driving I’ll say, ‘I hate this car.’ I’d never say that in Max. I have sentimental feelings for Max. We’ve grown up together."

If they had enough affection for the car, many of those I interviewed next gave their car a name. Sometimes this was done even before the final purchase, but at other times people felt they needed to wait a while until they could understand the car’s personality better. One woman argued: "You can’t name something right away, right? Because you don’t know what it is. I mean if you want the name to fit the thing at all."

But the act of naming usually had the same effect, it separated the car from the person’s previous conceptions of it and made it their own. As one interviewee noted: "So once you’ve named it then it’s my [car], right? You’ve established that relationship." The corporate images of the car were largely severed and it became easier to imbue the car with human characteristics. As another woman argued: "It’s a friendlier thing to refer as a name, rather than "Ford" or whatever. It’s more fun." She went on to say that, "Once you give something a name you can create a personality for it. It sort of grows from there."

Creating a Personality

The personalities these people developed for their automobiles were quite varied. Some spoke of their cars as sprightly and fun while others regarded their cars as slothful or weak. But most of their descriptions revolved around their car’s reliability. Sometimes this was an explicit part of their vision, at other times implicit, but it was always an integral part of their vision of their car’s human characteristics. Quite often, the owner’s conception of their car’s personality was expressed in terms of its quirks and idiosyncrasies. These traits, whether the result of miles and miles of use or a manufacturing mistake, were explained as the primary way an owner can see his or her car interacting with him or her.

For instance, in a 1918 journal, MIT Professor Walter James reflected on his experiences with "Lisize="3ie," his Model T: "In these chronicles I have remarked that the Ford is inclined to have a mind of its own, and to exhibit that mind at most unpleasant times and in most unexpected ways, stopping dead without apparent reason, standing still in the face of all kinds of persuasion and abuse, then, when good and ready, starting off again." All of the car’s idiosyncrasies are described as a manifestation of it being "Lisize="3ie" and having a personality.

Another travel journal written by Rose Wilder Lane and Helen Dore Boylston describes their travels with their car "Zenobia" in southern Europe in the late 1920s. Zenobia is their constant companion and shares many of their adventures. Occasionally Zenobia’s personality makes itself known, usually when there was some sort of difficulty. One journal entry begins: "Today, almost all day, we climbed dreadful mountains, and the faithful Zenobia, who has been going up mountains as though they were level ground, struggled and perspired and panted and even shed rusty tears from her radiator. She announced in every possible way that she felt ill and was not up to such exertion." Lane and Boylston saw their car’s personality in the difficulties they were having with it.

Many of these accounts occasionally talk about the car’s human characteristics in contexts other than reliability, but one discussion of an anthropomorphized automobile never mentioned anything else. A reprinted dairy of a family’s journey West, for instance, mentions the family’s car "Old Faithful" several times, but only when the car was causing them trouble. The first mention of the car simply states: "Are now ready to start, but Old Faithful has balked for the first time. Can’t find the trouble."

Some of the people I studied attributed a personality to a car because they could not discern why it did not have any reliability. A1920 article in the Literary Digest tells the story of a man who was quite proud of his trustworthy automobile. In addressing his automobile, "Jane," directly he notes:

You took me wherever I wanted to go, faster than I should have been allowed… All this, Jane, in spite of the fact that a few years ago I couldn’t run a wheelbarrow and knew no more of internal combustion engines than I do now of the state of health of Pancho Villa, or whether they use Yale locks in the Martian canals.

The rest of the story tells of how the owner neglected and mistreated the vehicle, but despite his ignorance Jane was fairly reliable. The owner could not attribute such reliability to his own knowledge or careful use, so he pinned it on the car’s trustworthy personality.

Attributing Gender

Nearly all of the people interviewed attributed a specific gender to their automobile. This was often an intricate part of the personality they envisioned their car as having. They often displayed this attribution in the gender specific name they gave their automobile and also by referring to their car as "him" or "her." In most cases this attribution was a conscious act and in describing the personality of their car, many of the interviewees made references to what they themselves termed "gender stereotypes."

One family, for instance, has given all their cars masculine names except one. Why? "Because the older cars were all masculine. They had speed and power, so they were masculine." In the early 80s, the mother of the otherwise all-male family argued that women were underrepresented in the family and they needed to give a car a female name. Their next purchase was a white Chevrolet Citation compact they named "Cindy." The car’s "check engine" light kept coming on and they kept taking it to the dealer for service. The dealer found nothing wrong with the car, but they decided it was not worth the hassle, so they returned the car and purchased another. They discovered later that the car’s engine exploded a month after they returned it. As the mother of the family tells the story, her husband and son "decided that females were too temperamental" and they did not want to give another car a feminine name. When asked if their outlook had changed in fifteen years, they said that the mother was interested in purchasing a Cavalier, another compact Chevrolet, with a sunroof. The husband argued that "we can have a female name for that, or a wimpy male name." The wife questioned if this would ever happen, arguing that her husband likes V8s, and she did not believe they would give a feminine name to a car with such a powerful engine.

