Sidewalk Rage: Do Slow Walkers Make You Angry?

Pedestrians have their own version of road rage

Living in New York City, I commute via foot. So, instead of getting stuck behind Sunday drivers or people who have never heard of turn signals, I get stymied by meandering tourists; moms and dads walking side by side with their strollers; or lovebirds locked arm in arm -- all oblivious that they’re taking up the entire sidewalk. Instead of road rage, I, and other frustrated pedestrians, suffer sidewalk rage -- a predicament that has become so common, it has inspired a Facebook group called, "I Secretly Want to Punch Slow Walking People in the Back of the Head," which boasts over 17,000 members.

Of course, you don’t have to live in Manhattan to fly into a fury over someone’s bewildering walking habits. You’ve likely experienced it when trying to get around suitcase-toting travelers at the airport, a gaggle of teens who don’t step aside to let you pass, or the person who blocks the supermarket aisle while chatting away on her cell phone.

Researchers have even begun studying it. According to University of Hawaii psychology professor Leon James, in any crowded place, 20 percent of people will break the accepted pedestrian norms by walking “upstream” or not adhering to the flow of foot traffic. This can be intentional, or it can be due to circumstances that make one less mindful of their surroundings -- such as being lost or caught up in a conversation. James, who had to come to terms with his own aggressive walking on the crowded streets of Honolulu, developed a Pedestrian Aggressiveness Syndrome Scale to help determine whether someone suffers from sidewalk rage.

If any of these apply to you, it could be time for a, uh, change of pace: You have disparaging thoughts about other pedestrians; you brush past slow-moving pedestrians and then cut back in front of them with little room to spare; you feel competitive with other walkers; you exhibit hostility by staring, glaring or giving a mean look; you don’t apologize after coming into close contact, sideswiping or bumping another pedestrian; and you don’t yield when it would be polite to do so.

Recognize quite a few of those behaviors in yourself? People who are most prone to sidewalk rage are those who have a strong sense of behavioral ethics. Sidewalk ragers believe there is a right way and a wrong way to behave, and when others’ conduct doesn’t mesh with their own, they get angry. They assume strangers aren’t living up to the proper codes of civility, and are purposefully being rude or disrespectful of others.

A way around this rage is to not give into thoughts that the person in front of you is a jerk or an idiot, but might instead be hampered by a physical condition, lost, or caught up in an emotional moment. In other words, be forgiving of other people’s actions.

Years ago when I lived in San Diego and had to battle the congested freeways every morning, I was sick of the commute, but even more exhausted by the emotional state it would put me in. So I worked to consciously reframe my thinking. "Getting angry won’t get me there any sooner," I would tell myself. I’d also think, "we’re all in this together." It helped sometimes to think of the snarl of cars as one big body all trying to get somewhere together. It also helped that every day offered picture-perfect weather that allowed me to roll down the windows, breathe in the salty air and take in the coastline as I sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Now as a pedestrian in New York, when I find myself stuck in a sea of people -- like Grand Central Station at rush hour -- I can adopt the same kind of serenity that I had behind the wheel in San Diego, because I know there’s nothing I can do to make the crowd move any faster. But when there are only one or two people clogging the flow of foot traffic, I’m in a rush and it’s seven below with wind chill, it’s not as easy to stay so calm. I don’t generally take to pushing, bumping or name-calling. But I do hightail it around the transgressors. They might be in the wrong, but they might also just be clueless. Of course, obliviousness makes me as angry as the next person. But think of the last time you were lost and ambling about trying to find your way. Blaring horns or snarling pedestrians don’t help you find your bearings any quicker. Sure, people need to be more conscientious and polite about adhering to rules of conduct. But we also need to have more patience and understanding for those who don’t mean to violate them. 

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