How to put other night-time pedestrians at ease?
December 6, 2012 11:52 PM   Subscribe

I walk to and from work down residential streets. It's dark, especially in Winter. Evidently I walk faster than most other pedestrians as I'm often passing them, not vice-versa. Is there a way to reassure these other pedestrians that I am not hurrying up behind them to rob/murder/kidnap them?

The sidewalks aren't as busy as a main street - there's at least a person or two every other block. If there were loads of people, I wouldn't think twice about it. As it is, the person in front of me and myself are usually the only people on the block. But it'll be one person on this block, then another person a block later. There are enough people that it seems crazy to zig-zag in order to avoid them, but not enough to generate a feeling of crowd safety.
I don't know that everyone I pass is worried about the footsteps approaching them from behind. But hey, sometimes I think the worst about footsteps approaching me from behind. Maybe I'm not the only one.
Is there any way to send a signal that I am perfectly harmless?

(I'm in a major West-Coast Canadian city and am an early-30s white male, more-or-less average build, but if I'm wearing a scarf under my coat and it's dark out you might mistake me for someone who looks tough and you would be wrong.)
posted by TangoCharlie to Society & Culture (54 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Tuneful whistling.
posted by flabdablet at 11:57 PM on December 6, 2012 [5 favorites]

Speaking as a 30-something female who often walks to and from campus on dark residential streets, I'd appreciate an "on your left/right" announcement (normal speaking voice, and calmly delivered), and a smile with brief eye contact as you passed me. Seems a bit awkward, but at least if you're announcing yourself, you seem less creepy. Don't smile or make eye contact for more than a couple of seconds; don't try to start a conversation. Just keep moving and mind your own business. :)
posted by evolvinglines at 12:02 AM on December 7, 2012 [7 favorites]

Also, if you're walking down the street, headphones in, and dancing/singing out loud (seemingly oblivious to other walkers), I secretly think you're awesome and I kinda wanna dance with you.
posted by evolvinglines at 12:04 AM on December 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

You might try turning your commute into a run. I believe people consider the prospect of being harassed by a jogger to be remote. The sound of your footsteps identifies you as a runner to pedestrians you are approaching from behind. Finally you will be approaching and passing people before they get a chance to be spooked.
posted by rongorongo at 12:20 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding whistling. I do it a lot because I pass people a lot when walking.

I've never considered announcing myself because that seems more intrusive than even walking up silently from behind. People expect other people not to talk to them so when you do it tends to frighten them.
posted by MonsieurBon at 12:23 AM on December 7, 2012 [4 favorites]

Talk on your phone.

Personally, I'd find tuneful whistling either reassuring or a sure sign a nutter was walking behind me.
posted by MuffinMan at 12:34 AM on December 7, 2012 [8 favorites]

Put a bicycle bell on a watch strap.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:37 AM on December 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Whistling, or even better, singing a little. And I like the bicycle bell idea a lot!
posted by Specklet at 12:41 AM on December 7, 2012

If it's residential there probably aren't lights, but a red light is not a bad place to pass someone; I like to stand 6-12 inches in front of them and an arm's length to the side, so that they can keep an eye on me, and then take off when the light turns green.

I try to minimize the time spent 20 feet behind someone or less; my usual is to slow down but I'm a slower walker; if it's someone much slower than me, I tend to speed up and pass quickly.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 12:48 AM on December 7, 2012

What kind of shoes do you wear? I don't think sneakers on a public sidewalk would ever make enough noise for someone in front to notice it. Unless you're also casting long shadows or something.

If you say that there's always a couple people on these blocks, I say just keep doing what you're doing. You're not gonna be the only person to walk up behind these other people. I'm the type to worry too much about what others think, but in this case, I'm not sure what you can do within practicality. If these were completely deserted streets or alleys, then yeah, I wouldn't want to startle the one person who just happened to be in front of me.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 12:52 AM on December 7, 2012

I feel safer when someone faster overtakes quickly along with standard wide berth which goes without saying. I prefer you in front of me where I can see you to be honest.

If you're just doing your thing getting home my antennae will sense you scan you and ignore you. I think talking on you cell is a good idea if you can. Don't sing or whistle. It's sinister. And don't wear headphones you need to be aware for your safety too.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 12:55 AM on December 7, 2012

I understand your concern, but I think anything you do is liable to make matters worse.

Two things annoy me when someone is walking along behind me. One is the person who adjusts their pace to match mine so that they're following consistently just a little way behind. Pass by all means or fall back, but don't tread in my footsteps.

