Home > Uncategorized > I play chicken with men on the street

I play chicken with men on the street

June 24, 2015

Lately you’ve seen a string of articles about how women say sorry too much. We’ve got yesterday’s New York Times opinion piece entitled Why Women Apologize and Should Stop, we’ve got Amy Schumer’s amazing-as-always skit on accomplished women apologizing for everything including existing, and even academics are weighing in.

This is not my problem. I don’t apologize as an automatic response. I learned that early on, when I got my first teaching evaluation; I had apologized exactly once to my (all female) class about not being prepared, in a summer semester where I met with them daily for 10 weeks, and at the end of the summer they all mentioned that I came to class unprepared. I had never come unprepared a second time, nor had I ever mentioned being unprepared a second time. That experience cured me of apologies more generally.

But I remain curious about how men and women perceive things differently, in terms of politeness. That’s why I play chicken with men on the street. I’ve been doing it for years, and I’ve collected a LOT of data.

It’s actually not fair to say that I do it “with men,” since I do the same thing with women. But it ends up being something that only actually comes to something with men. Let me explain.

I live in New York City, and I don’t own a car, so I’m always walking on the sidewalks. I’ve been here for 10 years, and after a couple of them, I thought I noticed a pattern. Namely, that I found myself moving out of the way for men far more often than I found myself moving out of the way for women. Now, it needs to be said that there is a certain amount of ballet-level choreography that one learns when one lives in a busy place, and it mostly happens at an unconscious level. Which is to say, most of the time you make a kind of tacit agreement with someone who is walking towards you, that you’ll move slightly to the right, and so will they, and there will be no bumping. That’s something we do so often and so thoughtlessly. We hardly notice such things.

In fact, it’s only when that unspoken agreement doesn’t happen that we notice. And it’s often unclear why the agreement failed. Did I come out of nowhere? Was the other person checking their phone? Were they lost in thoughts?

Anyhoo, after some thought, I decided to start an experiment. I would choose a moment when I am walking in broad daylight (no visibility problems) and when someone else is walking directly towards me, by all accounts looking around themselves (no distractions by cell phones or the like), and moreover where there was plenty of room to do the “silent tacit agreement” thing which we all learn to do as New Yorkers.

Once that scene was set, which actually happens multiple times every day as a New Yorker, here’s what I’d do next: I’d mimic the person coming at me. If they moved to the right, I would too, as soon as I could react to their movement. It was nearly simultaneous. I’ve become very good at reading body language and knowing when they would swerve, and swerving myself. It’s almost always like that, and those are valuable data points. Let’s call those successful games of chicken, where nobody gets bumped.

But sometimes there are unsuccessful games of chicken. This is when I am fully prepared to move out of the person’s way, but it never happens. I never see their body acknowledging mine, and getting prepared to move out of the way. And, as part of my data-collecting experiment, whereby I mimic that person, I also never move. What ends up happening is a bump. I’ve never gotten hurt, and neither have I ever hurt anyone, because that’s not the point. The point is to see who is ignoring common courtesy.

And, as you might have anticipated, it’s predominantly men. White men. Women, all women, and black and Hispanic men all get out of my way, especially Hispanic men, as do most white men for that matter. But there is a certain subcategory of white men that just don’t seem to know the rule about mutual accommodation, and the result is I’ve bumped into hundreds of white men on the streets of New York over the years. Some of them even turn around and say things like, why didn’t you get out of my way?

Just to be clear, this is similar but not the same as a phenomenon known as manslamming, whereby one refuses to move out of the way for anyone. That’s much more rude, and I don’t do it. To be clear, I move out of the way in almost all interactions.

I’ve told people about my experiment, and they are sometimes offended by it (other times they find it hilarious, or want to try it themselves). They often suggest that certain people are simply lost in their own thoughts, and shouldn’t be bumped because of that. But I think the question is, who gets to get lost in their thoughts on a busy street? Getting lost in one’s thoughts is a form of carefree behavior that only certain people have regular access to.

Also, mitigating factors: I’m a white woman. I have no idea how this experiment would play out for other people. Also, I’m a large person. I’m also not sure if small people would have the same experience. I’d love to hear from other people.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. June 24, 2015 at 8:04 am

    Men are from Mars, Women are from Canada?


  2. KatieS
    June 24, 2015 at 8:14 am

    Similar data with car courtesy: in taking turns to let cars weave from two lanes into one, there have been only two times when I have been sworn at for asserting my right to “go next,” both times by middle-aged white men. And both times ridiculously over-the-top, brimming-with-stress strings of swears. … Really?


