Sidewalk behaviour exercise

There’s been a fascinating discussion on WMST-L about gendered differences in sidewalk behaviour– the expectation that women will get out of men’s way, and the expectation that men won’t do this for women. Jessica Nathanson reports the following:

I’ve assigned students the task of walking down the sidewalk and not getting out of men’s way and then reporting what happens. Several women have reported being bumped into. What was particularly interesting was hearing about this as learned gender behavior when one male student who was also trans talked about learning that he had to walk down the middle of the sidewalk, through crowded spaces such as clubs, etc., with his head up, eyes directly ahead, without saying excuse me or worrying about bumping into people. What my students and I learned from this exercise is that walking down the middle of the sidewalk is a male entitlement, as is expecting others to get out of one’s way in other crowded spaces. And – not only is it an entitlement, but it is also a way of performing maleness, so that NOT doing these things marks one as less than manly.

I’m definitely going to try assigning this one to students. (Although I suspect the norms will be different in the UK– people say “sorry” a lot more in general– I also suspect that some form of the this difference will exist.)

29 thoughts on “Sidewalk behaviour exercise

  1. This is fascinating. My girlfriend has reported to me that she gets bumped into regularly, but not when she’s holding hands with me. I pretty much never get bumped into. I’ll be paying more attention to this one in the future, thanks!

  2. It depends where you are in the UK. Without making too fine a point about the north/ south divide, you are much more likely to receive an apology for bumping in the north, I think.

    I am going to look out for this behaviour though.

  3. I’ve thought that, distressingly enough, neither men nor women seem to move to get out of another’s way. This is a huge change, it seems to me. There’s now a court case involving a 4 year old girl who ran down an elderly woman in NYC. The girl was on a bike.

    If some guy is walking towards me with his head up and he’s looking ahead, I don’t think he’ll see me. I’ll move out of the way, since I don’t want to get hurt.

  4. Interesting…I would have guessed something different. As a woman, I expect chivalry walking down the sidewalk. I expect men to make way for me, much like a male entering a building will often linger to hold the door open for me. However, I do keep my eyes averted, as per gender norms I’ve learned. I experience the most ‘bumping’ when there’s a group of people walking the opposite way — when there’s a group, they take over the whole sidewalk and I have to move over for them.

  5. I am troubled by this, but it’s not really news to me–I recall being made aware of this when I was an undergrad (in women’s studies classes) about 20 years ago. I did experiment with it back then, and I learned that it was true–men typically did not move out of the way. I actually found it kind of fun to see if they would actually bump into me, or if they’d move at the last minute (which they sometimes did, but they typically looked annoyed with me). I also would make my body (or arm, or whatever I thought they might bump) more rigid than normal, so that they wouldn’t feel like they could just push me out of their way so easily (I’m not a very large woman).

  6. This reminds me a bit of Baumeister’s point about under-appreciating how culture exploits men if you fix your attention only at the top of the social order, because if Professor Nathanson were to widen her sample size a bit, I wonder if she would not learn from other male students that the “learned gender behavior” in question is much more about “male entitlement” vis-a-vis other males than females. In other words, it’s not nearly so much about male entitlement per se, but about alpha male entitlement, status-competition among men, etc. all that stuff that inspires the sorts of behavior women not infrequently find ridiculous (I do too, even in the midst of being captive to its imperatives).

  7. Does the fact that the vast majority of people are walking around with headphones/earplugs on and/or looking at the screens of their smartphones make a difference here? My own experience is that no one notices anyone anymore because their senses are not on their immediate environment.

  8. I was going to ask the same thing as Lisa. Now that everyone is potentially zoned out with audio material via earbuds, the double standard of reflexive deference towards women with which I’m familiar may be waning. Now guys enjoy the benefit of the doubt that they’re not getting the hell out of my way because absorbed in whatever they’re listening to… I stopped listening to Bloggingheads and philosophy lectures to make Wal Mart shopping more tolerable because I nearly bumped into others’ carts a few times.

  9. I use an electric wheelchair and am often in situations where I simply cannot move out of the way – I can, of course, stop to let others pass but on narrow pavements, others are forced to step around me. And it is mostly men who struggle with this, who keep walking until they’d about to collide with me or who, once faced with such a the baffling obstacle, take a long moment work out what they need to do with their feet.