Sorry, but the other one is whistling or talking loudly.
posted by Segundus at 2:01 AM on December 7, 2012 [10 favorites]

When you say zig-zag, do you mean crossing the street so you're not behind them when passing?

If it's a stretch that's particularly dark/quiet/not overlooked by occupied street-facing buildings, the only thing that would make me feel less followed is having the person cross the road. It doesn't seem to me like it would be much more effort than constantly whistling (which creeps the bejesus out of me when someone does it), and you can make a call about when it's really necessary.
posted by carbide at 2:16 AM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Either cross the road or adjust your pace to overtake them. Before you overtake them make your presence known by making a noise which won't startle them - cough or misstep so your shoe makes a noise on the pavment.

Also avoid whistling Twisted Nerve from Kill Bill.
posted by devnull at 2:24 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I,too, would go with casual whistling. I also think that announcing "On your left", or similar, would totally weird me out. I'd be thinking "On my left what? What? What is this person talking about? Are they crazy? Better be careful here..."
posted by Decani at 2:29 AM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Another vote for whistling a song. Although, if you notice that you're passing the same person every day, a cheery "Hello again!" as you pass is also quite ok.
posted by Houstonian at 3:07 AM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Talking on your phone, or perhaps playing a portable videogame with bloopybleep sounds other people could hear during a quiet night. Basically, something they can hear to understand that you are in no way concentrating on them. Casual whistling is kinda scary in a Clockwork Orange way, to me.

I appreciate that you are concerned about this, because as a young woman who walked fast in a similar situation I often felt worried both about bothering other people and other people being scary, with an additional layer of "surely I should not think the worst of everybody!" guilt on top. It was always the best when someone was obviously doing something on their phone - I could see the glow in the darkness with a quick backwards glance - or dressed for athletics and either jogging or running.

Would it be possible for you to ride a bike?
posted by Mizu at 3:18 AM on December 7, 2012

Whistling in the situation you described would seem ominous to me. Just pass the person when your pace allows you to -- as soon as you are in front, you are no longer threatening.
posted by Pwoink at 3:27 AM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Fast walker here. Just be on your way. People sense "commuter" easily. I will scuff my stride and thud my heels once or twice if someone seems oblivious. Maybe a cough or sniff or snort. Sounds a stealthy or sneaky person would not make, but also not obtrusive or unusual.
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:36 AM on December 7, 2012 [8 favorites]

I think jogging or riding a bike are the only suggestions here that would actually set me (young woman) at ease about being overtaken by a man while walking on a dark residential street.

Failing that, I think your best bet is to dress not to intimidate -- no hoodies, dark hats, big scarves. If a man was coming up behind me wearing a nice overcoat and slacks with a briefcase I'd be more comfortable.
posted by telegraph at 3:50 AM on December 7, 2012

Whistling sounds exhausting!

Wear a distinctive hat - not necessarily garish or wacky, but one with a highly visible and memorable logo, pattern, or words/letters will work. A far-away location, sports team, or college will do, e.g. "Florida," or just a random word like "horse." Or you could go with a messenger bag/briefcase with an obvious company logo on it. You don't want to go so far as to look weird, just enough so you're clearly not dressed for stealth. High-visibility running gear, like a reflective neon earwarmer or gloves will also help, even if you're not running.

Other than that, dress well, walk past people instead of behind them, stay in the light, and keep to yourself. I don't recommend greeting or acknowledging other pedestrians, even though it seems like a good way to communicate that you're non-threatening; if a passing stranger makes eye contact or says hi to me, I'm often put on guard - what if they're sizing me up and about to mug me?
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:24 AM on December 7, 2012

Paradoxically, the most considerate thing to do might be to cultivate obliviousness. Suppose you're watching the person in front of you to carefully to gauge how she's reacting to you and how you might best signal your presence. She might notice that you're watching her and thinking about her, which would be kinda creepy for her. Just focus your mind on where you're going. You will be subconsciously putting out a vibe that you're not intending to interact with the people around you. Evident obliviousness indicates a lack of malign intent.