Another woman had trouble finding a personality in her car, and was thus uncertain as to why she say it as with a feminine. The following passage shows how she made sense of her actions during the interview:

Well, I guess she does have some idiosyncrasies, like with the gas gauge. [It] will read full for like 2 hours of straight driving and then I ran out of gas once when I was at a quarter... an eighth of a tank registering on the gas gauge. This is not a good thing. But I figure it also will go to empty and then it will bounce back up sometimes. So then you really don’t know how much gas you have anymore. Which is an issue. Which is one of the reasons maybe why... she needs attention, she definitely needs attention. And when I didn’t change the oil for a while, she started making this funny noise, so in that sense, that’s a very... what I would consider a stereotypical female characteristic... that you keep needing to pay attention.

Here we see a different conception of "feminine characteristics" than the first example, but one

that is similarly linked to ideas of reliability.

The most marked example that I ran across was a story told by a woman about a gun-metal gray Volvo named Victor. After an accident totaled Victor, she replaced it with a nearly identical white Volvo she named Violet. The different genders of the two cars were deliberately chosen. Why did she see her first car as masculine and her second car as feminine? She explains it as follows:

Victor betrayed me. He was supposed to be so strong, but in a point of need, he was crushed… With Victor I was… subsumed by the male persona within it, as women often are in relationships. With violet I have higher expectations of reliability, lower expectations for brute strength. It’s more of a friendship with this one, a protector with that one. I have to take care with this car.

Through this story, the owner expresses how her conceptions of automobile reliability changed. She originally conceived of her automobile as nearly indestructible, but when it was destroyed, her very notions of how safe an automobile could be were changed. She marked this change with a change in gender attribution.

In all of these anthropomorphic practices, reliability and concerns for safety take center stage. The perception of a personality is often directly related to the trust a person has in their automobile. Why is this such a common trend? I believe it is because anthropomorphism can give a car owner a greater sense of understanding and security than envisioning their car as a complex assemblage of metal, glass, and wires.

Making Sense of a Confusing Technology

Some scholars who have made mention of automobile anthropomorphism have argued that it is usually an attempt to establish dominance over it. They describe how men give their vehicles female names and refer to them as subservient beings in an effort to show others who is in charge. But more detailed studies of anthropomorphism have argued for a wider variety of motivations. Anthropologist Stewart Guthrie, for instance, has taken a critical look at how various cultures have an anthropomorphic conception of God. He argues that this is a way for people to understand something that is impossible to explain. While I believe that the common interpretation of automobile anthropomorphism is accurate in some instances, the sample of people I interviewed seemed to have a relationship with their automobile that is much better described with Guthrie’s thesis than a relationship of dominance.

Guthrie argues that the "world is uncertain, ambiguous, and in need of interpretation." To fulfill this need, people often buy into a version of Pascal’s wager:

We animate and anthropomorphize because, when we see something as alive or humanlike, we can take precautions. If we can see it as alive we can, for example, stalk it or flee. If we see it as humanlike, we can try to establish a social relationship. If it turns out not to be alive or humanlike, we usually lose little by having thought it was.

When a person attributes human characteristics to something that is not understood, he or she builds an understandable framework within which he or she can interact.

I argue that a similar phenomenon occurs when people anthropomorphize their vehicles. The automobile is a complicated technology, a machine that has so many parts and so many systems, that countless things could go wrong. Even skilled mechanics cannot always determine exactly what is going on under the hood. In 1985, a magazine writer who had anthropmorphized his car expressed such confusion in his reminiscences about his old friend:

And let’s face it, you weren’t perfect either. I came to accept your weak areas: water pumps (you needed four); alternators (three did it, though one was a cheap rebuilt job); solenoid ignitions (three in nine years!). But then you had to learn to live patiently with the fact that I’m totally nonmechanical. How many times have I opened your great, green, greasy hood and peered inside, vainly hoping that by some automotive miracle I’d hit on what was wrong - only to be greeted by the same silent, noncommunicative you. Trying to look knowledgeable, I’d check the dipstick, eyeball your world-weary radiator, touch your lugs, shake the cables. You refused to be cured by these amateurish administrations or to divulge your secret.

Especially with older cars which are, as one interviewee noted, "idiosyncratic in their operation," owners can be at a complete loss as to how to explain why their car behaves the way it does. Naming the car and blaming its lack of reliability on its human-like personality makes some sense of the situation.

Although modern science interprets such an approach as rather suspect, it is not a rare occurrence. Guthrie gives the example of the rhetoric fire fighters use in describing fires to show how common it is to anthropomorphize what one does not understand:

The firefighters said the fires were ‘devious,’ ‘cunning,’ or ‘lying in wait’ and, when the winds died during the night, they were ‘resting up’… Another spokesman said, ‘I swear these fires lay down at night or in a rain and they plan what to do.’ The reporter himself credits the fire with metabolism and intention: it ‘developed its own feeding system, sucking air in from behind, heating it and blasting it out the front to preheat the woods ahead.’

