What happens when men pass each other on the sidewalk?
September 27, 2006 7:49 AM   Subscribe

Help me understand the power dynamics in play when two men pass each other on the sidewalk.

Over the last few years I've started to get an inkling that there's a whole separate silent conversation happening between men on the street that I, as a woman, am not really ever aware of. How they make eye contact, how much space they allow for each other to pass, who moves aside, etc. When someone bumps me with their arm I assume it's accidental; I'm starting to think such things between men are not always so (at least if the number of almost-fistfights my ex got into are any indication).

I realize much of this probably happens on an unconscious level, but I'd love to hear any explanations or rules anyone can lay out, and whether this is a constant thing or contextual.
posted by occhiblu to Human Relations (110 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Nope, there's absolutely nothing going on on the level you indicate. If your ex almost got into fistfights over people bumping his arm, he was just an asshole. Nothing to do with unspoken male power dynamics.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 7:55 AM on September 27, 2006 [2 favorites]

I used to always weave around to make space for other people. I always used to walk staring at the ground as well.

Now I find that if I stare straight ahead towards where I'm walking to, looking about a dozen yards ahead, and walk purposefully and upright, people move out of my way.
posted by chrismear at 7:56 AM on September 27, 2006 [2 favorites]

I don't think that there's any gender-specific behavior involved when men pass other men on sidewalks.
posted by Prospero at 7:58 AM on September 27, 2006

Best answer: I also find this dynamic fascinating (as a guy, for that matter). I actuallly learned more about it (and how to think about it) from reading about female-to-male transsexualism. Google FTM passing guide for a start, perhaps?
posted by sohcahtoa at 7:59 AM on September 27, 2006

If there's some separate silent conversation happening when I pass other men on the sidewalk, it's a conversation that eludes me. I've never even heard of this sort of concept. This seems really bizarre, actually. I TheOnlyCoolTim's first comment...
posted by jdroth at 7:59 AM on September 27, 2006

I would say it's less power dynamics than two people who have different interpersonal styles interacting and yet not interacting. On a sidewalk, you have a way of treating others at anonymous beings. You may avoid, you may push in, but it really doesn't acknowledge the other person at all. It's all about you.
posted by GuyZero at 7:59 AM on September 27, 2006

oops... That should be: I echo the first comment from TheOnlyCoolTim....
posted by jdroth at 8:00 AM on September 27, 2006

Best answer: Okay, getting into fights about it is pretty extreme, but I know that if I'm approaching another guy and we're both walking on the same side of the pavement, and I make eye contact with him before we meet, then it's definitely a victory for me in the manlihood stakes (albeit a minor one) if he gets out of my way. It's a bit like playing chicken.
posted by chrismear at 8:03 AM on September 27, 2006

George Pelecanos gives a great example of this in one of his novels. Two men in a poor neighborhood of D.C. approach on a sidewalk, bump each other intentionally as they pass, and then continue on their way without comment. Pelecanos implies that this is a normal display of male dominance for his characters.

As a middle-class guy working in Manhattan, I have no personal experience with this, but the story in the novel sounded plausible.
posted by steadystate at 8:05 AM on September 27, 2006

It's not about gender. Class, maybe.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:07 AM on September 27, 2006

Please don't project from your ex onto all guys! If he was automatically assuming a bump was not accidental - yeah, that's some serious aggresion.

I'll second chrismear's first comment. Not so much with the second (although I do find that making eye contact increases the likelyhood that someone will move):

I don't know if it works the same for women, but if you look like you know where you're going, with a purposeful stride, people walking two or more abreast will generally open up for you, and a guy walking toward you will shift just enough at the last minute to not bump you. If not, I find a clear "excuse me" works - I'm not stepping off the sidewalk just to walk around people who are too lazy to be polite. If I bump someone's arm, I excuse myself.

posted by canine epigram at 8:08 AM on September 27, 2006

Urinal test
posted by nitsuj at 8:09 AM on September 27, 2006

People actually have space in their heads to dedicate to giving a crap what some random stranger coming down the street is going to do? As a guy I've never ever given a moment's consideration to another guy on the sidewalk other than how to get around him if I'm in a hurry. The idea that someone might actually get into a fist fight over something so retarded and childish is amazing. Most of my energy on the street goes to scoping out good looking women - speaking of childish.
posted by spicynuts at 8:09 AM on September 27, 2006

I think there are all sorts of local (and class like ludwig_v says) factors that will prevent a generalized answer that you are looking for. For instance, in my neighborhood, white men never never never make eye contact when you pass them on the sidewalk. Black men almost always. This intimidates my white friends when they visit (so there might be some dominance behaviors that they read into it), but then I point out that the whites just stare at the sidewalk, which is pretty rude when you think about it. I don't get caught up in the alpha-male competitions, so it just makes me like my neighborhood more when people, mostly strangers, are willing to make eye contact and share a nod or a "hello."
posted by peeedro at 8:13 AM on September 27, 2006

Hmm. I haven't noticed any gender-specific behaviors. I personally just try to avoid being in the way and walk a reasonably straight predictable line. No offense meant to you, but your ex sounds like an aggressive asshole.
posted by aramaic at 8:16 AM on September 27, 2006

Ummmm... I can at least speak for myself that nothing specific happens when I pass a man, or anyone else, on a sidewalk. This is an odd perception of yours...
posted by delfuego at 8:17 AM on September 27, 2006

Response by poster: I certainly agree there are class issues at play, hence the "power dynamics" phrasing. I think to some extent what I'm worrying about as a woman on the street, when I'm worried, is sussing out who might be dangerous, who's invading my space and whether it's intentional, things like that. And I do think women make eye contact more often than men, and move out of the way more often than men (which the FTM guides linked above back up). Which I think is a power issue as well. I'm trying to figure out the male equivalent, I guess.
posted by occhiblu at 8:18 AM on September 27, 2006

I agree with the "you're overthinking this" type of comment. Though I'll add that one factor significantly changes things: is alcohol involved? Based on the way bar-filled streets get at closing time, people seem to take things much more personally when they're drunk...
posted by inigo2 at 8:27 AM on September 27, 2006

Holding eye contact for any great length of time would be unusual, and some guys might take it as hostile, especially if their usual rule is no never break eye contact first.

My own behaviour is to tend to break eye contact first, whether I'm looking at a guy or a girl, as it does make me uncomfortable - but I have consciously tried being the one to never break eye contact for a few days just to see what it was like, and most people break fairly quickly - it's an oddly empowering feeling. Well, until you come across someone who's also using the "don't break eye contact"-rule, and you get into an unwanted staring contest. This never happened with girls/women, presumably because extended m/f eye contact would indicate attraction rather than hostility.

As for space/avoiding - my personal space is pretty large, and I give other people the same room for maneuver when sitting/talking- It's just slightly less than arms length.

I don't really conciously get out of anyone's way - Like most people, I try and guess where people are going, and try and move out of their way long before it becomes necessary to defer to someone by obviously stepping out of their path.

I suspect a fairly agressive, dominant guy might well take the subconsious approach of never being the one to break eye contact, and never being the one to move out of someone's way - or at least, another guy's way.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 8:27 AM on September 27, 2006

Best answer: Something similar I notice is when passing other men of my own age group (<3 0). there is a nod that happens immediately after eye contact. often it is quite subtle, just a slight up movement of the head. it signifies acknowledgement and also sort of implies that we are peers. this does not happen with older men or with women at all. maybe i'm strange...br>
Back to the topic specifically, I believe that this exists and is definitely about gender. It is also about power dynamics and courtesy. If I see another man heading towards me on a possible collision course, the first thing I do is attempt eye contact. If contact is made, there is a sort of silent acknowledgement (possibly including "the nod"), and generally both of us do whatever is easiest to avoid the collision. When the other man avoids eye contact and, as chrismear says, stares straight ahead at where he is going, then I cannot be sure that he will avoid me so I tend to move. He may "win" in his head, if he is paying attention, but some portion of men are oblivious to this. Those who are prone to bouts of assholery, may intentionally collide at this point though a fist fight is pretty extreme. If a guy is willing to fist fight, he may as well whip it out and spray his territory with his scent.