    However, older men are much better than younger ones, and not only get out of the way, but are sometimes actively helpful in clearing the way, including holding doors and so on. If it wasn’t for Helen’s comment I would spectulate that there’s a generational thing – that older men were taught a different code maybe. Then again, of course, the older you get, the more disabled people you are likely to have in your peer group.

    But one of the first times I went out with my electric wheelchair, I came across a large group of teenage boys crowding the pavement, with nowhere to pass. I was nervous anyway, I hadn’t been out by myself for years because I’d always needed pushing in a manual chair, so I was a little intimidated. I said “Excuse me!” but I was, I thought, ignored. I said it a second time, still no movement.

    The third time, someone noticed and within seconds they’d all lined up, as if for inspection, against the wall, clearing my path. All except one, who was slow to move. His mate dragged him away by the sleeve and said, “Get out of the lady’s way, you spastic!”

    I enjoyed the irony. :-)

  10. I also wonder if that’s the norm in Canada. It reminds me of the scene in Canadian Bacon, where the character (I forget if it’s John Candy or another of the principle actors) is running down the street, and every time he bumps into someone, the bumpee (not John Candy) says “Sorry,” or “Excuse me.” :)

  11. Ever since reading Notes from Underground, I’ve made it a point to keep myself from moving out of people’s way if they are ignoring me. Most people are very considerate and we adjust accordingly on the sidewalk after recognizing each other’s existence. But I’ve found that the only people who will not show respect on sidewalks are usually men in business suits. I’ve had groups of men try to walk me off the sidewalk before, but I refuse to step on the grass when this happens.

  12. When I was in Japan, it took me a while to adjust to the different sidewalk culture, although I could never put into words exactly how the norms were different. It seemed like the default side for passing someone was backwards from the American side for passing, but that might not have been it.

  13. This makes me think of discussions of invisibility as related to issues of race and gender, in particular the work of Maria Lugones and Patricia Williams. Here is an excerpt from Williams’ 1988 Signs piece, “On being the object of property:”
    “One fragrant evening, I was walking down East Wheelock Street when I encountered about a hundred of these adolescents, fresh from the courts, wet, lanky, big-footed, with fuzzy yellow crew cuts, loping toward Thayer Hall and food. In platoons of twenty-five or so, they descended upon me, jostling me, smacking me, and pushing me from the sidewalk into the gutter. In a thoughtless instant, I snatched off my brown silk headrag, my flag of African femininity and propriety, my sign of meek and supplicatory place and presen- tation. I released the armored rage of my short nappy hair (the scalp gleaming bare between the angry wire spikes) and hissed: “Don’t I exist for you?! See Me! And deflect, godammit!” (The quaint professionalism of my formal English never allowed the rage in my head to rise so high as to overflow the edges of my text.)
    They gave me wide berth. They clearly had no idea, however, that I was talking to them or about them. They skirted me sheep- ishly, suddenly polite, because they did know, when a crazed black person comes crashing into one’s field of vision, that it is impolite to laugh. I stood tall and spoke loudly into their ranks: “I have my rights!” The Dartmouth Summer Basketball Camp raised its col- lective eyebrows and exhaled, with a certain tested nobility of ex- haustion and solidarity.”

  14. interesting discussion. Like Maidenvoyage I expect politeness in public sphere, but I have recently started going out of people’s way and thus gave up on my own norms. I did this because I noticed that I was doing all the stepping out of other people’s way, and tried – a bit like an experiment – to see what happens if I refuse to. Now I get bumped into all the time.
    I have mostly noticed the group aspect, and the gender aspect. But what strikes me most is the combined effect: it seems like a group of men is least likely to go out of the way.
    Since my little experiment I just do what the trans person did: head up and continue to walk in the middle. A sometimes I give a polite comment, for example: excuse me please, can I get through? I definitely get a lot of looks. I have to confess that this gives me a certain feeling of power.

    Using public transport creates similar situations, which I personally find much more annoying: men like to sit with their legs wide open, thus taking up a part of the seat of the person next to them. It is my impression that they will change this when another man takes the seat beside them, not if a woman does. I find this much more annoying than the sidewalk experience, where I feel I can more easily refuse to be pushed aside. Also it usually lasts longer and involves more physical contact, which I do not particularly enjoy with total strangers. I have tried various reactions, like simple saying “excuse me”, looking intently, pushing against the leg taking up my space, etc.