Explaining the unpredictable fire in terms of human intentionality helps a person to envision what is happening. As is evidenced by the popular press use of the technique, it provides a logical flow to the description of events. Rather than deal with the idea that the fire could do anything at anytime, envisioning a force behind the apparent chaos gives a person something they can grapple with. In summing up this argument, Guthrie makes another important point. He notes that "None of these people probably would maintain that the fire truly is alive; yet all clearly at some level thought so." Firefighters know that the fire is not alive in a human sense, but thinking of it in that way helps them assimilate the experience. Anthropomorphism offers a framework in which to describe and interact with the unpredictable fire.

But anthropomorphism does not simply make sense of confusion. By giving a person a framework within which to view the situation, it can help a confused or frustrated owner regain a sense of control. There is little a person can do when they are in the middle of an interstate and they notice that their gas gauge has dipped into "empty." Thinking of an automobile as a companion in such a situation can help ease the stress of such an event. The difficulty does not so much appear the result of a series of unalterable physical forces, but rather human intentionality. Objects with such an intentionality can be swayed through human-like interactions.

Ideas very similar to these came across in many of the interviews. Some argued that simply giving a car a name and a personality may help keep it "healthy." When a person who had named her family car "The Queen Mary" was asked why she had named it, she hesitantly stated: "We called it that to make it reliable." When pressed as to how this would work, she said that she hoped "it would work just for me." Would it work differently for others? "I know it won’t, and yet I think it will." This interviewee did not believe the car really had a personality or would actually respond to someone who interacted with this personality, but in some way, thinking about the situation in this manner helped her to deal with the situation. Another woman made this claim directly. When she drove "Max" with a bad fuel filler through hilly upstate New York she claims she "had to root him on a little bit if only for my own piece of mind."

Another subject argued a similar case: "Bess our old car was very fickle. Like she only started for people who knew how to treat her right." She later extended her explanation when one woman was asked when she addressed her car by name:

If I’m trying to cajole my car, which I haven’t really had to really do yet. It works better with old cars I think, because then you have to… you really have to develop a relationship with them that… you have to be nice to them [laugh] in order for them to be nice to you. Sometimes it frightens me that it works that way, but… You have to, um… you know especially if it’s cold. Um, you know when you’re starting cars when it’s cold you sort of have to talk to it and rub the dashboard and… When I’m passing, yeah, I’ll think ‘Patty O’Toole’ to make sure she knows she’s being a good car.

Talking with cars is an important part of this mediation. Nearly ever person I interviewed noted a time when their concern about reliability took the form of talking to their vehicle. When asked if and when he talks with his car, one interviewee said "I don’t have extended conversations, but I do goofy stuff... where I stroke the dash and say ‘of course you’re not going to break on me....’ Or when I’m talking about car payments I’ll say ‘please, no more electrical problems.’" Another person responded that he talks to his cars, "Frequently, if they’re acting up. When I had fuel pan problems with the Camaro I’d often say, ‘C’mon baby, C’mon CZ...’ I’ve been stroking its ego since the problem got fixed." One woman explicitly argued that difficulties were usually the reason why she talked to her cars. She noted: "I always talked to my old car. I often said something like, ‘Please start for me Victor.’" When asked about her new car, however, she noted that "Violet" always starts so "I don’t talk to that car."

Such pleading does not always have the desired results. Cars that are frequently spoken to are not always reliable. But in situations where a car does fail, some of the people that anthropomorphize their vehicles believe that their pleading was not in vain. One woman recounts the story of a time when her car, "The Queen Mary," broke down on the highway: "But it was good to me. It coasted to the off-ramp. You know, I was in the middle of nowhere, so it’s possible that the transmission brakes [and you’d] get stuck on the freeway someplace. Didn’t happen. Didn’t happen. I coasted to the off-ramp, and it was quite a ways too, so it goes to show..." Even the frustrations of being stranded on the highway can be calmed by the thought that one’s automobile did all that it could to be as kind as possible.

Anthropomorphizing a car in an effort to make it more reliable is not limited to those who name their vehicles either. One woman who felt that naming cars was "silly," was still very careful about what she said. When asked what kind of car she had, she responded: "It’s a Tercel Wagon… not a pretty car. Some would call it a ‘Japanese shitbox’ but I won’t say it." When asked why she distanced herself from the demeaning phrase, she stated: "It might hurt her feelings. It’s best to respect your faithful and trusted objects."

Giving cars human names and anthropomorphizing them is a method some people employ to smooth the interactions between them and their complicated mode of transportation. Through anthropomorphism users transform broken gas gauges, missing gears, and occasional stalls from intimidating and perhaps even unsolvable technical problems into curious quirks that can be mediated by human interactions. Most mechanics would argue that such an approach to car care will not get one very far, but for many car namers, it provides a feeling of security. It eases a thought-consuming problem and allows them to get on with their everyday lives. Car anthropomorphism helps some people assimilate a complicated technology into a world they understand.