The reason I think this is related to gender, is that this sort of thing only seems to happen with other men who could be considered peers. If a much older man, boy, or woman of any age is the other person in question, I will always attempt to defer to their path. This is essentially about courtesy which sort of implies that I am less inclined to be polite to another male whom I see as a peer. Sexual competition mayhaps?

Of course all of these things happen without much conscious thought. It is part of the skills of navigating a crowd of people though I don't know if it stems from instinct of socialization.
posted by utsutsu at 8:27 AM on September 27, 2006

It's a totally legitimate phenomenon. There's a lot going on in any encounter between two men on the street, whether perceived/noticed or not. I'm going to echo sohcahtoa's sentiment and urge you to look into gender crossings like FTM. That said...

An absolute best resource is Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man: One Woman's Journey Into Manhood and Back. This was an amazing book that totally changed my perception of men and what being a man in a man's world is like. She spent a year in drag, infiltrating male domains like strip clubs, balls to the wall sales jobs, bowling leagues, even monasteries.

On repeated observations, she noticed eye contact was key in behavior between males on the street level. In her words, if you want to get to the basics of it, when another guy looks you in the eye, he wants to kill you or fuck you. (A very stripped down generalization, yes, but basically I don't think we should underestimate the subconcious signals/dynamics that men have between each other, even going back to early man instincts...)
posted by milkdropcoronet at 8:27 AM on September 27, 2006

I'm not sure how the br> got in there, I had no markup at all in that post.

Also, it should read (<30) with no spaces, as in "less than thirty". I don't get why it inserted that space on me.
posted by utsutsu at 8:29 AM on September 27, 2006

peeedro , is that even about gender, though, or just a racial difference? I've noticed, since moving to a mixed-race urban area, that black men (esp. over the age of 30) will always greet me in passing (whether I'm alone--I am female--or if I am with a male or female friend); white men almost never will. This isn't a "hey baby" hello either...it's the polite "civilized people acknowledge each other" thing, whether a curt nod or the full, how are you.
posted by availablelight at 8:29 AM on September 27, 2006

interactions between strangers varies widely depending upon culture, neighborhood, ....

Sometimes/places it is appropriate/expected to make eye contact, nod, and say something like "hey", in other cases even eyecontact will encourage the crazy/macho/panhandlers. Even saying 'hey' really means 'I'm confident so don't give me shit.'

Debora Tannen (I think) once remarked on a NYC/LA difference. In NY strangers will have a 1, 2, or 3 interchange conversations when say standing in line or looking at a painting in a museum. In LA, if you talk to a stranger there are chances that that stranger will want to prolong the conversation and not leave you alone.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 8:29 AM on September 27, 2006

Strongly disagree with TheOnlyCoolTim, definitely agree with chrismear. When I was more of an introvert I'd really never taken notice of it, but as I encountered increasingly greater amounts of other guys I became aware of the subtle way, even if wholly unintentional, an encounter with another man goes down.

There's a wide variety of factors that I've taken note of, from eye contact (often a straight-ahead gaze, as chrismear states, is a great way to convince others to move out of your way) to the 'subtle nod,' as I've termed it. Whereas girls mostly verbally greet one another and/or wave, guys are generally more subdued. A guy (whom I don't know terribly well) where I work subtly nods at me every morning. Correspondingly, I nod back. I think, in a situation like that, waving or even saying 'Hello' would seem pretty awkward.

In any event, I'm very much convinced that guys everywhere, to some extent, do something similar.
posted by owenkun at 8:30 AM on September 27, 2006

Nothing here.

Though I *did* almost get into a fight a few weeks ago coming out a gas station when I opened the door and a guy walking on the sidewalk walked into it - from the opening side.

He told me to be more careful - I told him to pay attention to where he was walking. (")(@#)(@# don't open your !@#(#) door when people are walking." "If you opened your )##)( eyes, you wouldn't hit the !@)#()#%( door.", etc, etc.)
posted by unixrat at 8:32 AM on September 27, 2006

In Paris the people on the sidewalks are much more aggressive than they are in San Francisco. I find myself regularly forced aside by 40 year old women. I mostly walk in the gutter.
posted by Nelson at 8:35 AM on September 27, 2006

Best answer: This is not some made up thing - there is a dynamic at play.

I personally believe people are taking it a little far when they say it's "class". It's more of an "alpha dog" thing and/or "passive" thing and/or polite thing at play.

It's not necessarily conscious, but it's absolutely there. Sometimes I move out of the way, sometimes I plow ahead and the other person does. It's not separated based on class, it's just this weird dynamic and far less harmful game of chicken than the real thing.

Who steps aside is often clearly dictated by self confidence levels and/or physical size.

Getting into a fight over it means this "dance" has become conscious and someone very likely has a totally unnecessary chip on his shoulder, but that doesn't mean that there is no "dominance" game at play here, however subtle and/or subconscious it is.
posted by twiggy at 8:40 AM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Seriously are some of you insane? People are animals, mammals in fact. Every aspect of any mamalian society is ALL about power dynamics. ... which gender dictates what the pack does.. who is dominant over whom.... just watch any nature documentary (you know, like Sex in the City) for glaring examples of this.

Don't get me wrong, it's a shame, but ignoring it is not going to get us any closer to being made up of less animal and more actual being.
posted by judge.mentok.the.mindtaker at 8:48 AM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Sometimes I come across a guy doing the glowering, "I'm not going to veer" thing and on occasion I just want to slug that person in the face as hard as I can. I'm a mild-mannered, hetero, not-super-macho skinny liberal who hasn't gotten in a fight since jr. high. I think that it involves class, gender, and neurochemical flare ups.
posted by mecran01 at 8:52 AM on September 27, 2006

Vincent's way overdramatizing it ("fuck or kill") to an almost offensive level. I'm sure if we came up with an example involving female behavior and then linked it to early feminine instincts, women would be rightly ticked. That being said, there's definitely a lot going on about class, assertiveness, local culture.

Salon review of Vincent's book. Worth reading.
posted by canine epigram at 9:02 AM on September 27, 2006

Seriously are some of you insane?

No, we're just nerds with Asperger's who have difficulty reading these non-verbal ques.

As a traveller, when abroad, I often encounter people who shift the "wrong" direction (left when I'm expecting right) to avoid collision as we approach on the sidewalk.
posted by Rash at 9:05 AM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

An awful lot of this varies with the persons involved (for example, straight men don't act the same as gay men) and location (big city is not the same as suburb is not the same as small town).

When I lived in Adams-Morgan, DC I avoided eye contact with strange men on the sidewalk unless my gaydar was activated, in which case, I definitely made eye contact and smiled. Otherwise, avoiding eye contact was one element of a strategy to avoid panhandlers and homophobes.

Living in a smallish city now -- and yes, it's a old pedestrian oriented downtown -- I make eye contact with most people. I may nod, I may say "Howdy", who knows what, but some acknowledgement is in order. It's the thing to do.

So, yes, it's contextual, and yes, it's cultural.
posted by Robert Angelo at 9:05 AM on September 27, 2006

It's more of an "alpha dog" thing and/or "passive" thing and/or polite thing at play.

Precisely! It's all part of the

asshole -- man's man -- gentleman -- wimp

scale. The assholes and the wimps tend not to realise the full subtlety of the game we're playing. But if you can hit that middle spot, and have the casual facility to lean between man's man and gentleman depending on the circumstance, then you have it made.
posted by chrismear at 9:07 AM on September 27, 2006 [4 favorites]

Seriously are some of you insane?