Taking deliberate measures to signal harmlessness is asking other people to notice you and your harmless intent. That sounds like it could be an imposition. Imagine if you were a slow walker constantly being passed by people who were whistling tunelessly or announcing "on your left," that this kept happening person after person,block after block. It'd get old real fast, no?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 4:25 AM on December 7, 2012 [10 favorites]

"On your left", or similar, would totally weird me out

If you're British it might be because this seems to be an American thing. When people do it in bike lanes to me here in NYC it always strikes me as incredibly rude - no, I want to say, you take care not to collide with me, you asshole, you're the one approaching fast and from behind - but they seem to mean it as a politeness, so I try to take it as such.
posted by oliverburkeman at 4:32 AM on December 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think anything you do will make it worse. Just walk at your pace and pass them, and be about your day. And definitely don't whistle.
posted by J. Wilson at 4:36 AM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Totally agree that just walking by at top speed is your best bet. Maybe a light cough or two to announce your presence behind them. If you have conversations to catch up with then a cell phone conversation couldn't hurt. I strongly disagree with the suggestions to whistle or sing--to me that signals "serial killer in the style of Robert Mitchum coming to kill the children in 'Night of the Hunter'." But that could just be me.
posted by indognito at 4:45 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Agreed also that minimal interaction is your best bet; some people are inevitably going to be put on alert or startled, but there's not all that much you can do about that. Someone who was walking purposefully and seemed to be minding his own business would fall off my radar pretty quickly.

If you feel safe enough to do this, maybe try something that keeps your hands obviously busy (e.g. briefcase, cell phone, etc.)? That would further the impression that you're a) a commuter b) doing your own thing and not looking to disturb anyone.
posted by eponym at 5:06 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

You are over compensating.

Whatever you do will calm some, and intimidate others. Your job is not to be making people outside of your would comfortable - that's an exercise in futility. Rather, treat the thought that tells you "don't come across as a stalker," starting with the fact that you are not a stalker.
posted by Kruger5 at 5:10 AM on December 7, 2012 [7 favorites]

It's a tricky situation and I think ultimately the best advice is not to worry about it overly. Give people room and go about your day. Sadly, some of the most tense interactions I've had with strangers is with those who want to assure me that they mean no harm, they're not a rapist! Just what-the-fuck is my problem anyway?!?! Yeah....

It is really thoughtful of you to think of this. The note to shuffle feet or clear your throat so that you don't startle anyone is the best advice. Of course anyone with headphones in or absorbed by their phone may be startled anyway. Don't take it personally if someone jumps -- just say, "Oops, sorry!" And carry on.
posted by amanda at 5:44 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, you Canadians! Here in America, we wouldn't do anything but maybe in Canada, you could just say, "Excuse me, pardon me." Maybe wear some jingle bells?
posted by JJ86 at 6:03 AM on December 7, 2012

Whistling or singing is ominous. (Haven't you people seen the classic sketches where the bad guy whistles to hide that he's doing something bad!?) I don't think you should do it. I think having headphones on and seeming somewat oblivious to the people around you is your best bet. Also passing quickly, and maybe carrying something like a book or small shopping bag- nothing big enough to look like a weapon- is good. Scuffing your feet, etc. is a good one.

Thanks for thinking about this.
posted by windykites at 6:03 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Disagreeing with everyone saying singing or whistling is a good idea. Having someone start singing behind you on a dark street isn't reassuring. At all. There's not a whole lot you can do here, but it's kind of you to have these thoughts. Trying to reassure a stranger that you're not creepy is a surefire way to make them think you're a serial killer, unfortunately. Scuffing your shoes and coughing/sniffing is okay. Talking on your phone is also a good idea.
posted by sonmi at 6:12 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I used to run at night and there were women walking alone I would announce myself as "runner not a murderer!" and run by. I am a smallish lady person though.
posted by elizardbits at 6:16 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Maybe wear those reflective strips that cyclists use on your wrists and/or ankles? Hopefully when other pedestrians see you behind them they think "there's a guy who wants to be visible in the dark" rather than "i'm scared that guy is going to attack me."
posted by foxjacket at 6:30 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for thinking about this. Talking on your phone would definitely help - people can hear you coming more easily, and you don't sound like you're trying to sneak up on them - but you may not want to talk on the phone the whole way home every day.

Saying "on your left!" in a cheerful voice would make me think that you are a) not creepy b) slightly odd (no one says that when walking, right? It's just for running / biking / when you don't want to stop). So, I guess that would work.

I think on your left when someone is running by is a pleasant courtesy. Yes, it's your job to avoid me, but I'd like to have some notice that someone is going to run by me, rather than be startled by it.
posted by insectosaurus at 6:33 AM on December 7, 2012

No whistling! Omar whistles.
Nthing cheerful "On your left!" before you reach them, and maybe a quick "hi!" as you pass.
posted by apparently at 6:37 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Instead of just "on your left!", which confuses many people not accustomed to bikers, you can say "Passing on your left!", which is unambiguous.