Anthropomorphizing Reliable Automobiles

Unreliable automobiles are not the only ones that are anthropomorphized. It is quite common for people who have anthropomorphized a car in the past to do it again. Often they will endow a human personality to brand new vehicles that have had few, if any, idiosyncrasies and have caused no problems. People who continue their practice of envisioning their well-working vehicles as friends argue that they do so as a preventive measure. They seem to fear the recurrence of problems they have had with their previous cars.

For instance, when one woman was asked to describe the personality of "Patty O’Toole," her year-old car, she stumbled a bit in her answer. "I don’t know. I think it’s hard because when a car is running well it doesn’t have the sort of, um... not inconsistencies... not peculiarities... idiosyncrasies that an older car has so it’s harder to tell sometimes." As she said this she felt a bit odd about attributing a personality to something that did not appear to have any distinguishing characteristics. Upon reflection, however, she knew that cars had acted up in the past and that it might happen with this one:

Bess, our old car, was very fickle. Like she only started for people who knew how to treat her right. Um... Patty is, I don’t know, I... Um... I’m covering bases before I know they really exist because… she needs to know that I appreciate what she does. I always thank her when she passes a car well... to prevent problems in the future if she gets upset.

Another woman argued that ridiculing a reliable car might make it unreliable. In one interview I was asked if I had ever named my car. In fact I had toyed with the idea. When I first purchased my small Plymouth Neon I jokingly thought it would be fun to call my car "The Kidneymobile" because it was aerodynamically shaped like a kidney and because its tight suspension sent every little bump up through the seats and sort of pushed your internal organs around. The name I had given my car was rather disparaging and this concerned the person whom I was interviewing. She immediately argued that I might want to rethink making fun of my car by saying that because I mocked it, "it might not operate very well for you then!"

In a similar way, people often referred to their cars as human when they were afraid that their actions might cause a problem. One of the most common times people remembered talking to their car was when they did something they thought their driving had "injured" their car. A typical example was given by the owner of a Corvette: "When I hit a pothole I’ll say ‘Sorry Victor, don’t break on me now.’ This sentiment occurs especially with people who own vehicles with manual transmissions and are therefore in control of more facets of the driving process: "When I run into something I feel bad. I feel bad about hurting it. When I grind the gears I say, "I’m sorry." In all of these cases, the car does not exhibit any reliability problems, but the drivers are afraid their actions will lead to difficulties. To help calm one’s self down, many drivers attempt to soothe their car in a way they know how - by apologizing to it.

Help in the Driving Process

As was mentioned earlier, fear of mechanical failure is not the only anxiety that automobiles can generate. Reliability was the most common concern linked with anthropomorphism, but the practice seemed to calm people for other reasons as well. For instance one woman felt that her car was somehow easier to find because she could interact with its personality: "I also have problems finding things… So when I can’t find… my car, sometimes it helps to ask where it is, you know?… I’ll say something like ‘Where did you go Tarachan?’" But more commonly, people noted that they referred to their car as a human being when they were frightened by the dangers of driving itself.

For the most part, those I interviewed were not intimidated by the driving process. They felt relatively comfortable behind the wheel and often enjoyed traveling. Many of them did mention, however, that they were occasionally unsettled when an event triggered their concern. Things like hydroplaning, a strong wind that caught them by surprise, or counting the number of cars in the ditch on a snowy night were enough to remind them of some of the risks involved in using an automobile. At times like these, people needed to feel some sort of reassurance. Many of those I interviewed found it in their friendly cars.

Conceiving of the vehicle as a friend or partner in the driving process seems to be able to comfort a person with the thought that they are not alone; they are working with another who happens to have a lot of experience navigating through sometimes difficult terrain. Thoughts of such a unified approach generates confidence and relieves the anxiety that driving can entail.

One woman noted that she talked to her car especially when she was frightened: "When I pass people at night and I don’t know if there’s cars coming around the bend or something like that and I have to, you know, slam on the accelerator and really speed up quick. When I’m passing, yeah, I’ll think ‘Patty O’TOOLE!’ to make sure she knows she’s being a good car."

Several others have expressed a feeling of unity with their automobile that helped them feel confident in uncertain terrain. S.C.H. Davis, an automobile writer for many years, owned and drove many cars throughout his life, but only named a few. He was particularly fond of a Jeep he drove in World War II which he named "Fi-Fi." Upon reminiscing about the vehicle he remarked:

Judged by normal standards it was a most uncomfortable machine, with no special performance. But... we had great fun together, that car and I, especially when the roads were covered with thick snow and ice... While most staff cars, saloon jobs... had got themselves into dire trouble, up trees or in ditches, my Jeep careered along happily enough because the exceedingly high geared steering appeared able, even willing to climb houses.

The friendly relationship he had with his vehicle made difficult driving more fun than fearful.