Why, yes, that must be it. I'm insane because I've never noticed this sort of thing.

Seriously — I find it more interesting that there's a dichotomy here between those who perceive these interactions and those that do not. I don't know what that says about us, but it says something.

I studied psychology at university. I'm fascinated by the mind works. I admit that in any social interaction, there's "stuff" going on, but for my part, there's nothing special happening when I'm walking down the sidewalk. There's certainly nothing different going on whether I'm passing a man or a woman. Maybe there's something special going on in your head, but you are not me. I can't explain why you are the way you are or I am the way I am.

But to claim that there's some mystical man-encounter for everyone everywhere is stretching.
posted by jdroth at 9:07 AM on September 27, 2006

when another guy looks you in the eye, he wants to kill you or fuck you.

Oh please. That is rubbish. Perhaps my manual on how to be a guy was mailed to someone else when I turned 12, but I am not programmed this way. I don't barge through the world seeing every male I encounter as a threat to my ego that needs to be dominated by a stare down or some bizarre horn locking ritual. I'm much too obsessed with my own life and the things I'm thinking about and much more focused on how the women I pass or interact with are behaving.
posted by spicynuts at 9:08 AM on September 27, 2006

I'm fascinated by the mind works.

Apparently this is the "the thread where J.D. cannot compose a coherent thought."

posted by jdroth at 9:08 AM on September 27, 2006

There is something there, but it's mostly unconcious. Also, I think it depends a lot on your upbringing and cultural background - it's a dominance thing, but not really a major one. Probably on the same level as personal space - how much different people require to be comfortable, etc.

Second that book mentioned by milkdropcoronet - it has a chapter on this kind of thing.
posted by concreteforest at 9:10 AM on September 27, 2006

What? There is nothing involved except two individuals traveling in opposite directions, happening to pass each other. What does passing even mean? In a race? Is one way better to go than the other? How do you know? Some people are just going somewhere else. End of story. That's not my subconcious covering for it's own subconcious acts, btw. I really don't care at all, ever.

Notice that in all the referenced examples there's something else involved, another level of exchange that raises the point of interaction from some nebulous subconcious bumbling to an actionable set of body language cues or sometimes even words. Gasp! People communicate when they need to, and avoid it when they don't. End of story.

All perception is gamble. You're hedging bets on this gamble to derive incredibly broad assumptions about genders and physical modality. Stop. Now.
posted by prostyle at 9:10 AM on September 27, 2006

One male-specific (at least I think it is) thing I've noticed is that men who are friendly with each other but don't really know one another will often acknowledge the other with subtle nods of the head and brief eye contact when passing. I've never seen a woman do it.
posted by thebabelfish at 9:10 AM on September 27, 2006

I've definately noticed this, and used the dynamic many times to clear my path (ah, the advantages of being bigger than 95% of the population). I'm not an asshole about it, but I'll do the look people in the eyes until they move out of my path thing if I'm in a hurry, and I realize on some level I'm trying to establish dominance or what have you.

I have also noticed though that black men are the most likely to say hi, or nod or what have you. They're also the most likely to acknowledge my eye contact. I'm not sure if it's a cultural thing or what have you, but I've deifnately noticed it.
posted by KirTakat at 9:10 AM on September 27, 2006

I find the following situation happens a lot in hallways:

A group of people walking in a line and talking approach me as I walk down the hall towards them. I am walking with my elbow an inch or so from the wall, there is nowhere for me to go. They see me, I see them. We keep walking towards each other knowing that someone is going to have to move because there isn't enough room in the hall. I take that approach that chrismear has suggested in the second post and I stiffen my upper body to deliver a classic Canadian style hockey check.

Usually, within a few inches of getting to me, the person who is at the end of the line in the group of people drops back to allow me through -- but not always.

So, in my case, there is a silent power game going on -- its group vs individual. Of course all this doesn't happen if the guy on the end is a much bigger or meaner looking man than I am.
posted by maxpower at 9:10 AM on September 27, 2006

Best answer: I'm very familiar with this phenomenon. It's certainly gendered, classed as well. In Baltimore there is also a racial dynamic at play. Young men here, especially young black men, frequently try to stare me down (they mostly succeed). I've had young guys run out into the street simply in order to stop in my line of movement when I'm running through their neighborhood. That's happened five or six times. It's usually part of a show in front of other people. The upward nod of acknowledgment is also part of this.

I'm not sure how to think about this. I've never come close to getting in a fight over it, and I usually break eye contact first, as it isn't all that important to me. On the other hand, I have thought that whatever my standards of respect and self-worth are, it can sometimes be important to situate myself inside the standards of others. For instance, other guys frequently stare me in the eye as I walk through the waiting room of the clinic where I work, and although I used to simply look away, I started to gaze calmly back for as long as they hold my gaze. That was after a couple of those guys became my patients, and that previous interaction suddenly colored the issues of respect in our relationship. In other words, a one-off interaction may be power dynamics, but if it's the start of an ongoing relationship it may affect levels of respect.
posted by OmieWise at 9:11 AM on September 27, 2006

As a traveller, when abroad, I often encounter people who shift the "wrong" direction (left when I'm expecting right) to avoid collision as we approach on the sidewalk.

This happened to me pretty consistently for the first few months I lived in London. I eventually adjusted somehow, but it was still weird. It didn't seem like people would always go to the left instead of the right, or something. It was just like my whole directional-prediction algorithm had to be recalibrated.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:13 AM on September 27, 2006

It didn't seem like people would always go to the left instead of the right, or something.

Yeah, people here pretty much go in any direction. I'd like it if everyone just went to their left, like the cars do, but maybe that's just my nerd talking.

Do people in the USA consistently step to the right, then?
posted by chrismear at 9:17 AM on September 27, 2006

Response by poster: ludwig_van and rash, I read a great article about sidewalk protocol by country once that you might like; more info here.
posted by occhiblu at 9:17 AM on September 27, 2006

mr. junkbox notices that if he's wearing a suit, some men are more likely to defer to him on the sidewalk, whereas other men are more likely to meet his eye contact and "confront" him by not nodding or moving aside. Is it a reaction to my husband's suit, or to the increased conifdence that wearing a suit gives him? He's tried to explain aspects of this power-dynamic to me before, but it's so esoteric I can barely grasp. Definitely a good AskMe question, occhiblu!

I do think this phenomenon is much more pronounced in the downtown areas of larger cities, i.e. crowded urban environments in which government and business types rub shoulders with panhandlers and drug dealers. The mix of classes in such a crowded environment makes men (both the rich and the poor) feel threatened by one another at some primal level, and the male power games ensue. And as in Baltimore, there's definitely a racial dynamic in play here in Richmond as well.

And while my husband has never gotten into a fistfight about it, there is definitely a portion of "sizing each other up" that goes on in some of these interactions. Instinctual, I guess, when men are in an environment that feels threatening.
posted by junkbox at 9:18 AM on September 27, 2006

Sartre loved these sorts of anonymous confrontational moments.

