The P2P Protocols Behind Human Cultures

Marcel Gregoriadis
7 min readJan 8, 2023
Traffic flow at an intersection
Source: tawatchai07 on Freepik

Recently, I spent an outrageous 15 minutes (!) in front of a red traffic light at an intersection in central Bangkok. Enough time to get me through all five stages of grief, and finally for my impatience to turn to mind-wandering.

Just two days prior, I was still in India, which in multiple ways was a severe culture shock to me. Traffic took a great part in this. Indian traffic, as I experienced it, has no rules. It’s just a bunch of individuals trying to get from A to B in the most convenient way. This can mean overtaking from left or right, squeezing between a bus, two rickshaws, and a cow, or driving in the opposite lane. I like to compare it to a crowd of pedestrians in a really busy place, each one carrying their way. Sometimes a loose structure can be recognized, sometimes it’s just plain chaos.

Time passes while I contemplate my time in India, and I’m still stuck at this freakin’ red light. I guess what bothered me the most was that it wasn’t even that busy at this intersection. That said, there was plenty of opportunity for my driver to cross the street without disrupting the traffic flow.

This stupid traffic light… what is it really good for? Why not let people figure out for themselves when it’s time to cross the street, I thought to myself in a cynical moment. It could all be so much more efficient! Then I was recalling similar thoughts that I had while ranting about the traffic in India, waiting until the next gap becomes free for my driver to move a bit further.

So which strategy is better? Which society has figured it out better in terms of traffic efficiency? I honestly don’t know, and it also isn’t the point of this article. The point is to understand that there is a formal or informal set of rules, a P2P protocol if you will. Let us try to deconstruct it.

Bangkok’s Traffic P2P Protocol: You stay in your lane. You obey certain signs and traffic lights that tell you when to drive and when not to, otherwise, you give way to traffic on the left. Should you disobey, you risk your life (and that of others) as peers do not anticipate your behavior. Furthermore, you will be punished by your peers (i.e., the law), even to the point that they’ll ban you from the system (i.e., a driver’s license suspension).

The protocol is more restrictive to the individual than it would be on the streets of Delhi. However, it has its merits. Most of the time, you’re either standing still or you’re driving in a flow motion. There is much less need for honking, and you may feel safer and more relaxed while driving. So does it mean that Indian traffic is less safe? Here again, I couldn’t tell you. But asking this question again fails the point. Time for another anecdote from India.

I was sitting on the back of a motorcycle of a local driving me around Varanasi. The traffic was as crazy as ever — and we were going fast! I realized that I had entrusted my life to this Indian gentleman that I just met, and all I could do now was marvel at the way how all drivers — almost elegantly — push their way through the streets in dangerous maneuvers, without causing any accident. “How is that possible?”, I yelled in his ear, my voice fighting against the wind. He answered confidently: “It works because everybody is driving this way. Thus, everybody is expecting everything from everyone at any time.”

India’s Traffic P2P Protocol: You are pretty free in what you do, just try sticking to the left side of the road. Expect anything from anyone at any time. Use honking to draw attention to you whenever you’re passing by or coming close to another vehicle. Pay great attention to what other drivers are doing. And watch out for cows.

It seems like different cultures have developed different strategies to tackle similar problems (e.g., traffic) with the same goals (in this case, safety and efficiency).

I should add as a side note that less than 20 seconds after the conversation with my new Indian friend, another bike bumped into ours (nobody was injured).

P2P protocols can be discovered in all kinds of human group interactions, and it’s interesting to observe them as they differ cross-culturally.

Another example is trading. The merchant has the objective to sell his or her goods and services with the highest margin. Cultures have established different ways to deal with this too.

Source: Karolina Grabowska on Pexels

In many countries, and especially so in the US, gastronomy businesses pay their waiters and waitresses very little salary. This allows them to offer cheaper prices to their customers. Of course, only on paper. Customers are expected to give a tip of about 10–20% to compensate for the poor wage of the waitress. This is an informal agreement but there is strong peer pressure that enforces this quite successfully, as anyone who has been on a date can confirm. However, even if there are no witnesses, you can still earn yourself a disappointed or sullen look that will make you feel bad about yourself, assuming you’re not a total sociopath. If you’re a recurrent customer at this establishment, you have to expect to receive inferior service the next time you visit it, and depending on the tamper of your waiter or waitress, an added personal note to the meals and drinks you order. Usually, it’s not worth the risk of bodily fluids in your spaghetti carbonara, and you’re better off just paying a tip. It’s a tangled system, but it works.

Tipping is not all so required everywhere, as wages (and consumer prices) increase. There are even countries where the cashier would be confused if you try to give them an amount that exceeds the bill. The advantage here of course, from the perspective of the merchant, is that you can demand a certain price and rely on it.

Parallels can also be drawn to the procedure of selling goods in cultures where price negotiations are expected vs. those where the price is fixed.

You can observe P2P protocols in many areas of life. Other instances, just to give you some more examples, are:

  • smiling upon and greeting strangers VS. avoiding eye contact altogether
  • walking around with a calm and friendly demeanor VS. being somewhat loud and assertive
  • the habit of initiating a conversation with the person next to you in a restaurant or in a taxi VS. keeping interactions with strangers at a minimum

You don’t always need to travel across country borders to identify cultural differences (or different protocols, as I like to call them). Sometimes you can already witness them in different neighborhoods, communities, friend groups, and companies.

I don’t think it’s easy to say that one culture is superior to another or to say that a culture is “wrong”. While every culture is historically conditioned, cultures also adjust to the environment in which they are applied. For instance, it might not always be advisable to be all too smiley and friendly with a suspicious-looking young man in some alley in London. Societal structures are what constrain and cause cultural developments, and vice versa. This is what makes major cultural shifts difficult and lingering.

It’s the same with upgrades to digital P2P protocols. When engineers want to introduce a major upgrade to the network, they need to do so in phases. The reason for this is that behaving after a protocol that is incompatible with the protocol that is used by most peers will disadvantage the individual or lead to conflicts with other peers. I experienced this myself at the security check at the Mumbai airport, where I was waiting for my bag to get checked. Running a different mental protocol, I was under the assumption that it was going in order, so I patiently waited for my turn. I stood there like an idiot as Indians that previously were behind me in the line now gained themselves precedence just by pushing their way forward and approaching the guards directly. I had to adapt to their protocol to not miss my flight, and so I did. That said, it was not attractive for me to use my protocol as long as a majority of my peers didn’t. This is also why changes in P2P systems sometimes need to be introduced incrementally, and it is waited for each update to be adopted by the majority of peers before rolling out the next one.

Deconstructing the P2P protocols in a new culture helped me to get an objective perspective and understanding of the P2P (i.e., human-to-human) processes I experienced on my travels. I realized that just as I felt bothered and was suspicious at first of people approaching me in Thailand, or as I got mad about the pushy behavior of my Indian peers, or felt an aversion towards the rather cold and distant demeanors back home in Germany, it wasn’t their fault. I was just running a different protocol.

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Marcel Gregoriadis

I try to understand the world by writing about it. My essays revolve around psychology, sociology, and philosophy.