One person explicitly made the argument that conceiving of his car as a living thing sometimes resulted in a calming effect. When I asked one man if he ever talked to his car he quickly responded "No," but then began to reflect further on the question and noted that:

Maybe once or twice in times of danger or uncertainty, I’ll talk to my car. Like on a slippery road I might think, "C’mon Max, we’re going to make it." Not during a normal time, though. It has to be a time when I want to feel a sort of kinship with the vehicle. In order to accomplish something or to come through a difficult or dangerous situation the feeling of solidarity might give me more piece of mind.

He went on further in an attempt to clarify this answer. He argued "it’s a reinforcing mechanism for me" and recalled a time in his high school years when he and some friends were caught out in a sailboat with storms approaching as an example of what he meant. Since he was the most experienced of the group, although not an expert, he began giving orders. As each person responded to his requests and began working as a unit he began to feel better about the situation. "I established solidarity with the crew and the boat to feel more confident of my own abilities." The idea that more than one person are working in concert together to achieve a given goal often strengthens the confidence of all those involved. When there are no other people to help, some people are able to recreate this confidence when they attribute a personality to their vehicle.

Other Examples

Although the sample that I studied was not large, there is evidence that the practice of giving automobiles a human persona occurs in various Western cultures. In her book on the names that manufacturers give cars, for instance, Ingrid Pillar cites a few academic works written in the past ten years that briefly mention people in Germany and the Virgin Islands who have given their cars anthropomorphic names. It is impossible to determine the precise motivations behind these names, but other similar studies suggest that anthropomorphic naming is often linked with other anthropomorphic practices.

In the early 1990s, K.T. Berger, an independent writer who terms himself a "car biologist" sent a mailing of 2,000 questionnaires to several unsuspecting people across the United States. In the responses he received he "learned that nearly half of the drivers gave their cars names such as Honey, Old Bitch, the Zephyr, Patty Wagon, Hank the Tank, Gray Ghost, and LeMans from Hell." Although not all of these names are anthropomorphic, he does go on to mention that the "same percentage also admitted to talking with their cars." A poll taken in Britain in the early 80’s came back with similar results. It estimated that 200,000 people in the United Kingdom had named their cars "Betsy" or "Bessie" and that an additional 550,000 have given their cars other names like Freddy, Jemima, Nellie, and Daisy. Details of these studies are slight, but they are evidence that automobile anthropomorphism is a phenomenon that extends beyond the small sample I have gathered. Whether the people polled were relieved of a psychological burden because of this is difficult to say, but based on the popular conception of "Bessie" variations as being "cow-like" and the close relationship between talking to cars and the concern that it is being unreliable, the idea that there are links to reliability is appealing.

In addition to these polls and studies, evidence of cars with human personalities can be found in popular culture and even in automobile manufacturer advertisements. Knight Rider, for instance, was a television show in the mid-1980s about Michael, a crime fighter, and "KITT," the talking computerized car he drove. KITT rarely ever broke down, but he was an essential component in solving the crime and capturing the bad guy in every episode. Quite often Michael would ask him for help in navigating through tricky situations or perform well under adverse conditions. KITT even had the ability to drive itself, but they always worked together, communicating back and forth and drawing upon the knowledge and abilities of each other. By enlisting KITT’s help, Michael was able to do things he could never have done on his own. KITT is perhaps the extreme fantasy example of a car being anthropomorphized to help in the driving process. It seems as though Michael has nothing to worry about as long as his friendly Trans Am is not far away.

Another popular example is "Herbie the Love Bug," the Volkswagen Beetle protagonist in a series of Disney movies. Herbie’s abilities as an automobile and racecar are intricately linked to the personality he expresses. When he starts to fail it is often because he is "exhausted" or "has given up." He lets out a sigh or begins to sputter to say that he can go no farther. Often a kind word of encouragement at times like this changes his mood and reinvigorates him, allowing the driver and Herbie to finish the race. In addition, the personality of the car allows the driver to do things that would never be possible with a normal car. Herbie "has a heart of gold" and as such will work as hard as he can for those that have befriended him. Even though he is a Volkswagen Beetle with a tiny engine, he is able to beat fancy Italian sportscars on the race track.

When characters first meet Herbie they are almost always frustrated by him. He has little personality quirks that sometimes make it impossible to drive him. In an early scene he becomes frustrated with his driver and storms about the city at high speed until the driver begins to give him a little respect. As the characters get to know him, they begin to appreciate his personality and interact with it to their mutual benefit.

Automobile manufacturers have also picked up on the idea of creating an automotive friend to create an idea of reliability. The clearest example of this that I have found is a promotional packet put together by Chrysler in 1996 for its Plymouth/Dodge Neon to supplement its "Hi" advertising campaign. Part of the text written to appeal to potential buyers reads as follows:

Cars are like friends: if you have a few really good ones in your life, you’re lucky. Well, this is that kind of car. and that kind of friend... And like a good friend, it shares your convictions about what’s important. Especially when it comes to things like room, performance, safety, the environment, ergonomics, and state of the art design and durability. The New Neon. Built by a team that thought about cars and their relationship to people and the world in a whole new way.