    Sorry for taking the discussion in a somewhat different direction, but I wonder if others have similar experiences and what sort of reactions people have tried out, and with what result?

  15. sorry, in my previous post I meant I have recently stopped going out of people’s way, not started

  16. I agree with Rob that this is likely to be status behaviour, so that more ‘alpha’ males will expect everyone else down the social pecking order to move out of their way, which will affect other men as well as women. It reminds me of the discussion about commenting on/shouting at strangers in public, which has the effect of controlling public space and making the recipient feel like an intruder in public space. People often talk about how men comment on/shout at women, which is, of course true. But men also comment on/shout at other men who don’t fit the requisite norms – e.g., belong to subcultural group, too fat, too thin, etc. – or who seem less powerful than themselves (younger, weaker, etc.) So the control of public space is also, I take it, a status thing.

  17. Nobody–neither male or female–ever gets out of my way (well, almost never), and I’m a beefy bodybuilding male. It irks me to no end when it’s a group of people walking side by side and I’m alone. I’m not convinced it’s a male/female thing, given my own experience, but I do think it has to do with age/maturity and consideration of others more generally (hence why “alphas” might seldom let you by).

    My solution is to tense up my shoulders before the hit, so that the other person reels a little and notices that he/she was being a dork about sidewalk space. I no longer yield the way when I’m walking alone (barring other considerations, such as an elderly person or someone who needs more space in my general direction). Perhaps I’m only exacerbating the problem, however.

  18. I’m female, short and stocky. People never get out of my way. I think many don’t really see me. I have given up dancing around them all, and do the same rigidity trick many have mentioned. Is it wrong to be vaguely smug about the idiots who walk into me dropping their phones because they were too intent on peering at them to see obstructions?

    One interesting thing to note, though, if I am carrying something tall, I suddenly become visible and people step aside. This has happened twice – once when carrying a broom home from the hardware shop where I bought it, and once when I was taking home a fake polearm (I do live roleplay, it was delivered by post to work). I think I may be below the line of sight for many, but having an interesting burden either gets into the line of sight or is just interesting enough to wake people from their zombified walking stupor.

    All of the above is based in observations of walking around London.

  19. I’m female, average height, and built like a brick proverbial. I find that striding purposefully generally gets me where I’m going without too much in the way of dodging – people get out of my way (the long coat helps).

    I have no mercy with slow-moving crowds, but unless I’m distracted in some way, I’m considerate on ‘ordinary’ pavements. When someone is coming toward me I will keep to a logical half of the pavement to leave room for them.

    And if they are walking up the centre of the street and expect me to take up less space still for their benefit, they will find themselves shoulder barged as I pass, never breaking stride. And that’s pretty much that.

    I’m a pacifistic, non-violent person by nature and principle. But this is Edinburgh, damnit, and it spends a month and change of the year stuffed to the gills with people on every major street. If you want to get _anywhere_ you learn to take no prisoners.

    I suppose my point is that I think it’s a bit redundant to say that this is ‘alpha male’ behaviour rather than just ‘male’ behaviour. The social programming we’re talking about here is a matter of self-confidence, of the attitude ‘I have a right to be here, you will move around me’. It’s about dominance and, yes, status.

    Of _course_ there are submissive males who have to step aside for other males. There are also bolshy house-sized lezzers like me who wouldn’t step aside for a Volvo never mind a man. But ultimately, and I can’t believe I’m having to observe this, most of the people who take up the middle of the pavement and expect others to move are men because most people socially programmed to be dominant and immovable are men.

  20. I’ve noticed that my husband and I can be walking along, carefully taking up no more space than required for ourselves (granted, we’re both on the larger side of average, but this happens even in large spaces), and a single person (around here in the southern USA, typically female) will barrel down the middle of the space requiring that one of us drop behind the other or that we separate to allow her passage.

    And I’ve noticed more problems with groups of females refusing to get out of the way (or even make room) for me (also female) whether I’m alone or with my husband. Males will often make room when they’re in groups. Females in groups seem to grow a “herd” mentality where they simply must maintain their physical spots in the herd to avoid the possibility of losing social status.

