How To Handle Aggressive Pedestrians

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

And you thought mixed martial arts, football and boxing were tough contact sports? Take a stroll on any city sidewalk, and you’re bound to get shoved, kicked and shouldered.

These sidewalk hogs plow through the middle of walkways. Sometimes they travel in a group of two or three and pretend not to notice you, unwilling to give up any space on the concrete; other times, it’s someone staring you down, daring you to brush them or complain once you’ve been knocked from the curb to the grass.

And just because they’ve forced you into a game of sidewalk chicken doesn’t mean you have to be helpless.

Several writers, through their blogs and news articles, added their voices to a discussion ranging from their take on sidewalk hogs, to scientific studies on walkers’ rage, to the deteriorating street etiquette. They also offered advice on how to handle aggressive pedestrians.

Among them is Shuana Marie, whose brush with aggressive pedestrians came while job hunting in Florence, Italy. She noted that the sidewalks there are so narrow people have to turn sideways to allow one another to pass.

“Generally the locals do not notice when they bump you with their shoulder, arm, shopping bags, or my most recent experience of the oversized designer purse,” Shauna wrote on her blog Italian Living. “I’ve been struck and thrown off balance on several occasions…this has required a major adjustment for me, accustomed as I am to the ‘sorry’, ‘pardon me’, and ‘excuse me’ that I’m familiar with back home [in Calgary, Canada].”

(ARTWORK: Kenneth Kelsoe)

Recounting a story of what happened one morning on a way to her job interview, Shauna was still surprised by the sidewalk hog she encountered. “My formidable opponent is a master of the game and comes in the guise of a petite woman wearing 5″ heels,” she wrote. “Striding down the centre of the busy street’s narrow sidewalk, she refuses to give me an inch to pass.”

Though Shauna “mastered the art of wide-eyed intimidation” in the regular game of chicken, she was no match for the “stiletto-clad drill-sergeant.” “As a mere mortal faced with her well-practiced battle skills, I admit defeat, and withdraw by stepping off the curb.”

Shauna watched the woman’s “umbrella and oversized designer purse flanking her like medieval weaponry,” and took a lesson from that incident. “I need an intimidating purse,” she concluded, “large, preferably in black, and ornamented with grey skulls & multiple metal studs.”

During an online correspondence, Zoe (whose blog article “The Obligatory Courtesy Smile” inspired this post) told me, “Once, a friend of mine and I were walking together down the street and a guy barked at my friend to MOVE!”

This guy, and others like him, would be called “Sidewalk  Ragers,” according to the Wall Street Journal article “Get Out of My Way, You Jerk! : Researchers Study ‘Sidewalk Rage,’ Seeking Insights on Anger’s Origins and Coping Techniques.”

It’s a concept real enough for one scientist to create a “Pedestrian Aggressiveness Syndrome Scale,” which looks at how ragers express anger. “At its most extreme, sidewalk rage can signal a psychiatric condition known as ‘intermittent explosive disorder,’” researchers told WSJ.

Intermittent explosive disorder, or IED, is a behavioral disorder that manifests itself through aggressive actions that make a situation more than it really is, according to the Mayo Clinic staff. The outbursts or temper tantrums involve ragers attacking others to the point of causing bodily harm and damage of property broken during the incident.

(PHOTO: Courtesy)

The strange thing about IED is that it’s unpremeditated. According to sources, it’s currently listed among the other impulse control disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is published by the American Psychiatric Association that includes standard criteria for classifying mental disorders.

After an IED episode, the Mayo Clinic staff said, “people with intermittent explosive disorder may feel remorse, regret or embarrassment.”

John Kalish, a Manhattan television producer, noted that IED’s effects are a sign of the times. ”There was a time that any real New Yorker had a built-in sonar in terms of walking down the sidewalk, even a crowded one, and never bumping into someone. Now—forget it,” Kalish said in the New York Times article “Think You Own the Sidewalk?; Etiquette by New York Pedestrians Is Showing a Strain.”

Offering clinical terms for Kalish’s and others’ frustrations with aggressive pedestrians, the Sidewalk Etiquette site roughly estimated that the average sidewalk consist of four by four concrete tiles. And given that a person’s shoulders span about two feet, according to the website, there’s no reason pedestrians should brush one another on walkways.

At the top of the rules listed on the site is Stay Right. “There’s nothing worse than the individual who has  a width of ten feet in their path and the bravado to squeeze you for every inch by brushing against your shoulder as they walk by,” according to Sidewalk Etiquette.

Jennifer Worick, a Seattle-based author and lecturer, echoed those sentiments. When people ask if she’d want the superpower of flight or to become invisible, Worick chooses flight because, as she puts it, “I’m already invisible”—at least, that’s how it seems when she’s walking down her block.

(PHOTO: Eagle Tae Kwon Do)

She usually encounters a gang of sidewalk hogs caught up in their conversations. “They don’t acknowledge my existence,” she wrote on her blog Things I Want to Punch in the Face. “They wouldn’t know if I was tricked out in fetish gear or pointing a flamethrower directly at them,” she continued. “Even a fiendish mime would escape their attention.”

As they got closer, it was clear to Worick that she was a forced participant in the game of sidewalk chicken. “I always lose,” she wrote. “At the last minute, I veer out of their way, usually tripping into a tree bed or slamming into a building.”

The staff at the Mayo Clinic urged aggressive pedestrians to seek treatment for their disorder. “Treatment may involve medications and psychotherapy to help you control your aggressive impulses,” according to the staff.

But Worick was ready to take some action of her own to set them straight. “I’m staging a silent protest and I’m asking you to join me,” she wrote. “When you encounter a line of people coming at you, stop. Stand still. Break their synchronized stride and make them flow around you.”