Depending on mood, there certainly can be an amount of aggressiveness or passiveness to walking through a crowd.
posted by cowbellemoo at 9:20 AM on September 27, 2006

Do you really think modern lifestyles haven't conditioned us out of the realm of inept analogies to interactions at the level of clans of primates in a jungle? I know it sounds intelligent and all to refer to it in these terms, your "raw" "animal" instincts. Odd they are referenced through a molded plastic interface routed through endless series of copper fibers layed by thousands of humans who have died and gone before you. When you see a skyscraper do you cower as if it's the damn Monolith? Why not? Isn't it an offensive, imposing presence in your vision that confronts your perceptions, requiring a constant referencing of extraneous checksums to maintain sanity in any environment that does not involve your special little cave?
posted by prostyle at 9:28 AM on September 27, 2006 [2 favorites]

Some guys live their lives trying to prove something to the world-- If you run into one of them (or if you are one of them), then the ecounter will go much as you described. But most of us are not like that in most situations, and are able to live our lives without all the dominance bullshit.
posted by InfidelZombie at 9:30 AM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Since I've moved into a mixed-class and mixed-race neighborhood, I've noticed what occhiblu is talking about; there's a lot going on in even casual encounters. I'm a big, tall (white) guy, and folks have always just sort of moved out of my way. But now I've learned the need to yield, to say "excuse me" even when I haven't done anything wrong, etc. There are some strong class (and race) dynamics going on, and one ignores them at one's peril.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:31 AM on September 27, 2006

chrismear-- it's been my experience in the US that people always move to the right. I always assumed it was because we drive on the right, so it's natural to go that way to avoid oncoming traffic.
posted by InfidelZombie at 9:33 AM on September 27, 2006

Do people in the USA consistently step to the right, then?

In my experience coming from the UK to the US, I had to defer to the right when passing whereas at home I was used to stepping to the left. I lived in Holland for a few years and I got the same sense that people would walk on the right. This is about as scientific as Intelligent Design, but there we go...
posted by ob at 9:36 AM on September 27, 2006

when another guy looks you in the eye, he wants to kill you or fuck you.

What an amazing overgeneralization. When I look a stranger in the eye usually all I want is to know what that person plans to do. Doesn't matter if I'm approaching someone on a sidewalk or walking past an alley or waiting to cross at the intersection.
posted by Tuwa at 9:40 AM on September 27, 2006

I always walk to the right of the sidewalk as well, and have noticed pretty much else does too. If someone is coming towards me on the "wrong" side of the sidewalk and isn't moving over, then I admit, I get a little po'ed sometimes.
posted by ninefour at 9:41 AM on September 27, 2006

Response by poster: I do want to clarify that I'm not implying that women are immune from power plays; we're not. But I think they tend to be expressed differently -- I've been in a roomful of men with one other woman who made a passive-aggressive comment that sounded, to all the men in the room, innocuous or even complimentary, when she and I knew full well that she was attempting to knock me down a peg. It's the female bullying / "Queen Bee" phenomenon; women aren't allowed to push each other around, so we snipe at each other in coded, socially condoned ways. (And, interestingly, that would also be the stereotypical way for gay men to one-up each other.) I feel like the sidewalk stuff I'm asking about may be the (straight) male equivalent -- something not every guy thinks about all the time, but a dynamic that is nevertheless often in play in certain situations. Those situations may be less common than I originally thought, but it does sound like they're there.
posted by occhiblu at 9:44 AM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think it also has something to do with "turf". I am much more likely to get out of the way when walking in areas I do not frequent, but far less likely to bend when walking in places I do.

If the person coming the other way is an obvious student or tourist (I'm thinking of Harvard Square, which is ripe with people and narrow sidewalks), I will not move aside.

This behavior also extends to passing people, mainly groups, on the sidewalk that are travelling in the same, but slower, direction. Outsiders get their clusters broken or shifted aside as I move thru to pass, while insiders get passed on the right or left (depending on oncoming traffic). Particularly sluggish groups of students will sometimes receive "instructive nudges" to the backpack (overloaded packs are the best!), loud footsteps, or sometimes even a flatfoot.

All this, I think, is a symptom of becoming more and more a New Englander every day. I find myself being constantly enraged by other people's lack of spatial awareness, poor placement in well-traveled paths and hallways, and insistance on walking three-abreast when only two are actually talking.

It is a wonder that my path-rage has yet to get me decked!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:48 AM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

This has been quite interesting. As one of the people who said "what are you talking about?" I must confess that my immediate response to all of the confirming stories has been irritation:

On some level I'm actually pissed off that there appear to be all these weird power games going on.

...which I only mention because it strikes me as an odd response on my part, so I wonder: have any other naysayers had similar reactions?
posted by aramaic at 9:52 AM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Quick, subtle, subconscious body language happens when people pass each other. Usually it includes a quick glance or turn of the head in the direction you intend to take. Your husband may not do this, and/or he may not "read" others doing it. Arm swing establishes pecking order. An upright posture with a long, slow arm swing from the shoulder (no elbow flex) almost guarantees that you can walk down the middle of the sidewalk and people will avoid you. Try it.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:53 AM on September 27, 2006

When I was living in Spain, personal space on a sidewalk was really nonexistant. It wasn't a male thing, I'd had older women walk straight towards me. At first I usually moved aside to avoid bumping as is the custom in the US but then I got into the habit of just staying the course and not minding bumping or being bumped. Touching in Spain has a much more social aspect so personal space is less of a control issue.
posted by JJ86 at 9:59 AM on September 27, 2006

If some young thug tries to stare me down, I immediately break eye contact, ignore him and try to look as happy as possible just so it seems to him like he was looking at me with jealousy. Wow, I wish I had that guy's life. Thanks for the compliment, primitive hoodlum!
posted by dydecker at 10:10 AM on September 27, 2006

I vaguely remember an underground comix, I think by R. Crumb involving a character called Whiteman. (angry, right-wing type). In one scene he is striding with a puffed up chest calling out 'Step aside buddy, I'm a real hard charger'.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 10:12 AM on September 27, 2006

I work downtown in a city (San Francisco*), and I notice this kind of thing pretty frequently. It doesn't seem like a male/male thing, though. Everyone walking the other direction on the sidewalk (or even walking too slowly in the same direction) is an obstacle that must be dealt with, women as well as men.

Like ninefour, I think it usually resolves by both people sticking to their respective right-hand sides. It comes across as rude if someone insists on sticking to their left (A small Asian woman did this when I was walking to lunch yesterday and I remember being both surprised and annoyed.). I'm also more likely to pass a slow walker by moving to their left than to their right, but this pattern is weaker.

I can't recall anyone having ever bumped into me in passing. I think I'd be pretty annoyed if they did. Perhaps it doesn't happen to me because I'll move aside or even turn sideways to avoid the contact.

What's really interesting is what happens when people are approaching a corner at right angles. In that case, someone must give right of way, and it's often not clear who should (though if I'm walking towards a Don't Walk sign and they're walking towards a Walk sign, I tend to yield). There often seems to be a silent negotiation that goes on.

I may pay more attention to this sort of traffic/right-of-way thing than the average person because I bike to work on crowded streets. I have to be acutely aware of what pedestrians, cyclists, cars, and buses (and the occasional streetcar) are doing or I'm liable to get hit.

Also interesting: where do you stand when you get into an elevator? Who gets off first when you get to the lobby?

* But I grew up near NYC, and spent a lot of time in Boston, so my sidewalk behavior may have been shaped in those more aggressive cities.
posted by aneel at 10:19 AM on September 27, 2006

Again, just as an aside... point is, it doesn't matter if you notice it or not for this to happen. Mamalian Animals operate on power dynamics, an anecdote expressing that one doesn't notice it doesn't stop that.

It's pretty forward thinking to ignore it, and kudos to anyone who can manage.
posted by judge.mentok.the.mindtaker at 10:25 AM on September 27, 2006

This must depend where you live. When I lived in Small Town America, some guys would intentionally bump shoulders to get a rise out of me. Not most guys, in fact it was a very small percentage of guys, it it did happen noticeably.

Living in a dense city (Manhattan, Tokyo, and usually Downtown San Francisco) there are just too damn many people on the sidewalk to project an attitude onto. I virtually never see it, or if I do I don't notice because of all the people legitimately bumping into me.

And you ex sounds like a guy who needs professional attention if he was getting into altercations over it. Seriously. I'm not joking.
posted by Ookseer at 10:25 AM on September 27, 2006

Someone studies psychology and fails to notice the social basis of human life.