  3. June 24, 2015 at 8:55 am

    Perhaps we use different rules. When I walk alone, I walk to the far right of the sidewalk so that oncoming walking is to my left. It’s like when I’m driving a car in the US (but not UK or Japan.) I shift to the left only for the disabled and the elderly so they can pass without them having to shift. This works 95% of the time. People with their heads in their mobile phones can sometimes be a problem, so a loud yell may be warranted. I also have to occasionally swat away women’s oversized bags that are aimed at my stomach despite my being squeezed to the far right. It’s usually women in their 20s and 30s who apparently must have failed geometry, trigonometry and social grace.

    When I walk with my disabled wife, 99% of the people are very accommodating, no matter where we walk. (Trust me, it’s not easy for her to shift to either side.) Strangers have gotten out of their cars to help when my wife fell crossing the street. God bless New Yorkers. I also attempt to pay it back when I’m walking alone and I see someone struggling to cross a street and being ignored.


    • June 24, 2015 at 9:02 am

      You are not the problem, my friend.

      On Wed, Jun 24, 2015 at 8:55 AM, mathbabe wrote:



  4. hilbertthm90
    June 24, 2015 at 9:15 am

    Is this the result you expected to find?


    • June 24, 2015 at 9:16 am

      In a sense, yes. A better way to say it was that I didn’t want to jump to conclusions with small amounts of data so I conducted a larger experiment that confirmed my idiosyncratic findings.

      On Wed, Jun 24, 2015 at 9:15 AM, mathbabe wrote:



  5. June 24, 2015 at 9:33 am

    This reminds me of one of the subchapters relating to status in Keith Johnstone’s book Impro. If you haven’t read the book, I think you would really enjoy it, though I’m biased as it is one of my favorites.

    Without trying to be controversial, how would you rate the statistical validity of your experimental results? My pet theory is that none of us have enough data and do we don’t naturally process the data appropriately, so it is unwise to draw strong conclusions from personal experience. Since most of the time we don’t have an alternative, we still have to form conclusions, but they should be treated with great skepticism and the actions we take based on those conclusions should be informed by the (large) risk of being wrong.

    Also, you know the classic broken bottle or broken glasses scam? Beware of people who are seeking to bump into you in NYC.


    • June 24, 2015 at 9:39 am

      I’ll take a look, thanks!

      I can’t vouch for pure objectivity. It’s totally possible that I forgot to conduct my experiments on some days. I might have even been more likely to conduct my experiment when I saw certain kinds of men walking towards me. Obviously, more and cleaner data would help!

      Then again, how do we collect such data? I’m pretty sure there’s no perfect way.


  6. Trevor H
    June 24, 2015 at 9:44 am

    I’ve never been there to witness this myself, but I’ve read multiple accounts that the culture in Iceland is kind of the reverse – nobody moves out of the way on sidewalks and shoulder bumps are common. Accommodating a traveler in the other direction is a sign of weakness.



  7. June 24, 2015 at 9:53 am

    And all along, I thought I was the only one who did this 😉 I completely agree, “the bump” almost never happens with women.


  8. Gordon
    June 24, 2015 at 10:22 am

    Of course, those guys that you smack into could also be conducting their own experiments, right? Or, “I was walking along, and saw a woman walking straight at me, and I waited to see if she would course correct so that I could politely adjust in the right direction, and she just ploughed into me! She must have just moved to NYC, since she clearly doesn’t know how to walk down a sidewalk.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 24, 2015 at 10:24 am

      It’s certainly possible!

      On Wed, Jun 24, 2015 at 10:22 AM, mathbabe wrote:



  9. Guest2
    June 24, 2015 at 10:24 am

    Fascinating — kinda like Harold Garfinkel’s breaching experiments in the 1960s, the basis of ethnomethodology. “[A] breaching experiment is an experiment that seeks to examine people’s reactions to violations of commonly accepted social rules or norms. … The assumption behind this approach is not only that individuals engage daily in building up ‘rules’ for social interaction, but also that people are unaware they are doing so.”



  10. crgibbons
    June 24, 2015 at 10:33 am

    I run a similar experiment with groups of people walking together on a sidewalk/path. If it looks like no one in the group is going to relinquish the sidewalk (so that I’d have to step off to let them by), I stop in place. I’ve had a lot of people walk straight into me. But I don’t have enough data points yet to feel comfortable reporting my findings re: worst offenders.