  21. Well there’s two philosophies I live by when it comes to this, can’t believe I actually have these, haha. If I’m walking down a normal sidewalk with only one or two people, be polite and courteous and get out of others way, it’s easy enough to share. When walking through a large crowd or crowded event, such as a sporting event, club, or a metro city block during the holidays, that’s when i keep my head up and stare straight ahead to send a message that I’m moving and need to get through. I’ll still turn my shoulders and side step people the best I can, but if a person, especially another guy won’t let me through then I nudge him out of the way to remind them there are other people (need to do this on so many club nights it’s insane) and if i believe that they didn’t see me I’ll turn and apologize but if they knew I was coming and still didn’t move, I won’t even look at them. However, if they accomodate me I’ll move accordingly and thank them.

    I don’t know, it only fits in my mind to repay alpha behavior with alpha behavior to remind them they’re not that great and repay courtesy with courtesy. Though their have been times where I’ve had to give hard nudges to people who for whatever reason get to close while dancing and keep hitting me with parts I don’t like being hit with

    @marrog; i find your comment rather hilarious that while you state there are ‘submissive’ (polite possibly) males, hogging the sidewalk is not an ‘alpha male’ behavior it is ‘male,’ yet, you admit to doing it yourself, making it just an ‘alpha behavior’… or that you yourself are a male by your own definition of this behavior… and depending on how you see being ‘male’ you might want to reevaluate your life.

  22. @Alec: I think you may have mistaken my point a little. What I was asserting was that it’s redundant to observe that when there are two men on a pavement one of them has to be submissive and move – it goes without saying that within a dominant group there will still be a hierarchy of dominants and submissives. But those submissive males will often (my assertion would be usually) still display dominant sidewalk behaviour with women so it doesn’t make it exclusively ‘alpha male’ behaviour _rather_ than ‘male(=dominant)’ behaviour.

    On an ideological level, I’m personally not a fan of gendering behaviour – as I’m sure most people on this thread would not be, given a perfect world. But the fact is that we’re having a discussion about patriarchal behaviour and so it’s a useful shorthand to label behaviour that is typically displayed by men as ‘male’.

    Sidewalk behaviour, dominant to submissive, sits on a continuum. Most men are on the dominant half of the continuum. Most women are on the submissive half. There is, as with any continuum, crossover and statistical anomoly in the middle – you might call that middle-ground the ‘polite’ section of the continuum if you like. You by your account are one of those anomolies, and so am I. That doesn’t make you ‘female’ and me ‘male’. It just makes us both exceptional.

  23. this is my experience from present day Ireland- and as a 52 year old male I have experience and memories when two people approaching each other, whether male male, male female or female male or any combination of that- well each would sort of do a side step and so avoid the impact that so often occurs today.
    I walk dogs for people and there now seems to be a gigantic increase in the amount of feminine dog walkers around- and also the lycra clad bottle of water carrying and trainer festooned feminine on the footpaths, footpaths here in Ireland, and so I am out walking and trying to have a nice quite walk when I see approaching a single feminine or maybe two of same and as a few have expressed they avert their eyes- bloody why , now they do not know where they are walking and on approaching they tend to avert their eyes so rending them useless for navigation, and yes they tend to stiffen arms and on passing have got wrist slaps- this is when usually a bony wrist suddenly flicks down on passing and slaps mine , and it can hurt, and so on, and they tend to stand their ground or even morph into the space and line you are on when approaching- why is this,
    and i find men are just out for a “walk” yes an old fashioned “Walk” not an exercise jaunt that entails keeping the heart rate up and so the feminine are becoming what i would term Pavement Bullies- if men were at fault, maybe a few are, but mostly when in tow with a feminine a few steps ahead of the male-