Elsewhere in the world, a kid with Aspberger's picks up his first volume of primatology.

*chirp* *chirp*
posted by shownomercy at 10:26 AM on September 27, 2006 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: And you ex sounds like a guy who needs professional attention if he was getting into altercations over it.

Seriously, it was probably the least of his problems. There's a reason he's an ex. His being an asshole is not really in dispute here.
posted by occhiblu at 10:30 AM on September 27, 2006

I never thought about this until I tried walking down the street with better posture. Straight back, chest out, and longer strides. Just about everyone moved for me. I'm a normal-sized guy, too. I think that when it looks like your walking with a "purpose," you get the upper hand in the who-moves-first game.

On preview: sorta like what MonkeySaltedNuts said.
posted by Kronoss at 10:38 AM on September 27, 2006

Response by poster: Y'all reminded me of this Culture of Honor study that was posted to MeFi yeeeeears ago, talking about how certain groups, based on historical context, react more violently to perceived slights like these than other groups. They talk about the American South, but it seems their historical criteria might carry over to the West. (And might help explain some of the geographical variances people are pointing out.)
posted by occhiblu at 10:43 AM on September 27, 2006

Eye contact was discussed in a recent Esquire.

When I was living in Spain, personal space on a sidewalk was really nonexistant.

I noticed the same thing in Stockholm. People were standing more closely together at ATMs than people do here in Chicago. It was unnerving initially and I was prepared to kick Swedish ass. Then I remembered that I was a guest in their country.
posted by horsewithnoname at 10:45 AM on September 27, 2006

One male-specific (at least I think it is) thing I've noticed is that men who are friendly with each other but don't really know one another will often acknowledge the other with subtle nods of the head and brief eye contact when passing. I've never seen a woman do it.

I do this. So there's at least one girl. Then again, I hate getting into akward conversations with acquaintances, so it is a coping strategy.

Then again, I'm a girl and I totally play the sidewalk dominance game. Usually I win, but that's because I put on the oblivious face.

All this, I think, is a symptom of becoming more and more a New Englander every day. I find myself being constantly enraged by other people's lack of spatial awareness, poor placement in well-traveled paths and hallways, and insistance on walking three-abreast when only two are actually talking.

Yes! I too suffer from deep walking rage, though slow people are by far the worst.
posted by dame at 10:56 AM on September 27, 2006

I don't every feel subserviant to anyone, but I'll get out of the way for anyone. Men, women, children, small dogs, etc. Of course, I'll also walk right up to people and twist sideways to get past them rather than walk a foot or two to the side. YMMV.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:59 AM on September 27, 2006

A university lecturer of mine described part of the dynamic - he described it as "could I take him?", an almost subconscious habit of briefly evaluating guys that you pass. The guys in the class agreed. At the time, I knew what he was talking about, but these days, it doesn't happen any more - I don't care. Perhaps I'm now so big-headed that I think I'm so awesome that it doesn't matter any more whether I could take some guy or not :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 10:59 AM on September 27, 2006

I experience something similar (as a woman) when it's raining and people are carrying umbrellas....only this situation incorporates a certain level of cluelessness as well. People with umbrellas seem to fall into 3 categories:
- Those who are clueless that there's less space on the sidewalk and a sort of secondary traffic above their heads (an area they don't usually have to consider) - and walk as normal while holding their umbrella
- Those who are aggressive with their umbrellas
- Those who manage the space - moving, raising, or lowering their umbrellas (vertically - not closing them) to avoid collisions or give others more space

I don't usually notice sidewalk interactions on a normal day, but when the umbrellas come out, all the little checks and personal-space-issues are magnified. (I'm in NYC.) The lack of spatial awareness inspires a little walking rage in me, too.
posted by hsoltz at 11:02 AM on September 27, 2006

Response by poster: hsoltz, I seem to remember a great passage in The Unbearable Lightness of Being that talks about pedestrians with umbrellas and the power plays you're talking about. I think Kundera also links it to gender, but I could be remembering wrong.
posted by occhiblu at 11:12 AM on September 27, 2006

I wasn't really aware of this phenomenon until the first winter I lived in New York City. I'm a fairly tall guy (6'5") but pretty skinny and very goofy overall, and in the warmer months, not a terribly imposing presence. However, in the wintertime, wearing thick-soled boots, long johns under my jeans, a huge winter coat and a big wool hat, I suddenly appear to be about 6'8", maybe 280 - 300lbs. It took me a while to realize what was going on, but it soon became undeniably apparent that everyone was strenuously avoiding confrontation with me. Men would refuse to make eye contact with me and dive out of my way, and women (especially at night) would cross the street to avoid passing me. It was hilarious and exhilarating and fun; I was suddenly playing this character, a huge, dangerous thug that sent little ripples of paranoia up and down the street.

Ever since then, I've been very aware of the way this dynamic plays out, especially during warmer months, when I don't have the illusion of mass to guarantee me "victory".
posted by saladin at 11:14 AM on September 27, 2006 [2 favorites]

availablelight: It's race and gender differences. White women keep their eyes on the sidewalk and are most likely to be on a cell phone. Black women are somewhat more likely to return a look and then a greeting, but the younger they are the more likely they are to act like white women but even less likely to cede any bit of sidewalk for another person. Men, especially black men have a special system, which I admit that I don't understand.

Also, the standard greeting for local black men over 50 is "alright." I don't know where that comes from.
posted by peeedro at 11:15 AM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Do the Brutus
[lyrics by Gas Huffer]

Take a step, don’t bend your knees
Throw back your head like you're gonna sneeze
Pump up your chest till you bust your vest
And look around like you don't say please

Strut up on the floor like you're the captain of the earth
Check out all the people like you know what they are worth

Hold your arms out to the side
Swing them slow with righteous pride
You got to do the brutus tonight.

Get off you bootus
And do the brutus
It's quite a hootus
Go do the brutus
posted by matildaben at 11:22 AM on September 27, 2006

I agree with chrismear comment. There is a subtle game going on when 2 men are walking in opposite direction and one has to move in order to not collide or bump elbows. Ive never gotten into a fight over it buts it does exist. Most people will move out of your way since they don't want "confrontation" but you always will find someone who won't move. Usually when I'm on campus and I walk on a small path I always like to make eye contact with the people walking in the opposite direction because it always freaks people out and makes them look away. If they do make eye contact, I'll do a subtle nod if its a guy or a smile if its a girl.

You can try it next time if you have never experienced it or don't believe in it. Walk without moving for anyone and you will sense it, especially when you make eye contact with another guy and they also don't look like they will move.
posted by spacesbetween at 11:36 AM on September 27, 2006

Best answer: I'm not inherently confrontational, but very few things annoy me as much as someone, male or female, who bulls their way down a pathway expecting everyone to get out of their way, and throwing shoulders or elbows to accomplish this.

There's something in body language that is an almost infallible indicator of when one of these people is coming my way: something in the way they're walking, the set of their face, their other behaviors (frex, there's a high correlation of oblivious cellphone use to obnoxious shouldering-aside behavior).

Interestingly (to me), there are a lot of times where the person and I approaching each other mutually yield slightly so that we both get by: it's unspoken, but we'll both go a little out of our way so we're not the asshole.

When I encounter one of the asshole types, though, I absolutely refuse to be knocked out of the way on basic principle. I've found that just bracing myself is usually enough to make them make a fool out of themself: they try to drive their shoulder through me when I fail to recognize their all-around God-given superiority, and inevitably wind up bouncing off of me and looking like a moron.

It also has the side benefit of clearly identifying the aggressor: because I'm simply standing there, and they're richocheting around, it's clear who did what.