    I’m also a white woman, but I’m small. I think there’s an assumption that I’ll defer simply because I’m little. (Ha.) I need to enlist some more folks to test that hypothesis.

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 24, 2015 at 10:34 am

      I totally stop too when there’s a large group.

      On Wed, Jun 24, 2015 at 10:33 AM, mathbabe wrote:



      • Jessica
        June 25, 2015 at 10:38 am

        My experience is that large groups have a dynamic of their own. It is as though loyalty to the group takes precedence over normal reciprocity by individuals.


  11. Min
    June 24, 2015 at 10:40 am

    Very interesting. 🙂

    Personal space is something that anthropologists have studied. It sounds like these men are projecting their personal space forward, like the guy who said why didn’t you get out of **my way**; i. e., you were in his space. My guess is that most of these guys were alpha wannabes. (Alphas lose nothing by being courteous to those who pose no threat. In his autobiography, Charlie Chaplin writes approvingly of the courtesy of Edward, Prince of Wales.) I once saw an alpha wannabe who wanted to sit down on a slightly crowded sofa. Instead of asking people to make room for him, he simply sat down on a woman’s knee.(!)

    It would be interesting to look at regional differences. What would happen in Atlanta, New Orleans, or San Francisco?


    • Duncan
      June 25, 2015 at 10:26 am

      This is a good point.


  12. June 24, 2015 at 10:40 am

    I started doing this in college, I am also a tall/big white women. Its not so much mimicking their walk but just not moving. I watched a documentary ages ago on how people shop in grocery stores, if a person is in beta brain (IE not paying attention to anything specific) they will not run into one another. Once a person concentrates on something, the example was choosing a specific thing or checking their list they move into Alpha brain patterns and they run into one another. I can get most people to move out of the way unless they are actively on their cell phone or talking with someone. Its also a fantastic thing to do if you are in a crowded area waiting, most people with move without much effort.


  13. swiffy
    June 24, 2015 at 11:01 am

    Pretty interesting, though I have trouble believing the results are as categorical as claimed. Eg, seems possible there are neighborhoods where the white male boors don’t tread and other offenders dominate.

    I occasionally play a similar game where toll lanes merge slowly and the obvious, fair thing is for cars to alternate from the left and right sides. I maintain assertiveness as much as possible and it always amazes me how some cars will maneuver to cut ahead anyway. I never let the cars touch and have to give in at the last moment.

    I never look at the other driver until the end. I would say the cars tend more towards expensive SUVs than junkers, somewhat counterintuitively, but the drivers run the full range of race and sex.


    • swiffy
      June 24, 2015 at 11:07 am

      Another type of sidewalk offense is to stand in the way at some choke point while looking at a store, chatting, or daydreaming. You definitely find offenders of all kinds here, though I couldn’t say much precise about proportions.


  14. araybold
    June 24, 2015 at 11:07 am

    “The point is to see who is ignoring common courtesy.”

    When you are performing this experiment, one of them would be you.

    How sure can you be that you are not signalling what you are up to? You seem to think that you can read the intent of the other person: “I never see their body acknowledging mine.” There may be hundreds of New Yorkers who have thought of you as just another crazy jerk, but chose not to make an issue of it.

    I don’t doubt there are people like you describe, and almost certain that you are correct about the demographics – it seems there is nothing like unearned privilege to generate feelings of entitlement – but this is not a particularly enlightening way to demonstrate it.


  15. Nick Dempsey
    June 24, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    There have been systematic studies of deference on the street. Your basic finding jibes with them–men are less likely to defer than women. But there are many subtle rules in there too, e.g., groups walking together don’t defer, better looking people are deferred to. We discuss some of this in *Being Urban*.


  16. Juanita
    June 24, 2015 at 1:33 pm

    This is a timely post. I’ve been studying ancient Greece (late in life) and was led to read more which led me to this post

    While this can’t be the totality of your experiment’s results, it might play a tiny part…


  17. Juanita
    June 24, 2015 at 1:34 pm
  18. P
    June 24, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    As a male, I’ve done the opposite experiment (with fewer caveats about groups, etc.), and mostly bumped into women.


  19. kcm
    June 24, 2015 at 1:58 pm

    I’ve been paying attention to this myself for the last 6 years or so. While living in Zurich I noticed that I wasn’t having to move out of people’s way on the street all the time – on a short trip back to the US it was shocking how often I ended up moving aside. And a couple of (large) white male friends talked about how often they ended up having to step aside there as opposed to in the US. I don’t think other people were dodging me on the street, it seemed more like everyone planned their trajectories more politely so that a last minute dodge by one party wasn’t necessary.