I would argue that this team did not come up with a "whole new way" of envisioning the relationship between cars and people, but rather had picked up on a widespread private practice. The text explicitly links the idea of the car as a good friend with safety and reliability. Later the brochure draws upon this idea again and argues that the "Neon’s slippery aerodynamics... gives it the look of a car confidently poking its eager little nose into the future. A place where you and your trusty Neon will be motoring away for a long time to come." The ideas of confidence, trustworthiness, and reliability are all conveyed through a friendly persona that the Neon is supposed to express.

Other companies have been hesitant to take a similar approach. A history of the Ford Taurus, for instance, conveys a scene where the cars designers are debating what name their project should be given. One executive throws out the name "Harvey" because it seems to him to be a "trustworthy" sort of name, but the very idea of anthropomorphizing the car in this way only evokes laughter. Some of the concern seems to have been how consumers will perceive such an advertising campaign. Volkswagen came very close in their award winning 1960s advertising campaign for the Beetle. Through the use of humor it created a persona of the Beetle as quirky, but utterly reliable. The ramifications of this approach did concern the corporation. One VW executive was quoted as saying:

Some people around here simply think the advertising is maybe too winning, too ingratiating, that maybe they convey a feeling that a VW is an infallible machine. Say a man who reads the ads finally goes out and buys a VW. And say he drives it for 40,000 or 50,000 miles, and it breaks down. You know what he may think? He may think he’s been betrayed by his best friend. He didn’t think a VW could break down. He goes to the man who sold it to him and raises all kinds of Cain. We even had a man call Heinz Nordhoff in Wolfsburg all the way from Kansas. His VW had broken down. It was the middle of the night, he said, and he was stranded. So he called Nordhoff and blessed him out.

Not long after this argument was made, VW did a little back pedaling, again through humor, by placing an ad where a Beetle appeared with a flat tire with the simple statement "Nobody’s perfect." VW’s brave advertising campaign remains one of the most applauded of the last fifty years, but few have attempted to duplicate it.

Other Reasons for Automobile Anthropomorphism

Alleviating anxiety is certainly not the only reason for giving automobiles anthropomorphic traits. Although a few automobile marketers have experimented with using anthropomorphism for this purpose, they more commonly have other motivations for imparting human characteristics on their automobiles. In addition racecar drivers and even individual owners anthropomorphize automobiles for a variety of reasons other than calming their own nerves.

Automobile manufacturers have been quite active over the past fifty years or so in anthropomorphizing their products in an effort to make them desirable. As Pamela Laird Walker notes, Automobile companies originally created advertisements focused on the mechanical aspects of cars and seemed to show that "automakers did not feel the need to prove that automobility was exciting." By the late 20s and early 30s, this notion was gradually changing and automobile advertisements were used to create a desirable image around the product. Along with this change came a change in automobile names. By the 1950s, giving automobiles anthropomorphic names was quite common.

For the most part, unlike personal anthropomorphic names, the anthropomorphic names corporations give cars are not the names of individual people, but rather a title or a "person within a given group." As such, they do not give the impression of a specific personality, but rather a set of skills, abilities, or prestige that human beings of the same name would possess. The qualities such names can endow a vehicle with are quite varied. In her linguistic study of American car names, Ingrid Piller devised five categories of anthropomorphic names: person of distinguished rank (e.g. Monarch, Baron, Cavalier), person of unconventional life-style (e.g. Nomad, Charger, Marauder), person of a certain provenance (e.g., New Yorker, Cosmopolitan, American), person moving in a certain way (e.g., Sundancer, Pacer, Voyager), and person with other characteristics (e.g. Sportsman, Shopper, Miser). The hope of auto manufacturers is that by naming and anthropomorphizing a car "Charger," the potential consumer will conjure up ideas of aggressiveness, strength, and victory. The name "New Yorker" is an attempt to link the automobile to the supposedly sophisticated, upscale, and refined group of human beings that are given that title. Advertisements are often used in conjunction with their names in a coordinated effort by the marketer to create an appealing image for the vehicle. Rather than create a friendly, personal companion, they are meant to build an image for the car that mirrors the image of the general type of person they are named after.

Occasionally this corporate practice is a little closer to the ideas that have been discussed about using anthropomorphism to generate a companion in the driving process. The recent sport utility craze has spawned dozens of new models, many of which have been given names of humans who are/were able to negotiate the rough terrain of the American west. Today a consumer can choose from a Blazer, Tracker, Explorer, Amigo, Trooper, Cherokee, Wrangler, Navigator, Mountaineer, Pathfinder, Forester, and even a Sidekick. Each of these names is meant to give the owner the confidence that with the automobile they will be able to drive anywhere. But again, the relationship that the manufacturer is trying to establish is not so much a personal one as much as it is a "business partnership." The anthropmorphism is to unique human abilities, but not to a human personality. As such the sense of ability to drive safely in unsafe conditions arises from the able traits of the automobile rather than the joint effort of driver and anthropomorphized machine.