Other stuff: don't walk directly behind somebody. There is nothing creepier.
posted by zug at 6:42 AM on December 7, 2012

Whistling would just make me want to throw something at you. (Not because you seem dangerous but because it's annoying and hurts my ears, unless you are a particularly awesome whistler who seems to be expressing joy to be alive.)

Just give them a very wide berth when you pass, like someone said upthread.
posted by needs more cowbell at 6:59 AM on December 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

a particularly awesome whistler who seems to be expressing joy to be alive

That's the kind of tuneful whistling I had in mind.
posted by flabdablet at 7:18 AM on December 7, 2012

I'd imagine there's a bicycle bell phone app. I guess a more practical solution would be to just play a notification chime on the phone.

Or fake the absolute weirdest conversation you can think of for the other person to overhear as you pass.

"Harrison Ford is radiating our testicles with microwave satellite transmissions!"
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 8:20 AM on December 7, 2012

You could keep jingly keys or coins in your pocket. I'm inclined to think stalky-murderer would try and stay quiet and rush up behind me.

Having been followed by an actual crazy person who was screaming to himself, but definitely following me, down a few residential blocks, I'd think twice about talking aloud.
posted by fontophilic at 8:24 AM on December 7, 2012

I'm female, but I tend to hum "Mr. Sandman" (except I can't hum - or whistle - so it's more of a "bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum!"). I like the jolly whistling idea as long as you can do it in a casual, merry way. Ditto humming. And then overtake when your pace allows it (occasionally I'll speed up briefly to do this, but only if it just takes a brief & not very extreme speed increase).
posted by pammeke at 8:36 AM on December 7, 2012

Decani: "I,too, would go with casual whistling. I also think that announcing "On your left", or similar, would totally weird me out. I'd be thinking "On my left what? What? What is this person talking about? Are they crazy? Better be careful here...""

Would you rather they say "on your right," and pass on the left? Jeez Louise! Telling someone you're passing them is common courtesy, so you don't make a sudden lurch or happen to turn into them, leading to more unpleasantness than necessary.

Typically on exercise paths, etc the overtaking person says which side they're gonna pass on. If the person being overtaken is wearing headphones, they have no right to expect you to say On Your Left more than once, or loud enough.

Short version: say "PASSing. on your LEFT," about five paces before you pass them (so they have time to process) and pass 'em.
posted by notsnot at 8:47 AM on December 7, 2012

Yes, thank you for thinking about this.

You can say, "Excuse me," with a polite nod as you pass, and that tends to put people at ease because you've acknowledged each other. I look people right in the eye so that we both know that we can identify each other in a police line-up. XD

As a former New Yorker, I walk faster than most people myself, so I overtake others easily. However, I'm the size of a hobbit and a woman, so I'm not particularly threatening. Even so I'll make sure I make some noise to alert people, especially other women, to my presence. We all get a bit creeped out walking alone at night. My area is also very dark, so I carry around a bike light with me so that cars and people can see me.
posted by so much modern time at 8:53 AM on December 7, 2012

You might consider carrying a flashlight. Turn it on as you approach the person in front of you; they'll see the beam and know that you're behind them and not afraid of drawing notice (so probably not up to mischief). Shut it off when you don't need it.
posted by workerant at 10:34 AM on December 7, 2012

If you have a flash on your phone, there are flashlight apps. But I'm not sure about that idea... Seeing a flashlight might make me think you're either a cop, or a mugger who needs plenty of light to work with. (Or the NBC Mystery Movie.)
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:14 PM on December 7, 2012

Response by poster: apparently - Ha ha, you beat me to that video. That was my first thought re: whistling.

I ask this question because one time 8 yrs ago or so I was walking home behind a 50s-ish woman who shared the sidewalk. As I gained on her, she stood to one side and stared me down as I got closer. I'll be the first to acknowledge this was smart. I maybe said, "hi, good evening", and I'm not sure how we got talking (maybe I said "I'm just headed home to street x and street y" as I passed), but we got into a "you can't be too careful" conversation, including her mentioning she had a son who must have been about my age. Since then I've felt a bit self-conscious about what other people must be thinking about the footsteps behind them, especially if it's enough motivation to cause you to confront a potential pursuer. Again, I think it's sensible, but I can't help wanting to make everyone's walk a little less stressful.

