18 August 2011

social experiment: pacing and spacing (or walking, for normal people)

Before you go on about how walking doesn’t seem to be that difficult, do me a favor. Next time you’re walking around, pay attention. I mean really pay attention. Notice the order in which the parts of your feet make contact with the ground. Listen to determine whether or not your breathing and footsteps are in sync. Feel the role your arms play in propelling you forward. If you can maintain a normal stride while being painfully self-aware, I commend you. Apparently, I cannot.

For most people, walking is a process that requires very little thought. But upon further inspection, there are certain rules one obeys, and, more often than not, does not even consider their existence.

I’ll begin with the most basic rule: pace is important. I noticed that I tend to walk with a purpose, regardless of whether I actually have one. As a result, I keep a brisk pace. I suppose my upbringing plays a large role in my pre-set rhythm; my mother walks fairly quickly, so if I couldn’t keep up I would be left behind. But walking around in a city has undoubtedly contributed as well. There isn’t a predetermined pace for the sidewalk per se, but it is very easy to tell when someone is going above or below the speed limit.

Likewise, there is an unspoken decorum about spacing. Of course, I think my personal space bubble may be larger than the average person, but most people will agree that there is a certain threshold when it comes to spacing on a sidewalk, both laterally and longitudinally (?). Spellcheck tells me that that is a word, so I am going to continue. Spellcheck is apparently not a word.

Anyway, there is a safe distance that must remain between strangers, and therefore people must adjust accordingly. There are some instances that cause confusion for yours truly, like revolving doors (is it okay to share a segment with someone if you know the person? I mean, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with a stranger, but I also don’t like being cramped in there. Also, I am uneasy about the idea of having my heels run over by the partition or being knocked over in general. I usually just wait the awkward amount of time for the next available space and go at it alone.), but in general people act without giving it a second thought.

Despite my fairly rigid ideas about what constitutes “correct” walking etiquette, I decided to play around with other people’s concepts of propriety. Also, I was hopped up on caffeine with no productive outlet. Naturally, I resorted to testing the patience of those around me.

I began by messing with pacing. I tore down Powell, making sure not to disrupt anyone else as I wove expertly between groups of milling tourists. I didn’t really elicit any response, but I was thrown the occasional dirty look as I bypassed some of the larger groups, who were not unlike grazing cattle. Not that they were fat or anything.

I then tried the other extreme: I moved at a glacial pace, espresso in hand, with a complacent if not slightly spacey expression on my face. I could feel people losing their patience around me, but since I was alone, it was fairly easy for people to walk around me, quickening their pace noticeably, as if to admonish me and set an example for how I should behave. I had to wonder whether this act of passive-aggression was intentional. I had to stop, however, because I was becoming annoyed with myself. It is surprisingly difficult to defy what one was hard-wired to do.

After recording my findings, I moved onto spacing. This portion was much more difficult than the pacing portion because of the amount of external factors over which I had no control. The lateral portion proved the most challenging by far. It was almost impossible to walk alongside someone without the other person changing pace almost immediately. Ignoring my overwhelming feelings of rejection, I put the situation in perspective and realized that I, too, would be creeped out if a random person (no matter how cute) started to walk alongside me. I would quicken my pace, which is what most people did. I guess it’s a subtler means of escape than exaggerating the walking motion to slow down. It would have been funny, though.

I had more success with the longitudinal test. I found the threshold at which people started to notice there was someone behind them with relative ease, as indicated by the person in front looking back, but after crossing that line, the results varied significantly. More sensitive folks altered their pace upon realization that I was trailing them. Others looked back, and, realizing that I posed no physical threat, continued their consistent speed until I got too close, then changed. One woman didn’t even look back, and I was three steps behind her for about five blocks until she turned in the opposite direction of where I was headed. Either her peripheral awareness was lacking, or she didn’t care that I was following her rather obviously.

So what have I learned today? People, myself included, like their personal space, and make adjustments, either consciously or unconsciously, to maintain that space. There are unspoken rules that only come to people’s attention when they have been violated. Creeping on strangers can be fun when executed considerately. In other words, I have learned nothing.


Post a Comment