    Anyway, I think there is regional/cultural variation – though haven’t personally noticed much variation within the US.


  20. June 25, 2015 at 1:23 am

    I think that’s fascinating. But not surprised at the result.

    My observation on sidewalk culture: I took a defense class where we trained to take a very deliberate 90-degree (or more) step to get out of the way of an attacker. This got ingrained and sometimes I do it without thinking. What I discovered is that a surprising amount of the time the dramatic sidestep causes the other person to apologize (even when they weren’t really doing anything wrong). I never got that before.


  21. June 25, 2015 at 1:45 am

    From Dostoevsky’s The Underground Man:

    Sometimes on holidays I used to stroll along the sunny side of the Nevsky about four o’clock in the afternoon. Though it was hardly a stroll so much as a series of innumerable miseries, humiliations and resentments; but no doubt that was just what I wanted. I used to wriggle along in a most unseemly fashion, like an eel, continually moving aside to make way for generals, for officers of the guards and the hussars, or for ladies. At such minutes there used to be a convulsive twinge at my heart, and I used to feel hot all down my back at the mere thought of the wretchedness of my attire, of the wretchedness and abjectness of my little scurrying figure. This was a regular martyrdom, a continual, intolerable humiliation at the thought, which passed into an incessant and direct sensation, that I was a mere fly in the eyes of all this world, a nasty, disgusting fly—more intelligent, more highly developed, more refined in feeling than any of them, of course—but a fly that was continually making way for everyone, insulted and injured by everyone. Why I inflicted this torture upon myself, why I went to the Nevsky, I don’t know. I felt simply drawn there at every possible opportunity.

    Already then I began to experience a rush of the enjoyment of which I spoke in the first chapter. After my affair with the officer I felt even more drawn there than before: it was on the Nevsky that I met him most frequently, there I could admire him. He, too, went there chiefly on holidays, He, too, turned out of his path for generals and persons of high rank, and he too, wriggled between them like an eel; but people, like me, or even better dressed than me, he simply walked over; he made straight for them as though there was nothing but empty space before him, and never, under any circumstances, turned aside. I gloated over my resentment watching him and … always resentfully made way for him. It exasperated me that even in the street I could not be on an even footing with him.

    “Why must you invariably be the first to move aside?” I kept asking myself in hysterical rage, waking up sometimes at three o’clock in the morning. “Why is it you and not he? There’s no regulation about it; there’s no written law. Let the making way be equal as it usually is when refined people meet; he moves half-way and you move half-way; you pass with mutual respect.”

    But that never happened, and I always moved aside, while he did not even notice my making way for him. And lo and behold a bright idea dawned upon me! “What,” I thought, “if I meet him and don’t move on one side? What if I don’t move aside on purpose, even if I knock up against him? How would that be?” This audacious idea took such a hold on me that it gave me no peace. I was dreaming of it continually, horribly, and I purposely went more frequently to the Nevsky in order to picture more vividly how I should do it when I did do it. I was delighted. This intention seemed to me more and more practical and possible.

    “Of course I shall not really push him,” I thought, already more good-natured in my joy. “I will simply not turn aside, will run up against him, not very violently, but just shouldering each other—just as much as decency permits. I will push against him just as much as he pushes against me.” At last I made up my mind completely. But my preparations took a great deal of time. To begin with, when I carried out my plan I should need to be looking rather more decent, and so I had to think of my get-up. “In case of emergency, if, for instance, there were any sort of public scandal (and the public there is of the most RECHERCHE: the Countess walks there; Prince D. walks there; all the literary world is there), I must be well dressed; that inspires respect and of itself puts us on an equal footing in the eyes of the society.”