YMMV, of course. I don't want to come off like some sort of sidewalk vigilante dickhead: I just wanted to note my experience with unspoken interaction between people, and that, for me, the other person's actions immediately before we close very strongly determines my own actions.
posted by scrump at 11:54 AM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Oh, and more on-topic: put me in the "slight nod and acknowledgement" camp. Maybe it's because I'm a big, apparently muscular guy (I look more muscled than I actually am), but I've picked up the nearly subliminal habit of both acknowledging other guys with the fractional nod and making eye contact.
posted by scrump at 11:58 AM on September 27, 2006

Scrump, just as a side note, if you are only paying attention immediately before, you might be missing someone else's larger plan. Like I said, I do the drive & fake obliviousness to make people move, but I left out the other part of that: I plan my path based on the logical trajectory of others. But the bumblebee people? They get the smackdown.
posted by dame at 12:10 PM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

I think those who claim ignorance of the phenomenon have probably just ritualised it into unconsciousness. As a keen game-theorist, I've noticed this as being largely a matter of ego and/or self-defense; a lighting quick negotiation where men decide if they are equals, threatened, or if there is a minor dominant player or a major dominant player.

When I was a lot younger I'd do a lot of the staring at the ground, get out of the way thing, unless I was in a bad mood.

I then read a trick that William Burroughs says he learnt from a Mob boss: be calm, relaxed and always see everyone before they see you when walking in the street (without staring, or even looking directly). The game-theory aspect I believe is that when people walking toward you see you have already seen them, and weighed their threat level to casual respect, they will tend to either ignore you or assign minor dominance. Burroughs' claims it is largely this trick that enabled him to be El Hombre Invisible, as pre-seeing someone in a non-threatening manner causes them to avoid you, as if you weren't there. In Burroughs case he used the trick to avoid the touts, scammers and suchlike in Tangiers; a subtle, instant signal for them to focus on someone else. In my experience it works pretty well all over the place.
posted by MetaMonkey at 1:11 PM on September 27, 2006 [12 favorites]

I pay a lot more attention to pedestrian traffic flow than most people do, and I almost always maneuver to avoid collisions, even when I have the "right of way." (I could bull my way down the sidewalk if I wanted to; I'm big, I've got a low center of gravity, I walk fast, and I've played football and soccer most of my life so I'm instinctively braced for a collision anyway and collisions don't bother me as much as they would smaller people or people who don't play competitive sports.)

It usually really annoys me when people don't pay attention to their surroundings when they're walking down the street, or don't allow room for oncoming pedestrians to pass. Two examples from my daily commute: walking down the sidewalk to the BART station, and walking down the steps into the station.

On the sidewalk, I'm going against traffic, since people are coming out of the station. The sidewalk is three squares wide, and I walk all the way to the right (my fingers usually brush against the wall of the building I'm passing). Usually the people coming out of the station take up two of the squares, which is fine because there are more of them, but occasionally people will spill over into my "slot."

Going into the station, there's an escalator coming up that's two people wide, so people can stand on one side and walk up the other, and there are stairs that are about 1-1/2 people wide. People sometimes walk up the stairs, too, which pisses me off because they've already got plenty of room on the escalator and there isn't enough room on the stairs for two people to pass each other gracefully.

When people don't move I sometimes get annoyed and feel like I should just hold my ground and brace for impact, since I would "win" almost any collision, but I usually step aside anyway. (Responding to the dominance comments, I generally behave in a way that might be considered passive, but I do it because I know I would win if I forced the issue, and I choose to step aside because it's the most efficient method for helping me and the other person get to where we're going.)
posted by kirkaracha at 1:14 PM on September 27, 2006

The door of a car banged open and a man about seven feet high and four feet wide jumped out of it, took one look at Agostino, then one long stride, and grabbed him by the throat with one hand.

"How many times I gotta tell you cheap hoods not to hang around where I eat?" he roared.

He shook Agostino and hurled him across the sidewalk against the wall. Chick crumpled up coughing.

"Next time," the enormous man yelled, "I sure as hell put the blast on you, and believe me, boy, you'll be holding a gun when they pick you up."

Chick shook his head and said nothing. The big man gave me a raking glance and grinned. "Nice night," he said, and strolled into Victor's.

I watched Chick straighten himself out and regain some of his composure. "Who's your buddy?" I asked him.

"Big Willie Magoon," he said thickly. "A vice squad bimbo. He thinks he's tough."

"You mean he isn't sure?" I asked him politely.
--Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:45 PM on September 27, 2006

Best answer: I've had more than one person comment that I have a fairly dominant walk. I've noticed that other dominant males perceive this as a challenge, and actually gravitate toward me as we pass on sidewalk. I learned early on that avoiding them just makes the problem worse, they will crowd you off the sidewalk. So I aim right back at them and make eye contact with a friendly nod. At the last second we both swing shoulders to avoid the collision, and all is well.

"A university lecturer of mine described part of the dynamic - he described it as "could I take him?"

Exactly. Its a subconscious process, like voice pitch until someone violates the natural hierarchy. But on an instinctual level, if you ask me I can tell you instantly whether I can hold my own against any particular guy. My fiance thinks this is hilarious, cave-man stuff.

There is definitely a cultural component as well. When walking on city streets in the Phillipines, I would occasionally have tremendous impacts with other pedestrians (male and female) whom I thought I was passing at a safe distance. Near as I could figure, they were juking towards me at the last second, expecting me to yield and I simply wasn't noticing.

A counter-example I've noticed: a lot of GQ-type black males (big, athletic, immaculately-dressed) seem to go overboard the other direction. They conspicuously yield right-of-way with a magnanimous gesture, as though they are aware of their dominance, and perhaps a little embarrassed by it. Always strikes me as a clear win for them in the subconscious game, but very classy at the same time.
posted by Manjusri at 2:12 PM on September 27, 2006

Female here, and I do the nod-in-passing thing, though typically with men I don't know (I usually smile slightly at women I don't know, and I say hello to the elderly). I am not generally aware of sidewalk dominance stuff, but I become aware of it whenever I am alone and approaching a group where some member of the group has to move in order for me to pass - in those cases I either twist sideways to give them room, or stiffen my upper body and look ferociously past them and let them move. I seriously have no idea how I decide which strategy to pursue.
posted by joannemerriam at 2:21 PM on September 27, 2006

I'm also very aware of the goings on around me, especially on a sidewalk and I tend to do the twist to get out of anyone's way. I do get a tiny bit put out if people handle their pedestrian responsibilities poorly but I also get a kick out of noticing people who do.

If someone's life is so small that not yielding is going to piss them off or prevoke a confrontation then I am happy to get out of their way and frankly feel pretty sorry for them. Because of this attention I often get comments about how quickly I navigate a crowd for a guy my size (6'3", 300lbs).

Can't say I've ever gotten or given a nod though.
posted by Cosine at 2:54 PM on September 27, 2006

Dynamics on the sidewalk are one thing, but I'm reminded of when I have to go to the mall, where things work a bit differently. It's less about eye contact and more about mimicking U.S. midwest driving behavior.

On the average day, it seems that the path around the perimeter of each wing of a mall is a two-way street, with everyone walking on their own right side. Making a left turn into a store or to cross the "boulevard" involves finding an opening in oncoming traffic. Just like driving on public streets.

During the holidays, however, the path becomes more of a one one-way racetrack, moving counterclockwise. If you pass a store and decide to go back, you don't just turn on your heels; you'd be trampled. You must exit the flow and loop around to get upstream of that store again.

It works pretty well -- better, usually, than when the same people leave the mall and actually get behind the wheel.