Carrying a light is probably smart in any event. Being casual about it is most likely my course of action. Might try a "just passing on your left" and see how that works. Probably has a lot to do with tone.

Would still love to hear everyone's opinions on this! :D
posted by TangoCharlie at 1:46 PM on December 7, 2012

I think it's nice of you to think of this, but what reassures one person would creep out another, really, and I think you're likely fine. I'm a small woman who walks home from the train every evening after work and yep, dark in the winter. I am mindful of the people walking around me, but whistling, humming, flashing a light, "on your left" outside of a biking/running/trail context... all that stuff would frankly startle me a lot more than a person overtaking me on the sidewalk and continuing on. (I am usually the person walking faster than everyone else, though.)
posted by sm1tten at 4:52 PM on December 7, 2012

Passing people is normal on sidewalks. Just do it. You're way overthinking this.
posted by dhartung at 6:02 PM on December 7, 2012

I'm with Metroid Baby on the high-vis thing. I'd go for a hat like this or this. It's easy to keep in your bag no matter what else you're wearing that day, and it's dorky/practical/non-tough-looking/anti-stealth-y enough to put fellow walkers at least a little more and ease. (And hey, your head keeps warmer AND you're less likely to get hit by cars on a dark street! I'm a short, slow-walking woman and I want one now.)
posted by argonauta at 6:36 PM on December 7, 2012

Did anyone suggest a flashlight, because that's the most anti-stealth thing I've seen pedestrians use regularly.
posted by fiercekitten at 8:03 PM on December 7, 2012

I can't imagine anything more unnerving than having some weirdo whistling at night behind me.

I think you're over thinking this, as others have said. It's nice of you to worry about other pedestrians but this situation is just part of city life and I think most people have learned to live with it. I find some of these ideas truly bizarre, to be honest: flashlights, bells, calling out? Are we talking about a human being here, or a cat to be belled lest it frighten a mouse?

I get it though. I'm 6'5, 260lbs, and sport an Evil Spock goatee. And I happen to walk very quickly and very quietly. I'm sure I've startled some people along the way -- but I'm not about to start wearing reflective tape and dancing to signal to everyone that "Hey, total non-rapist/murderer/purse snatcher coming through!".

Are we now at the point where we have to tell men "Hey, your very presence and 100% normal human behaviour makes people scared of you"? I'm all for consideration and safety, but this is absurd. TangoCharlie, you are perfectly harmless, and that's all you need to worry about.
posted by The Hyacinth Girl at 5:56 AM on December 8, 2012

Other than passing them as quickly as possible like you have someplace to be and having headphones in but nothing playing, I don't think there's really anything you can do. As a woman who walks faster than almost anyone on my naval base, I'm used to people looking behind them like "wtf?" I just keep my eyes focused in the distance, or off to the side like I'm out for a stroll (I can't stroll - it makes me look like I'm drunk), and ignore their existence. I don't really say hi anymore, because more than half the time people are assholes anyway, and I don't look at them. Ignore, ignore, ignore.

Also, be aware that your breathing might be heavier when you walk faster, in a way that might not be obvious to you. Mine changes and while I'm self conscious about how I sound like a bull getting ready to charge, I choose to ignore that as much as possible too so I don't make it worse.
posted by DisreputableDog at 6:58 AM on December 8, 2012

Noticing and evaluating someone behind me before they're right next to me and feel thisclose makes me more comfortable, as I have the chance to avoid them if it feels off. Scuffing heels while 10-15 feet back if someone hasn't noticed you're there is a good way to let them look back and do a threat assessment before you suddenly pop up in their peripheral vision.

A few guys have crossed the street rather than overtake on my side at night in darkish residential areas, which I appreciated. That signaled: "Obviously not following you, places to be, here's plenty of space", and an understanding that women walking alone at night in darkness tend to be at high alert.
posted by BigJen at 1:06 AM on December 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

When I used to walk to work (Pacific NW), I carried and used an umbrella like a walking stick. Handy to always have an umbrella, and when it wasn't raining, the regular tap-tap-tap as I was walking alerted people to my presence. Carrying a flashlight and occasionally letting the beam play up where they'll notice it (but obviously, not in their face) as you're coming up behind someone also says "I'm here, and trying to make my presence obvious and not a surprise."

If you want to carry an umbrella and make yourself noticed, ThinkGeek has the light-up, Blade Runner-style umbrellas, though I wouldn't use one as a walking stick.
posted by xedrik at 7:42 PM on December 11, 2012

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