Walking and the Anxiety of Interactions

I tend to be a solitary walker; I like it that way. I like to be with my thoughts and the inspiration of a good audiobook.

I don’t dislike walking with other people, I quite like people, but while I’m out solitary walking I find that interactions with other people, strangers in particular, can cause all sorts of anxiety.

For me, each interaction is loaded with choices and moral dilemmas.

Let me explain by giving you some examples.

The other day I was out walking and ahead of me was a couple who were walking slower than me, that’s normal. They had a dog and people with dogs always walk slower. Where they were was not too far from a path that I was wanting to take.

This is what is going on in my head: Do I speed up, zip around them (as much as anyone walking ‘zips’) and head up the path? Do I slow down and let them pass the junction so that I can continue my route without disturbing them? If I go slower, how much slower do I need to go to leave them enough room so that it isn’t obvious that I’m waiting for them to get out of the way? How do I do that without looking weird? What happens if I go slower and they slop altogether, what do I do then? If I catch them up, I will need to interact with them, what does that look like? What kind of interactions would be appropriate?

As it was, I decided to move a bit slower and let them pass the fork, then I could be on my way. Unfortunately, my pondering had missed another option, what would happen if they also decided to take the junction? Which they did.

I was getting close to them when this happened, and an awkward interaction was now inevitable. I was either going to have to stay behind them all the way up the forked path, which was narrower than the main path. This would look awkward as they knew I’d already caught them up, or I was going to have to ask them to let me past. That’s what I thought anyway. As it was the couple stopped just a few steps up the fork and let me past, giving me a smile as I went.

Is this just me?

Another study case.

Over a week ago I was heading along a wide path when I noticed a man walking towards me on the same side of the path. As he was a little way off, I crossed over to the other side so that we didn’t crash into each other. It seemed like the polite thing to do and walking down the extreme of a path is a COVID thing that persists around here. As the man approached me, I recognised him and I’m quite sure that we’d previously smiled and said “hello.” This time he completely blanked me. In that split second, I recognised that he was from a different racial heritage to myself. Again, my brain goes into super-drive: what if he’d seen me crossing over and interpreted it as a racially motivated act? Deliberately crossing to the other side of a street to avoid someone can be an immensely powerful statement. Was I a bit overenthusiastic in my movements? What will happen the next time I see him?

A few days later I saw the same man, this time we were already walking down opposite sides of the path. He looked up, smiled, and said “hi.” I returned the niceties.

Interactions with single women are especially burdened with dilemmas. I know that I am safe, but no woman out there knows that. I can see how an approaching man on his own, without a dog, is a potential threat and needs to be treated with suspicion.

I’m not a dog owner, but I have noticed how men walking dogs are regarded as somehow safer than men on their own. With a dog is OK, without a dog is somehow strange? Perhaps it’s that the presence of a dog indicates the person with it cares about it at least enough to take it out for a walk.

Anyway, getting back to the subject – approaching women.

I go through all sorts of anxious mental gymnastics when approaching women walking on their own. The worst scenario for this is when I am out walking down a narrow path and approach a woman from behind. In most cases I am going faster and will need, at some point, to make a choice between staying back and overtaking.

This is a bit like the first scenario, but worse. Again, my brain goes into a spin: I don’t want to catch up quickly that would feel especially threatening, but slowing down and following is especially strange? It’s a narrow path there really is no way of overtaking without interacting and how do I do that without being threatening? How much eye contact is polite, too much eye contact makes me a threat? Do I say “Hi”, or not? What about a smile? If I stay back, will I be noticed, or not? If I am noticed, how will they respond? Is there anywhere wide enough to overtake? How do I indicate that I would like to come past? It’s a minefield of dilemma.

On a narrow path a woman walking towards me has a distinct set of anxieties: When is the right time to step to one side? Is there somewhere obvious to get out of the way? If there isn’t it feels very weird to only make a narrow space to pass, but it would be strange to climb over a fence just to make space? What is the best way to interact? When is the right time to interact?

There are no clear rules here anymore. I’ve wondered about reintroducing the tradition of doffing. What do you think, would that just make me look eccentric, or strange?

We aren’t particularly good at discerning the feelings of others and many of my anxieties are predicated on how the other person views the interaction. I’m sure that most of my worries are unfounded and that the other person isn’t thinking what I think they are. I suspect that most of the time they’re not anxious about my presence at all. That knowledge doesn’t, however, stop me processing each interaction.

Please tell me that I’m not the only one who has these thoughts?

Header Image: Sunrise from my morning walk a few weeks ago.

3 thoughts on “Walking and the Anxiety of Interactions”

  1. Graham, you have hit upon two Universal Truths. These being, that human beings were never meant to a) walk or b) interact with each other.

    Like

  2. I’ve never experienced this sort of anxiety, but perhaps that’s because I’m walking a different kind of path. Mine are generally well trodden and wide. As a dad to 4 girls I made a specific effort to make them feel safe while walking, even on their own at night, the statistics are in our favour (at least in St Annes ) it seems to be more risky to be a guy out walking than a girl. As a result it never occurred to me that girls might feel anxious about meeting me on a path, I’ve only ever been met by smiles and greetings, although as I’m often carrying a baby that probably helps ;-). The only time I can recall feeling anxious while walking is when passing groups of rowdy teenagers, but I’m anxious in the presence of rowdiness in any situation. When I’m hiking on my own I really enjoy ‘the chase’ as I push myself to catch and pass fellow walkers

    Liked by 1 person

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