    With this object I asked for some of my salary in advance, and bought at Tchurkin’s a pair of black gloves and a decent hat. Black gloves seemed to me both more dignified and BON TON than the lemon-coloured ones which I had contemplated at first. “The colour is too gaudy, it looks as though one were trying to be conspicuous,” and I did not take the lemon-coloured ones. I had got ready long beforehand a good shirt, with white bone studs; my overcoat was the only thing that held me back. The coat in itself was a very good one, it kept me warm; but it was wadded and it had a raccoon collar which was the height of vulgarity. I had to change the collar at any sacrifice, and to have a beaver one like an officer’s. For this purpose I began visiting the Gostiny Dvor and after several attempts I pitched upon a piece of cheap German beaver. Though these German beavers soon grow shabby and look wretched, yet at first they look exceedingly well, and I only needed it for the occasion. I asked the price; even so, it was too expensive. After thinking it over thoroughly I decided to sell my raccoon collar. The rest of the money—a considerable sum for me, I decided to borrow from Anton Antonitch Syetotchkin, my immediate superior, an unassuming person, though grave and judicious. He never lent money to anyone, but I had, on entering the service, been specially recommended to him by an important personage who had got me my berth. I was horribly worried. To borrow from Anton Antonitch seemed to me monstrous and shameful. I did not sleep for two or three nights. Indeed, I did not sleep well at that time, I was in a fever; I had a vague sinking at my heart or else a sudden throbbing, throbbing, throbbing! Anton Antonitch was surprised at first, then he frowned, then he reflected, and did after all lend me the money, receiving from me a written authorisation to take from my salary a fortnight later the sum that he had lent me.
    In this way everything was at last ready. The handsome beaver replaced the mean-looking raccoon, and I began by degrees to get to work. It would never have done to act offhand, at random; the plan had to be carried out skilfully, by degrees. But I must confess that after many efforts I began to despair: we simply could not run into each other. I made every preparation, I was quite determined—it seemed as though we should run into one another directly—and before I knew what I was doing I had stepped aside for him again and he had passed without noticing me. I even prayed as I approached him that God would grant me determination. One time I had made up my mind thoroughly, but it ended in my stumbling and falling at his feet because at the very last instant when I was six inches from him my courage failed me. He very calmly stepped over me, while I flew on one side like a ball. That night I was ill again, feverish and delirious.

    And suddenly it ended most happily. The night before I had made up my mind not to carry out my fatal plan and to abandon it all, and with that object I went to the Nevsky for the last time, just to see how I would abandon it all. Suddenly, three paces from my enemy, I unexpectedly made up my mind—I closed my eyes, and we ran full tilt, shoulder to shoulder, against one another! I did not budge an inch and passed him on a perfectly equal footing! He did not even look round and pretended not to notice it; but he was only pretending, I am convinced of that. I am convinced of that to this day! Of course, I got the worst of it—he was stronger, but that was not the point. The point was that I had attained my object, I had kept up my dignity, I had not yielded a step, and had put myself publicly on an equal social footing with him. I returned home feeling that I was fully avenged for everything. I was delighted. I was triumphant and sang Italian arias. Of course, I will not describe to you what happened to me three days later; if you have read my first chapter you can guess for yourself. The officer was afterwards transferred; I have not seen him now for fourteen years. What is the dear fellow doing now? Whom is he walking over?

    Liked by 1 person

    • June 25, 2015 at 6:12 am

      Holy CRAP that guy can write.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Duncan
        June 28, 2015 at 4:04 pm

        A great passage, one of my favorites. It could be said that a significant amount of white men — in their own way, relative to other demographical groups — have an outlook on the world not unlike that of the Underground Man. I would know, I see my worst (but latent) qualities worn on his shoulder.

        -a white guy


  22. J B
    June 25, 2015 at 8:21 am

    You should add to the experiment and seek out business cards… my ybet is upper management at bank/finance


  23. Lauren
    June 25, 2015 at 8:23 am

    Two NYC pregnancies: on the subway women offered me a seat, also black men and brown and beige. White men NEVER. Ditto helping one up and down subway stairs w a stroller.


    • Duncan
      June 25, 2015 at 10:39 am

      I’ve heard the same thing — though as a native I can’t say I’ve personally noticed it. But here’s something to consider: speaking as a white guy who often helps mothers with strollers, old people with wheelies, etc., I almost *never* sit down on the subway, not unless the car is totally empty. I’m not sure why this is. Point is, it’s possible that the white men you’re identifying are the types of white men who feel entitled to seats in the first place.


  24. June 25, 2015 at 8:25 am

    There are several studies out there on how people perceive relative power relationships and the effects of those perceptions on common courtesies. The more powerful self-perception, the less courteous and even aware of others. The most telling is price of car to propensity to stop for people in cross walks, which has a truly unbelievable, defined and sad, linear relationship. People who see themselves as powerful and privileged don’t a fuck, as you know from your work.