Buffoons of any race, color, creed, or sex who are oblivious to these patterns are subject to nasty looks and occasional shoulder-checks. Exception: I see mobs part fairly gracefully for elderly shoppers, whatever their trajectory.
posted by Tubes at 3:20 PM on September 27, 2006

This varies tremendously by culture. My best personal illustration of this happened very early one morning, when I was out for a walk in Osaka, trying to work out some jet lag. I was a 6' 250 lb white American guy, moving at a good clip through the deserted streets of downtown, in a roughly square pattern, about 20 blocks on a leg. I couldn't sleep, and got up to walk finally about 4:30 a.m., so for the first hour, I had the sidewalks and the city largely to myself.

Occasionally, I would come upon some old man or woman sweeping the sidewalk, head down and bowed, with a traditional bundle of sticks, and they would never even seemingly look up at my approach, although after I passed, I would hear, every time, a break in the rythym of their sweeping, as they studied my back. I realized they heard my stride, and the sound of my footsteps in Western shoes, as something quite foriegn, and out of cultural prohibition of public polite behavior, they were avoiding looking at me, until I passed.

As dawn broke, and the city woke, the streets became more lively, but still by 7:00 a.m. on a Monday, the city was still stretching sleepily, and I "ambushed" a couple of people trudging out of shop doors, opening for business, not expecting a giant gaijin to be on top of them at sunrise. Their looks of panic, and embarrassment as they tried to avoid my direct eye contact, while desperately trying to figure out what the hell I was doing there, at that early hour, was as disconcerting to me, as I certianly was to them. Eventually, I worked my way to the edge of a residential district, and thinking to vary the street scenery a bit, and enjoy a bit more early morning quiet, I took a quick turn down one of the narrow streets.

Lined up in perfect formation, in perfect little school uniforms complete with color coded caps and backpacks, 1 or 2 in front of each house, were about 50 little kids, waiting on the school bus, or maybe the matron that would march them to school. They were too young not to glance immediately in the direction of strange footsteps, and immediately 50 little throats squealed "Gaijin! Gaijin!" in terror, as they instantly ducked backed in to their homes and gated courtyards.

I never felt more alone, or more like Godzilla, than when I cleared that small block in 10 seconds, with merely the sound of my footsteps.

And yet, in the oldest parts of Jerusalem, or the markets of Naples, or tough streets in bad parts of the Bronx, I adapt to local customs, and personal space, without thinking. If the custom is to jostle, I jostle and don't mind. If the custom is to stare down, I stare down. It's not noise, or subtle confrontation I have any trouble returning appropriately.

But there's no defense, no adapting, being gaijin on a quiet little street in a country where once they didn't bother putting eye or hair color on domestic driver's licenses...
posted by paulsc at 3:52 PM on September 27, 2006 [4 favorites]

Every time another male even appears in your field of vision there is a part of the brain that is ready fight and kill him or run for dear life. There are many, many layers of culture & society laid on top of these instincts, but I would consider what two male dogs do when walking past each other for an image of what's way down deep underneath it all.
posted by scarabic at 5:04 PM on September 27, 2006

Best answer: I'm amazed that so many guys here are saying that they've never thought about this. But then, askme is a daily reminder that my view of life is significantly different from that of most people who respond here.

When another man approaches me on the sidewalk, the question on my mind is, are we going to let each other peacefully by, or not? If so, fine. If not, and he thinks that I am going to deferentially get out of his way, then he will sure as hell be proved wrong.

Sometimes the sidewalk-bully is a man plowing ahead, and sometimes it's someone (not even necessarily a man) pretending to (or actually) not be paying attention to where they're going, as if it's therefore my job to maneuver on their behalf. Sorry, not gonna happen. I stiffen and do my best to give them the experience of running smack into a brick wall. Since moving to Manhattan, I've gotten into the habit of actually raising my fists when I feel that someone is about to plow into me. I don't raise them like a boxer -- just about to chest level is enough; I think it's worked every time so far.

On the other hand, I'm not stupid, and in situations where there is clearly something racial or class-related going on, I often defer, because the other person might have a lot less to lose, and might actually be looking for a fight from the beginning. In that case, I 'win' by going on my merry way and getting on with my relatively priveleged life.

I should add that I'm from a place where there is plenty of room on the sidewalk for everybody. Where I grew up, if you bumped shoulders with another man, it *always* meant something.

I'm also very agressive with my umbrella.
posted by bingo at 5:05 PM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Count me among the people who say that, among the middle- and upper-middle-class, there is no psychological gamesmanship going on when men pass each other on the sidewalk. Why would we be sizing each other up? How often do you see fights break out over glances?

When it does happen among the middle- and upper-middle-class, it is likely to happen among people who are, for various reasons, insecure about themselves (the sort of people who weightlift because they want to look strong or tough).

In lower-class communities where there's more street-level danger (i.e., the persistent question, "is this guy going to jump me and take my money") there is more likely be some assessment, every time a potentially threatening male passes. But that is due to socioeconomic conditions, not primal male aggression.
posted by jayder at 5:25 PM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

When I was in NYC, I felt like I was constantly making room for some skinny hipster that wouldn't do his fair share to avoid the collision. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I'm a big guy with wide shoulders so I always thought that my size was an implicit challenge to some of these guys. This happened to me quite frequently even though, like dame, I attempted to follow the most logical path of travel (and never moved slowly). I remember arriving home sometimes and thinking to myself, "don't these guys know I could've knocked their asses clear across the street?!"

I was also the person that moved his umbrella up and down to accommodate others. I fear if I had not moved away from NYC, some short person with an umbrella would've eventually poke my eye out.
posted by mullacc at 5:52 PM on September 27, 2006

To me it's far different dependant on the level of street traffic. On a crowded street, there isn't the time or space for much to happen. When there's a little more space and a slower space, then you size each other up.

Where I grew up, a small New Zealand town with a large Maori minority, looking people in the eye the wrong way was a definite invitation to, or at least excuse for, a fight. But a smile and a brief eyebrow raise would always diffuse it, and generally get a smile back.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:57 PM on September 27, 2006

In rural Mississippi, it was common practice to wave at all the cars that went by if you were outside. I don't think what you're talking about happens to a great deal in the South. I mean, we don't have subways and throngs crowding the sidewalk, so it's possible to just get out of the way. It's considered rude to pass someone on the sidewalk if they're walking slow, unless you say "excuse me" and let them step aside to let you past. If it's just you and some guy walking towards you, there's really no protocol. If they look sketchy, give them a wide berth, but that's about it. When I read the question, my first response was that you're making the whole thing up in your head. Having seen these responses, I guess some people really do think that way, but it's gotta be more common in the Northeast.

Now, urinal protocol, that I do understand.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 6:19 PM on September 27, 2006

When I pass other guys on the street and I make eye contact I give a nod to them and they give one back or I say "What's up, man?"
posted by Number27 at 7:23 PM on September 27, 2006

Not that I know of. If it exists, it's subconcious.
posted by delmoi at 7:46 PM on September 27, 2006

I simply don't care enough to play dominance games when I'm walking down the street. I just want to get where I'm going as quickly as possible, and I'll happily weave around whoever or whatever.

The only problem I have is little kids. Little kids have absolutely zero situational awareness, and they seem to unpredictably leap into my path constantly. One of these times, I'd like to not stop short and just run them over, but then I remind myself that they're just little kids.
posted by willnot at 8:58 PM on September 27, 2006

prostyle: When you see a skyscraper do you cower as if it's the damn Monolith? Why not? Isn't it an offensive, imposing presence in your vision that confronts your perceptions

I invite you, prostyle, to visit Manhattan, or even Chicago, and sniff the cornerstone of any skyscraper, where it meets the sidewalk.

You will detect a most "civilized" aroma, resulting from the interaction of skyscrapers with the men who piss on them.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:16 PM on September 27, 2006 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm amazed that so many guys here are saying that they've never thought about this. But then, askme is a daily reminder that my view of life is significantly different from that of most people who respond here.

