I was headed home on the freeway this afternoon. It’s the time of year when the days are getting longer, so lately it’s felt like I’ve been leaving work earlier every day. This put me in a good mood. As I descended the off-ramp to the feeder, I barely noticed a large, pale top-heavy man with a round face, dressed like he worked at the AT&T store, standing on the right edge of the feeder some paces from a Chevy HHR. He was gesticulating wildly with his arm, so naturally, I assumed he needed some help and wasn’t getting any. I and all my fellow commuters were heading west, directly into the sun–maybe obscured visibility was why nobody else was stopping.

As I already mentioned, I was in a particularly good mood, and the milk of human kindness was brimming up in my soul, so I hurried on to the next cross street and flipped around. This little gesture would put about three extra miles on my odometer, but no big deal when I could offer a fellow human a helping hand. I flipped around again and made my way back toward the brother in distress. I slowed to a halt and rolled down my window to inquire as to what sort of succor I could offer, but all he did was repeat the gesture I’d seen only briefly and at a distance before. He was pointing, almost Stayin’ Alive style, in an up and over direction, apparently motioning for me to drive around his stalled vehicle and on my way.

Suddenly realizing my mistake, I obliged, somewhat elated that I wouldn’t be making any runs to Autozone, but missing that warm, fuzzy altruism that inspires people to stop for strangers, when they know deep down that said stranger is every bit as capable of summoning an Uber driver as the next person. And then I became annoyed, because it was the gesturing that inspired me to make a return trip in the first place. Had he just gone about the business of resolving whatever was wrong with his car, I a) wouldn’t have even noticed him, and b) if I had, would have assumed that, like all cell-phone wielding Americans, he had it under control, and I could focus on my own troubles, like preventing my four-year-old from mucking up my linen trousers immediately upon entry to the house, before I had a chance to change them. I couldn’t remember the last time I stopped to inquire what I could do for a stalled motorist, unless they were actively trying to catch my attention as I drove past.

As I headed off, I watched two other cars slow down, and I watched his arm his arm flap upward a few times, just as it had probably been doing–needlessly–for the past half-hour or so. And I watched the drivers of those cars also realize their mistake, just as I had, and continue on their way, probably somewhat perturbed that this jolly, Bavarian sausage maker lookalike was ordering them about with his bratwurst of a finger. I wondered how many other drivers had seen his earnest movement only when it was too late to stop, as I had, and detecting some distress, had driven all the way around, and how large a carbon footprint his bad signals were perpetrating on our fragile planet.

He was working pretty hard at summoning, then rejecting, well meaning passersby. And all he had to do to keep people from pulling over was act like he had it under control. He could have played Temple Run while waiting for his Uber to arrive, and dream of being able to run, jump and slide himself someday. He could have sat in his air conditioned Al Capone pseudo-pastiche of a car and finished sending some emails. He could have gotten on Snapchat and sexted his friends, or whatever it is the kids are doing with their phones nowadays.

This is actually a fairly common malady in the marketing space. Many organizations expend ample energy sending bad signals–signals that waste their own effort and others’ time. Messages that lead recipients down pointless paths. And this guy thought he was serving some sort of purpose by becoming a traffic cop for the afternoon.

If you suspect the signals you’re sending are getting interpreted the wrong way, call us. There’s a good chance they are.