    • Duncan
      June 25, 2015 at 10:42 am

      Don’t mistake people who genuinely perceive of themselves as powerful and privileged and those that tell themselves that they are. The latter must depend on validation of the outside world and so stake their demands.


  25. efschumacher
    June 25, 2015 at 8:26 am

    When I walked down the Nevsky I was asphyxiated by cigarette smoke on the sidewalk and by car exhaust in the gutter.


  26. dark of the stars
    June 25, 2015 at 8:55 am

    I do this too! And I’m a small woman. I’ve never been hurt or hurt anyone, or even gotten into an altercation.

    I must say it’s a pleasure to feel that I’m standing up to these guys for once!


  27. TMoney
    June 25, 2015 at 9:10 am

    As a non-alpha white man, I have observed the same thing. I have a different response. I stop and allow the person to hit me – or to move around me. This causes cognitive dissonance in the ignorant – because it’s hard to say “Why did you hit me ?” to a non-moving object. It also seems to upset them, because a moving object has to give way to the stationary one to avoid a crash. Most of the time, they aren’t sure how long you’ve been stopped for. Even if they are, your not moving at they want you to move – so they do.


  28. June 25, 2015 at 9:56 am

    This is a different phenomenon, but perhaps related. In Boston we have something called a rotary. In the UK it would be called a roundabout, or a traffic circle. Instead of an intersection, there is a circlular road. Cars drive in, circulate until they reach the road where they want to exit and then drive out. In theory, the entering cars yield the right of way to cars already in the circle. In practice, some cars yield, some cars just blast into the circle, causing cars already in the circle to slow down, stop or swerve to avoid them. I once saw one guy blast into the circle and shoot the middle finger at the driver he forced to slow down, which was me as it turns out. It may be because it’s Boston and Boston drivers, and perhaps I have not concentrated on it, but I have not noticed a significant correlation between cowboy behavior in rotaries and gender or race. Boston is as racist a city as you will find anywhere in the US, but African Americans are as likely to blast in as anyone else. Perhaps being in a car mentally isolates everyone from interacting.

    FWIW, I don’t think I see any correlation between race or gender and running red lights, which is another participatory sport here in New England.

    Also, I wonder about people at interstate exits. If you are exiting from a quiet interstate to a backed-up interstate, the off/on ramp will often be filled with cars, and the line will back up into the exiting interstate. Some people wait patiently, while others drive aound the blockage, and try to slip in as far up as they can. I wonder if there is a correlation between race or gender and this sneaking behavior. I haven’t seen it, but I haven’t tried to notice it.


  29. June 25, 2015 at 10:09 am

    You may be interested in this classic experiment. White American male undergraduates at UMich were secretly subjected to a game of chicken (with a Michigan football player) in a laboratory experiment. Southerners stepped aside sooner than northerners – unless they were insulted beforehand – then Southerners they stepped aside later.

    Click to access InsultAggressionAndTheSouthernCulture.pdf


  30. OV
    June 25, 2015 at 11:06 am

    I think the explanation is very simple – minorities are afraid to confront white woman for fear of someone calling police, then getting arrested or shot. Other white people on the other hand understand that this is just an exercise in white privilege, and call your bluff.


  31. Smell of Suflur
    June 25, 2015 at 11:10 am

    This hits on one of my primary pet peeves, I am a black male naturalized American citizen. I am also 6′ 3″. I happen to be very mindful of personal space and typically go out of my way to be courteous and make room on the side walk for on coming people. In my experience, most of the time people are conscientious and the urban dance works like it is choreographed. It sometimes does not work when people are walking in groups and do not think to break into smaller columns to let oncoming people pass. When this happens I usually chuck it to people not paying attention. In my experience, it has been white men and women who have failed to show this courtesy, though I cannot say I have not noticed that it is more men than women.


  32. June 25, 2015 at 11:24 am

    Years ago, before cellphones, I got fed up with being bulldozed on NY streets by stupid guys. Yes, it was always white guys from what I remember, although I didn’t keep notes. (I’m not that short, but have fairly slight build.) So I started what I thought of as aggressive walking: rather fast, leaning forward a bit as if I was ready to tackle any rude bozos, with a determined look on my face.

    It worked, but it’s effortful, and it deprives you of being lost in thought, which is one of the nicest things about walking. And in these cellphone days, I’m betting you’d just get trampled, never to be seen again.


  33. June 25, 2015 at 11:29 am

    Reblogged this on Stats in the Wild.