    and i do try to accommodate any person who is coming towards me whether male female or whether i cannot discern the combination contained within the individual- no one benefits from an unnecessary coming together and yes i wonder if the feminine element who do all this bullying on the footpaths are operating to some as yet un-disclosed agenda, boy have they attitude-
    it is sort of like this
    one day in Dublins fair city i was walking along and keeping out of the way of on-coming human elements in the shifting and changing ;landscape of the footpath when it came to my auditory or hearing sense that ther was something behind me- and so while keeping on walking i turned around and so was walking backwards- i made sure there were no oncoming humanoids to crash into – and so the sight that was presented was this
    Lycra Trainers Earphones Bottle of Water and a Woman who was intent upon walking at so fast a rate that she was about to crash into me- she was on the completely same line and location as i was a millisecond earlier- so iu said something to the effect
    what are you doing
    and she want on about being in her Zone and not to disturb her but with more bolshiness, attitude and absolute horribleness
    Surely she should realize you cannot “Zone” out on a Public Footpath or any where there are other human beings who are approaching as by doing so she is endangering others- shit she would probably cross the road without looking as these sorts do- I also drive-
    and she had “go fast” stripes on her Lycra, tight leggings- oh these are probably made in some sweatshop in a third world country so these pampered Feminine Women- oh perhaps the statement is too good for these sorts as they exhibit the attributes we men are accused of –
    so in summary i would say in the present Modernity of Present day Ireland that the problem of Pavement, ,Sidewalk in America, barging or bumping or sheer in-difference to others using the Pavement is largely a feminine one- backed up by the older ladies, ladies they are who have also experienced and commented upon this to me-

    Why this is so is another thing as is
    Why is society putting up with it and so on-

    Go on People each take a little side-step on approaching another person and it is amazing as there is then room to pass unhindered from being knocked down, wrist slaps, a mouthful of hair from the wildly swinging hair that suddenly comes your way on passing- horrible experience- or any other demarcation experience whereby both have to stop and try to force the other to move- god such people exist now
    years ago it seemed there was more respect and so on, loads of old fashioned values that no longer are practiced- sad to see it now

    lastly women are more likely now to be wearing over-sized sunglasses-( again men seem not to need these as much- if at all) be it rain , does here quite a lot -hail and this sleet snow or Sun and so one cannot see the eyes so one does not know where they are aiming for so one does not know how to avoid person, and as to averting eyes- what bull;shit, Jesus if your eyes are not looking ahead it says to me that you as a person approaching me are not watching where you are going and so you are re-miss and neglecting to pay attention to one of the rules of the road – in that all road users need to have equal respect and attention and responsibility for safety’s sake-
    And in parting dont go all bollicks and bemoan me for this- yes i am a man- is it so wrong to be so in this mad mad modernity in that as a Citizen of this fine country and one of the wider world i cannot express myself, based on my experiences and Knowledge of the issues- perhapshere it may be the time to “Zone Out” and accept what is said_

  24. Anonymous, if a strange man was walking backwards in front of me, so as to interrogate me about what I was doing, while it was clear I was exercising, I too would certainly try to find some way to avoid conversation with him, as I would be suspicious that he was dangerous.

    Also, I often avert my eyes from strangers while walking (sometimes even while wearing trainers, over-sized sunglasses, or holding a bottle of water), but I assure you I can navigate well nonetheless, so I don’t think this is something that need worry you.

  25. Sorry, but the premise of this study is ridiculous. I’m a man, I keep to the right when walking on sidewalks, which is a societal norm, and I sometimes have other men walk right up to me and refuse to move, or insist that I get out of THEIR way. WOMEN have done this to me too. This morning a woman actually changed SIDES as she approached me, came right up to my face, asked me if there was a “problem”, and stood there when I “explained” the problem to her, checking her cell phone messages. I swear that BOTH men and women exhibit this bad behavior because they are losers in life, having to score some pathetic sidewalk “victory” in order to feel good about themselves. I know many women, and none of them have suggested to me that men do this to women, as a rule. Courtesy and paying attention to surroundings on sidewalks needs to run in both directions, and women – whether walking, running/jogging. or riding bicycles on sidewalks – are every bit as capable as men of being thoughtless jerks in this regard.

  26. This is apparently these people’s way of defending their inner vulnerable selves from threat. Maybe they felt generally ignored as kids so say I will show people I am not to be ignored. Not wrong so much as sad. Perhaps friendly respectful eye to eye conversations are in order each time this occurs, or simply smile warmly at them and get out of their way. One way or the other we are all in the same boat folks, basically little children battling our childhood demons, no one bad, many misguided with life lessons left to learn. That’s life and ain’t it grand.

Comments are closed.