Some individual owners anthropomorphize their vehicles for other reasons as well. One particularly prominent arena where this is done is with competition vehicles. Many people who use their cars in fully sanctioned races, as well as those who simply race whatever car they pull up next to at the light, have given their vehicles anthropomorphic names. There are many examples of this practice from Formula 1 cars to lowriders. But most often the goals of naming the vehicle are fairly similar: they serve to intimidate the competition by claiming that the car possesses the powerful characteristics of the human figure it is named after. This can be seen with a quick perusal of professional monster trucks, a group of vehicles with wheels over eight feet tall that race one another by driving over rows of junk automobiles. Monster trucks have been given names such as: Big Brutus, Crypt Keeper, Devastator, Grave Digger, Gun Slinger, Peace Keeper, Rambo, Samson, Terminator, and Enforcer. In many ways, this practice is similar to the corporate practice just discussed except that instead of conveying desirable characteristics to potential buyers it attempts to frighten foes and impress fans.

There are also examples of anthropomorphic automobiles in popular culture that do not seem to relieve any anxiety. One stark example appears to be directly contrary to this notion. Steven King’s movie and book Christine tells the tale of an automobile with a human personality that is far from comforting. The car tears through the streets of a California suburb and seeks revenge on all those who interfere with it. In some ways, "Christine" embodies many of the negative aspects of automobiles including the physical dangers as well as the unhealthy obsession some people have for their personal car.

It is interesting to note, however, that the idea of needing to communicate with a car in order to make it reliable that has been mentioned is taken to an extreme and reproduced in the movie Christine. For instance, in one scene in the movie, Christine’s personality comes out when the car is supposedly jealous of the owner’s girlfriend. As hard as the owner turns the key and pumps the gas, the car will not start. In his frustration he tries to coerce the car with words, saying "C’mon Christine, C’mon… C’mon it’s alright baby, everything is the same." As soon as he utters this sentence the engine roars to life and the radio expresses the car’s sentiment by playing a song with the lyrics: "I love you! I don’t know why I love you..."

Even the people who envision their cars as having friendly personalities do not always cite this as their primary reason for giving their car a name and talking to it. Many see a certain fun and quirkiness in it as well. They often enjoy the game of conjuring up a name and personality for their automobile and sharing this with friends. For instance one person believed that car names should be meticulously chosen and posses an "illusion to literature or something. Another person was quite proud of giving his new Saturn the name "Titan," since "it is one of the moons of Saturn." Others enjoy the idea of breaking with the image that the corporation has built around itself and its products.

But the existence of a variety of motivations for anthropomorphizing automobiles does not render the assimilation argument invalid. I am not arguing that giving an automobile a human persona is the result of only one small set of motivations. Rather, I wish to argue that many people use the practice to calm the anxieties they attribute to their automobiles and that this calming helps them to peacefully use the technology in their everyday life. I also believe that this practice is not limited to automobiles, but rather is a method people occasionally use to deal with the difficulties that are caused by a number of other technologies.

Anthropomorphism and Troublesome Technologies

Although this paper is focused on automobiles, the theory of assimilation through anthropomorphism that has been discussed in relation to them is likely applicable to a wider range of technologies. I do not have the time or space to make an extensive argument, but some additional evidence makes the idea of anthropomorphism as a general way of assimilating confusing technologies intriguing. Examples of this practice can be seen in ocean vessels, airplanes, and computers.

The classic example is the anthropomorphism of sailing ships. Not only do many of them have female names affixed to their sterns, but the practice of referring to them as "she" is widely accepted. In literature and many firsthand accounts sailors speak of the fickleness of the ship and having to know it’s personality in order to get it to behave in the desired manner. For instance, in a historical narrative of "The Sea Witch," an American Clipper Ship in the 1850s, the author describes one man’s conception of the ship as a demanding woman during a storm:

Such episodes, occurring throughout that troublous night, renewed Hugh’s old speculations about the mysterious personalities of ships. Moments came when every man seemed a blended part of this vessel’s fabric. Three hands, tugging and shantying at the spanker sheet in the gusty dawn, seemed no more than muscles of the Sea Witch, flexing to the commands of her quarterdeck brain.

Just like automobiles, sailing ships can generate much anxiety. The fear of capsizing and being lost at sea constantly looms over the heads of many sailors. Explaining a ships erratic behavior as personality traits and conceiving of the ship and its crew as a single, communicating unit can help to mitigate these concerns.

This practice has been transferred to airplanes as well. For instance, many of the bombers in the U.S. World War II campaign were given names like "Waltzing Matilda" and "Enola Gay" and their gender and personality were emphasized through the "nose art" that many military crews have painted on them. Often these crews would talk about "their lady" and how their girl would not let them down.