  34. Katie Bush
    June 25, 2015 at 11:54 am

    I live in San Francisco and I do the same thing every day!! Exact same results!! It’s always the suit-laden white men who do not move and get aggressive if I don’t accommodate. I’ve also been experimenting with handicapped seats on the busses and BART, but with very different results. Young Asian and black women use those seats and often refuse to allow a senior, disabled, or pregnant person sit. I have to assume there is something cultural about that, but I haven’t figured it out yet. For example, I was on crutches for a number of months and if the seats were occupied by Asian or black women, forget it, I wasn’t getting a seat, crutches and all.


  35. viognier
    June 25, 2015 at 12:37 pm

    If it helps… This is something I’ve been paying attention to for the better part of 12 to 15 years.

    I’m a white male, early forties, average or better appearance but small in stature. I walk with confidence, but not as if I’m out to compensate or prove something, always taking pains to adjust trajectory [with all people] so as to avoid potential collisions or the need for either party to engage too much in the way of twisting or deference.

    Same general observations as yours Cathy.

    The issue with white dudes isn’t exclusive, but certainly predominant – except in my case the only apparent difference is size (and whatever other subtle factors are at play, such as whether the person is walking with friends or a girlfriend ~ that sort of thing). Age of the other person is across the spectrum, from teenagers to curmudgeonly old white dudes.

    I would have lost count in the hundreds on how many times a collision would have occurred if it weren’t for my shifting, sometimes dramatically, at the last possible moment (well beyond what should be expected in a courteous passing).

    One of the more surprising, if a bit strange observations over the years has been the number of people who consciously [or unconsciously] altered their trajectory well in advance, placing them on a collision course with mine (think not only sidewalks but large open spaces as well). Still haven’t been able to get my mind around that one unless it has something to do with ‘magnetic personalities or something.’

    Last bit of disclosure. I too am the sort of person who occasionally stops when certain groups, at certain times, refuse to make even a small opening.


  36. Quentin Stark
    June 25, 2015 at 1:21 pm

    Observe couples. It is my experience that they are more inclined to demand the right of way than single men. The man is so tickled by the attention of the woman and the woman is so intent on satisfying her man that moving aside is an option that doesn’t even occur to either of them.


  37. June 25, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    This reminds me of an experiment described in Outliers: http://gladwell.com/outliers/harlan-kentucky/

    “We even played this game of chicken,” Cohen said. “We sent the students back down the hallways, and around the corner comes another confederate. The hallway is blocked, so there’s only room for one of them to pass. The guy we used was 6’3″, 250 pounds. He used to play college football. He was now working as a bouncer in a college bar. He was walking down the hall in business mode—the way you walk through a bar when you are trying to break up a fight. The question was—how close do they get to the bouncer before they get out of the way. And believe me, they always get out of the way.”


  38. nowhere
    June 25, 2015 at 4:44 pm

    I’ve been studying this for the better part of a decade as well (I’m a 6′, 225 lbs, muscular white male). I am usually pretty consistent in claiming the right-half of the sidewalk/walkway (except for those with obvious reasons to claim additional space: the elderly, women with children, etc.) and I have had the most frequent number of impacts with groups. Mind, I will move as far to the right as possible, without stepping off of the curb or having my shoulders pressed into buildings. Sometimes apologies are forth coming, other times we pass onwards as collision buddies not wanting to recognize our brief encounter.

    Maybe being in the “Asshole Club” I rarely crash into to other white males.

    I, also, recognize Newton’s 2nd Law and will often cede space to those that are substantially larger than myself. 🙂


  39. Noni Mausa
    June 25, 2015 at 6:37 pm

    There are people who deliberately don’t-see people in their path, as a form of dominance I have always assumed. Yes, most of them are white males, but there’s another subset, much fewer in numbers, that I have labelled “dragon ladies.” Energetic, usually slim and small, of various ethnicities, and almost always looking angry — not because of anything, just angry. These dragon ladies will stop in shop aisles, walk down streets without deviation, and very often demand special accommodations like special prices, returns, free delivery and so on. If you have the gall to deny their requests or ask them to move so you can get through, they can often punish you by complaining to your boss, or giving you an incendiary look of contempt. I have no idea where they learn this behaviour, but I have noticed they are always financially comfortable or wealthy.


  40. June 25, 2015 at 9:08 pm

    Come to the old south (I live in NC). I guarantee you’ll get far different results.


