I learned about the Dutch reach, a safety measure to avoid opening your car door into passing bicyclists, the same morning my husband received a Munich apology from a cyclist he accidentally swerved into with his own bike as she was passing him on the right. She seemed to accept that she might have rung her bell or otherwise indicated her intentions, then said, “Well, no one got hurt.” And drove off.
A Munich apology is a term of my own making. It’s the sort of phrase I imagine expatriates coining and collecting worldwide -- linguistic balms to soothe some of the aches and pains of adjusting to an unfamiliar culture. An alternative to rage as I wonder, “Would ‘sorry’ have been sooo difficult?” (My German students insist, in their countrymen’s defense, that it would be, arguing both Entschuldigung and Es tut mir leid take a long time to spit out.)
The Dutch reach, on the other hand, is accepted lingo in the world of transportation studies, and increasingly understood beyond. The U.K. government used it in a news release this week about a review of the country’s Highway Code, earning it headline real estate in some newspapers.
The Dutch themselves don’t have a name for the maneuver, wherein drivers opening their doors into traffic use their hand farthest from the door to open it from within, thus forcing themselves to turn in the seat and look back in the direction from which unsuspecting cyclists might be whizzing along. (Human physiology also prevents against flinging the door wide open from this position.) They just learn it in driver’s ed.
But back in 2016, Michael Charney, a septuagenarian resident of Cambridge, Mass., invented the phrase and began advocating for the practice in the wake of a local “dooring” death.
I was struck by the Dutch reach for reasons other than my interest in cycling safety. It seems a rare example of people using a nationality to modify a noun (or verb) in a way that flatters the country in question. The Dutch have been the butt of more negative phrase-making since the 17th century, when English-Dutch animosities ran high and neologisms like Dutch courage, Dutch uncles, and double Dutch came into existence.
Arguably the most famous, going Dutch, started as an insult but lost its burn as the practice became accepted, and even considered enlightened. That’s an unlikely path for the likes of Indian giving and Welshing on a promise, phrases whose origins and meanings are unambiguously offensive. It is unclear where language of more uncertain origin will wind up, such as Chinese walls and Chinese whispers; the latter is relatively unquestioned in England, where it describes the game Americans refer to as Telephone. The former seems to be increasingly replaced in the business world by fire walls.
Meanwhile, phrases that imply admiration for a country, race, or culture seem few and far between. French kissing, perhaps? The Mexican wave? Though that one seems like straight, if disputed, history. My admiration for Charney thus grows: He’s not just looking out for the humble cyclist, but moving our language away from internecine rancor.
And he’s inspired me to stop muttering about apologies gone amiss, and instead introduce you road-safety enthusiasts to a widespread and presumably admirable practice by pedestrians in my adopted country. They stand patiently for minutes on end at even the emptiest of intersections, waiting for the crosswalk light to tell them when they can proceed safely -- model citizens, in other words, for impressionable children who might be watching. And, I must admit, for those of us who forget that we needn’t rush everywhere all the time. I suggest we call it the German pause.