Some accounts even draw a direct connection between the practice of anthropomorphizing ships and airplanes. One author tells the story of "K for Kitty," a World War II bomber that was torn to shreds by German fighters but managed to bring its crew home only to have its starboard propeller and wing fall off upon landing. The author argues that this merely reaffirmed a lesson he had learned about aircraft:

It was not Harrison, but someone else, who first talked to me of the idea that planes and ships have the same delicate and temperamental ways. Just as you find no two ships alike, so you find no two planes alike; just as you find ships that are heavy, graceless, unalive, so you find planes that are dull and wooden in the air. In the same way that seamen come to know, trust, and finally get fond of a ship, knowing that she is a living thing and will never fail them, so pilots come to know and trust and get fond of a plane, knowing she will bring them home.

Flight during peacetime has its dangers, but during wartime, they are dramatically increased. Some military flyers seem to have countered some of this fear by envisioning their aircraft as trusty friends that will return them safely to the ground, one way or the other.

Anthropomorphism can also occasionally be seen in another technology that a vast number of people rely upon on a daily basis - the personal computer. Just like the automobile, the computer is often a necessary part of our everyday life and is not always 100% reliable. While it has become an integral part of our work, communication, and entertainment; systems crash, files are lost, and programs do not always work. There is some evidence that people anthropomorphize computers to deal with anxiety in a similar way to automobiles.

Some of the people I interviewed also noted that they occasionally see their computers as having human characteristics and many people related times that they had talked to them. Two people had even named their computer. While it is difficult to determine any broad trends from this small sample size, it is interesting to note that both people had named their computers after wizards from popular literature: Gandolf and Grendal. Why these names? Both interviewees argued that it seemed as though their computers were wizards - magically performing amazing tasks in ways they could not understand. In a sense, they were envisioning their computers as not just human, but super-human. Calling their computers wizards was a way to describe a machine they did not understand in a more understandable manner.

But computers fail and many people, even those who do not name their computers, refer to them as though they were human. Even as I write this paper, I have had problems with my roommate’s computer. In our frustration of losing files and not being able to open up documents, my roommate has frequently yelled at the computer, and made statements to me like "I don’t think it likes you." As we tried in vain to get the computer to accept a disk that had been used in several other computers, we became frustrated and ran out of ideas. We knew that the computer did not have a personal vendetta against me, but that theory would certainly explain the dilemma in which I found myself. Saying, "It hates you," was my roommate’s way of saying she did not understand what was going on and that I had better find another way to do work on my paper.

Conclusion

The integration of technologies into daily life is not always a straightforward affair. When they perform exactly as we want them to, they often become so much a part of our life that we think little of the interactions we have with them. But some technologies require more work. Fear that an object is dangerous or might leave one stranded in the middle of the highway may cause a person to think twice about using such a technology. In these cases, people often feel the need to figure out ways to make them understandable and manageable at some level.

Anthropomorphism has been used by some to overcome these difficulties. Although it may not always be a conscious choice, many people attribute confusing and distressing technologies with anthropomorphic characteristics. Such attribution does not usually resolve the dilemma that faces the person, but it does offer a way of dealing with the psychological effects of fear and frustration. Conceiving of an inanimate object that cannot be immediately controlled as a human actor gives the idea that there is a method of communicating to it. The act of using such communication and the idea of exerting some control can help calm a person when faced with unpredictability. In addition, envisioning a technology as a friend that one works with when using it can help give a sense of security in dangerous situations. Anthropomorphism is a method used by many people to calmly assimilate technologies they find confusing or even frightening into their everyday lives.

Without the personal assimilation of technologies, such as the one I have described, people may be less inclined to use a technology. If this occurs on a widespread basis, the closure of the automobile in our society could fall apart. The car could conceivably become an "undesirable stress machine." As such, negotiation continues on a personal level long after closure is reached. Personal assimilation of technological objects must occur in order for widespread closure to both initially succeed and maintain its power.

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"A Fond Farewell to a Good Gasoline-Swigging Jane," The Literary Digest, January 3, 1920, pp. 102-104.

Freund, Peter and George Martin, The Ecology of the Automobile (New York: Black Rose Books, 1993).

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Interviews

 

Bridget, female graduate student, interviewed November 16, 1997.

Brian, male in mid 20s, son of Pete and Paula, interviewed March 11, 1999.

James, male in mid 20s, interviewed November 16, 1997.

Jennifer, female graduate student, interviewed November 10, 1997.

John, male undergraduate student, interviewed November 20, 1997.

Kate, female graduate student, interviewed November 16, 1997.

Laura, female undergraduate student, interviewed March 4, 1999.

Lisa, female graduate student, interviewed February 8, 1999.

Molly, female graduate student, interviewed November 17, 1997.

Paul, male graduate student, interviewed March 11, 1999.

Paula, female in her early 50’s, wife of Pete, father of Brian, interviewed March 13, 1999.

Pete, male in his early 50’s, husband of Paula, father of Brian, interviewed March 13, 1999.

R, University Professor, interview, February 12, 1998.

Sally, female graduate student, interviewed November 10, 1997.

Sara, female undergraduate student, interviewed October 14, 1997.

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