  41. JD
    June 26, 2015 at 6:14 am

    I’ve done this myself as a white guy in NYC, though never to the point of bumping if I can avoid it (bumping into people even in the name of “science” seems as poor a reason for upsetting people as whatever rationalization is in the minds of the assholes who bump). It is definitely the case that white men in their 20s and 30s are the worst, although younger black and hispanic men are also fairly aggressive, suggesting that being a woman at least as much as being white is what gets you the deference (or politeness) from the men of color.

    I’ve also been collecting similar data now that I’ve moved to a driving city. What’s interesting is that, while you can’t see the drivers, there are many strong correlations with the type of car the driver has chosen. By far the most pathologically ungracious cars on the road are black suvs — many of which,* I’ve noticed, are driven by middle and upper-middle class white women who would never think of bumping you on the sidewalk, but are perfectly happy to cut you off, tailgate, honk, etc, day in and day out. (* Though most are driven by men, it should be said.)


    • June 26, 2015 at 5:09 pm

      I’ve noticed the same thing here in NC. Women in SUV’s will mow you down and not think twice about it. May God help you if you’re own a motorcycle.



  42. Ion Freeman
    June 26, 2015 at 11:35 pm

    My wife told me that “Leaning In” said that men walk as if people will get out of their way. So, I decided to start walking like that. I crash into people pretty rarely… I guess you’d be one. And, yes, small people should not play games like this.


  43. June 27, 2015 at 10:51 am

    I do this too! Although I have drawn a slightly different conclusion. I think it’s about percieved (concious or unconcious) social status. I notice when I ware nicer clothes more people move for me in the dance you described, same with when I lose weight. I have to dodge more women on the upper east side in the 60s no matter what I ware ;). I think your experience of “why didn’t you move out if my way?” Could come from some people considering all women to be of lower social status irrespective of race, money and power.

    Tourists are the worst though. I can’t tell if it’s because they haven’t been here long enough to learn or if they are high social status where they are from (presumably vacations in NYC are expensive and an elite activity).

    Again my data is noisy so just a thought 🙂


  44. June 27, 2015 at 5:21 pm

    This is mostly likely just confirmation bias. How do you not know that you’re just remembering the few white guys and giving everyone else a pass? Generally without the data then I think this whole post is spurious.

    I’m going to play chicken here. You said “I’ve collected a LOT of data.” I assume this is all mental data correct and not _real_ data? Would you be willing to conduct the experiment again and provide actual data, lat/long (or neighborhood or street) / time / assumed race / most likely gender / estimated age / collision outcome data? Could a video work too?


  45. mars spirit rover
    June 28, 2015 at 9:04 am

    A white male of average height can also conduct this experiment, with taller people of any race or gender. “Studies” have shown a correlation between leadership and height, and in the sidewalk lab, the taller folk expect you to defer to their size and move right, and get testy when it doesn’t happen.


  46. N Leger
    June 28, 2015 at 10:05 am

    I’ve been conducting the same experiment for at least a decade, with identical results.


  47. Rusty Shaver
    June 28, 2015 at 11:25 am

    totally hilarious… because I’ve done the same amateur study here in Seattle for many years if not decades and found the exact OPPOSITE phenomenon – that I, as a male, found that women were the ones not paying attention and that I always had to move out of the way for THEM…while the men were paying attention and made adjustments.Of course, now that everyone is a fucking phone zombie, it doesn’t matter anymore – every one is a rude SOB now.


  48. gstally
    June 28, 2015 at 1:43 pm

    I’m a man that apologizes (in person but not on the web) to the point where my friends will often ask me to stop doing it altogether. Ironically I’m also a man that rarely gets out of the way for anything, but that’s because I’m rarely paying any attention. I walk into things all the time, luckily they are hardly ever people.


  49. June 28, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    Imake men go first when the elevator door opens. They hate it.


  50. June 29, 2015 at 12:23 am

    Very interesting. I started doing the same type of experiments back in college. I’m a below-average height & weight white guy. The only pattern I remember finding is that groups of two or more (all men, all women, or mixed) would insist on walking aside each other to take up the entire sidewalk and expect anyone they encounter to walk in the grass. And I also remember an ethnic fraternity that would always do it on purpose. The technique I started using when it becomes fairly obvious to me that the other group isn’t going to break the line, I just stop and stand still. Then, it seems, if one of them insists on ramming me, they take more of the impact, and it made a point, without me saying anything, that they had the expectation that I was supposed to move out of their way and that they had no intent of sharing any space.


  1. June 26, 2015 at 2:05 am
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