I wrote a lot and then deleted it. Here's my short:

1. these people haven't lived in a city.
2. these people don't understand what getting mean-mugged is.*

*getting mean-mugged means someone just proved you to be jackable by intimidating you -- you let someone do that, you might as well give them what you're carrying, because if that happened, you're probably not anywhere where you can prevent them from taking it. You just got checked to see if you're gonna let someone take your stuff, and you've basically said "sure". Welcome to oakland. It's only a "game" if you're "game" to have everything you like to carry with you taken. Fun in nethack, maybe, but not in real life.
posted by fishfucker at 11:57 PM on September 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

to answer the question: so, uh, yeah, there is a little dance that occurs when men pass each other. It's very different for me depending where i live.
posted by fishfucker at 11:58 PM on September 27, 2006

In Baltimore there is also a racial dynamic at play. Young men here, especially young black men, frequently try to stare me down (they mostly succeed). I've had young guys run out into the street simply in order to stop in my line of movement when I'm running through their neighborhood. That's happened five or six times. It's usually part of a show in front of other people. The upward nod of acknowledgment is also part of this.

I am just a white girl from the suburbs in Colorado, but I was able to pick up on at least a little of this Baltimorean dynamic among the black drug dealers on the HBO show The Wire. I was completely amazed at how subtle a look or a slight upward nod can be, yet how it can convey so much. I think the actors are incredibly gifted, and of course the camera catches it all so you can see it clearly. There are probably layers of depth beyond what I can perceive, but even still it was very eye-opening. To what degree this library of gestures is shared by others (of whatever race) in other cities is not something I know about.

Someone mentioned waving at cars... this is tangential, so please forgive me for adding it - but when I've been a passenger in old Volkswagens (first a fastback in Cali, later a Westfalia here in Austin), I notice VW drivers give each other a little wave as they pass each other. I thought it was cool. :) (I have no idea if drivers of newer VWs do this, as I've rarely been in one and never seen it).
posted by beth at 12:45 AM on September 28, 2006

Best answer: Regarding sidewalks, I'm an avid observer of people and I've got about 3 miles of sidewalk a day between me and the office. Part of growing up male, especially if you're big, is learning how to extend your personal space. This starts with the gawky, awkward-ass games of chicken played by adolescents of any age, passes through a respectable phase of subtle eye contact and nods, and eventually (one hopes) culminates in the intense, calm presence you see in older men who Know Where They Are and (perhaps more importantly) Know Where You Are.

The first phase is annoying as hell, but seems really important when you're in it. The guys who lean into a shoulder bump, who cross the street on a red light and look exasperated to see that a car has stopped for them, who try to stare you down on the approach to a narrow part of the sidewalk--these are all men who are learning to extend their presence. Don't mistake this for alpha male behavior, though; alpha males don't need to challenge others for prestige and reputation, they merely have to ignore or defend the challenges of unestablished up-and-comers.

The second phase is boring. You negotiate the challenges of the inexperienced, either via Karl Malone-esque fake-outs (where the other guy puts all of his weight through where you were), or by setting your shoulder and letting them bounce off you. The sidewalk becomes traffic, and you're less concerned about the power dynamic than you are where you're going. You can ignore the instantaneous give-and-take of the street because you've achieved a certain amount of reliable presence.

The third phase I don't think most people ever get to. I occasionally see an older man out for a walk who flows with foot traffic so naturally that it seems to be a totally different way of interacting with the street. Aggression directed at these men is neatly diverted elsewhere, usually into genuine friendliness or amused disbelief, as if to say "You couldn't possibly be trying to mad-dog me, son. That would just be silly."

I grew up in kind of a rough neighborhood, despite the fact that it was a small town, and the consequences of not being able to maintain your presence were very real. If you avoided eye contact with someone, or if you made too much eye contact, a fight could easily ensue. Brief eye contact and a fractional nod let the other person know that 1) you acknowledged their presence and 2) you were making a non-competing claim of presence. Anything less indicated that you had no presence and were fair game; anything more indicated a competing claim which had to be defended against. The note you wanted to hit was something like "greetings, fellow badass!"

Ah, micro-interactions.

On preview: fishfucker's got the right idea. No presence, no iPod.
posted by Coda at 1:06 AM on September 28, 2006 [6 favorites]

I notice VW drivers give each other a little wave as they pass each other.

I've found this to be common whenever I drive something with a somewhat exclusive following -- Wrangler, GTI, 911, etc.

What's interesting to me recently is the attitude between motorcyclists. I almost always get a subtle palm-down wave from fellow helmet-wearing sportbike riders, but most others are oblivious or aloof. Helmeted cruisers sometimes nod. No helmet usually means no wave. Harleys never, ever wave or even nod.
posted by Tubes at 8:30 AM on September 28, 2006

Mostly, I have to agree with the people who've mentioned that your ex was a jerk.

I have walked on a lot of sidewalks in a lot of places and don't remember ever having any dominance/territory issues...

...with one notable exception.

I was walking along a sidewalk, on the inside, next to a low planter wall. In the distance a man and two women, three abreast, were walking towards me. Suddenly I realized, by body language I guess, that the guy was not going to yield although he was on the inside of the gals, next to me. I honestly don't know what he was expecting; that I was going to jump up on the planter wall?

At the last moment, I stopped and pulled out my cellphone, forcing Mr. Macho to slide behind the wimmin' in order to get by.

It felt nice.
posted by mmrtnt at 12:21 PM on September 28, 2006

Seinfeld missed this episode. Jerry, can you come back and do one more? It almost writes itself. I can visualize George and Kramer handling this so differently.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 2:49 PM on September 28, 2006

If I make eye contact with another male on the street I always give the nod. I agree that there is an unwritten understanding that the nod means you are non agressive and view the other person as an "ally".
posted by allthewhile at 7:59 PM on September 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

For those folks above that mentioned their main objective is to just get by people, I've found the practice of looking the oncomer in the eye in order to figure out which way they are going often fails. The eye may reveal where a person is going, but it also may not. Eyes can be deceiving. Often, if you have someone who's doing the same eyeball thing, you end up doing the sidewalk dance with them. Just as you are guarding an opponent in basketball, you never look them in the eye, but in the waist (or gut area). Now you absolutely know where a person is headed.
In my experience, the best way to get though oncoming crowds of people is to stare where you are going, thereby "telegraphing" your intentions to them. So walking and staring between two oncoming pedestrians waists will almost always create an opening. If there's any doubt perceived by the oncomer, this may not happen. Good luck out there.

Also, I've noticed that no one in New York does the nod. I've given up on the nod here.
posted by hellbient at 10:52 AM on October 4, 2006

I was directed here from another thread - fascinating observations.

Living in Calgary, the situation is made that much more complex by the fact that sidewalks are cleared unevenly of snow in the winter. Every few feet becomes an entirely new negotiation of territory: If I do this they'll have to step there (there being a particularly treacherous looking patch of ice), so I'd better do this instead.

I've always tried to define a half-way point as much as possible, depending on the other person's abilities. I'm a wide-shouldered man, so I tend to turn sideways a lot.

There was one occasion that sticks out in my mind, however. I was walking in the downtown Chinatown area (Eau Claire market) when I encountered about a dozen Asian male teens, moving as a pack down the sidewalk.

They took up the entire space, from one edge of the walk to the other. There was nowhere else for me to go (parked cars on one side, a snowbank on the other).

The teens were, of course, almost completely interested in their own interactions and the pretty girls across the street. I didn't pause - simply walked forwards. There was a last-minute parting of the waters, but I got a good shoulder check on one of them as I walked through.

A few steps past them I heard an extremely loud "What the FUCK?" I'm guessing that one of them had taken umbrage at the action - but I didn't turn around, and didn't acknowledge their presence in any way.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 1:41 PM on March 8, 2007

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