And if that doesn’t work?  “You saw The Karate Kid,” Worick wrote. “Sweep the leg.”

20 thoughts on “How To Handle Aggressive Pedestrians

  1. In Cambridge-Boston I’ve seen “the rage” manifested this way: I’ll be driving along, and a person will push a baby carriage into the crosswalk, daring me to stop. They will turn to me and give me the angry “dare-stare.” At that moment, from my view, the adult is using their defenseless child as a passive/aggressive weapon against my car. And they thrust the carriage way out ahead of them, a kind of cowardly act, almost as if they know their child will take the hit for them.

    Other than that, the sidewalk phenomena you describe is new to me. Folks are fairly polite and courteous along the sidewalks where I live. Maybe you need the stress of a big city to jack up people’s nerves.

    1. Damn, Richard! I just got a chill from the thought of what the parent did. It’s cowardly, crazy, and so many other things. And the big city will definitely “jack up” everyone’s nerves. What’s weird is that most sidewalk hogs I’ve encountered are petite-size people, who somehow feel they’re asserting themselves by taking up the sidewalk.

      As always, thanks for the added insight, Richard.

  2. I love the last line to this post…”Sweep the leg.” Can’t stop laughing…but I am also going to put this advice in my back pocket to refer to as/when needed! Great read. Love the layout and design of your blog as well!

  3. I’m something of a recluse. Sidewalks crowded with aggressive pedestrians would freak me out. No big cities in summer for me. lol Good read, Alan.

    1. Thanks, Natalie! Yeah, I’m not crazy about crowded sidewalks either. There’s been times I’ve had to assert my height when I encounter a sidewalk hog.

  4. You could take advantage of your physical prowess if you wanted but you don’t – brava! Such a well written piece, and I am not just saying that because you mentioned me. I love that you have sources and “evidence” mixed in with your anecdotes. I have only visited DC a few times but haven’t found that the sidewalk hogs are horrible there. New York, yes. Paris, yes. But the streets in Paris are SO old and tiny that it is every man for himself.

    Great post!

    1. Thanks, Zoe. And I’m not just saying that because you were the spark behind the post.

      The thing with DC is that it’s not as bad as some areas, where it’s all the time.

      For the most part, folks are pretty decent, but it does happen. Thanks also for your encouraging words.

  5. What an excellent post! I’m from New York and I constantly experience the sidewalk hog. The lack of sidewalk etiquette always pushes me to the point of rage. I am challenged to a game of chicken at least 3 times a day, 5 days a week and I never lose. Sometimes I wish they could designate one side of the street to all the inconsiderate walkers of the city and I could watch them trample over each other. <- and there's the rage I cannot hide lol. Anyway I love this post, have a great day!

  6. Canadians are known world wide for their good manner. They apologize when they “almost” bump into you. Not true anymore! They now say “Sorry” then deliberately bulldoze you on a sidewalk or cut between you and the counter or person you are attending to. Sorry in Canada now means beware there’s a jerk about to body check you.
    And elbows!!! men- keep your elbows down in public or tell the women you have every intention of punching them in the breast. It hurts! It’s rude. Would you throw an elbow at your wife or mother?

    1. Sorry to hear Canada’s been infected by our bad ways. Hopefully, something in the article helps when you encounter a rude pedestrian. Thanks for stopping through the blog and for taking time to comment.

  7. How to avoid a rude pedestrian: Never be a 50+ woman, especially with white hair. You become invisible. Perhaps there are a lot of people out there with ‘mommy didn’t love me enough’ syndrome. Unfortunately I can’t assert my height- that’s where guys don’t understand the problem of sidewalk rage against women.
    Also, stop moving off the sidewalk for the yellow rope, nursery school chain of kids as you profess how cute this little gaggle of kiddies are. Teach them to SHARE the sidewalk instead. That’s exactly how and where they learnt that they have sole right of way on the sidewalk.

  8. What an interesting discussion! My technique is not to look at anyone coming my way – then they realise they HAVE to flow around me and they do. But an intimidating bag would be fun.

  9. Hi Alan, thank you for the insightful post. I am relieved to read that other people have experienced this sort of violence ( I thought that I had a problem). In the place where I grew up, shouldering someone basically meant “looking for a fight”. I would like to add something to your discussion. In my case, I work at a big university and this type of things happen to me quite often. Students, when walking in a group, assume they own the sidewalk and that you should just “jump”, or disappear. Nevermind that I am a researcher here and I’m probably 10-15 years older than them. Surprisingly, girls also exhibit this kind of behavior. Unfortunately, the recipe “Stand still. Break their synchronized stride and make them flow around you” hasn’t worked for me. Anyway, thank you for the great post!

    1. Hey EndoMorphin,

      As you now know, you’re not alone. I’d be interested to know where you grew up. I’m wondering, if in your case, it’s a generational thing. What I’ve learned to do is not make eye contact. For some reason that works. Plus it doesn’t hurt that I’m 6′ 2″ and 245 lbs.

      Thanks so much for visiting my blog and taking the time to comment.

  10. I found this article (and a host of others) when the phrase “sidewalk chicken” occurred to me as a way to describe this particular dominance game. Little did I expect to encounter an entire lexicon of terminology for the various ploys and strategies the players employ!

    Being a guy who stands at only 5′ 3″, I do find myself to be a bully magnet at times. Strangely enough, though, my experiences with sidewalk hogs and chicken challengers have all been with women, which led me to suspect this may be another male-bashing strategy for putting us guys “in our place.” This article was useful in suggesting to me that the gender element may be only in specific cases, such as the women who have gone out of their way to walk straight toward me while staring directly at me, or the one who knocked my bicycle out of my hands with her monster hand and shopping bags.

    The oblivious, “I’m looking everywhere except where I am going” strategy mentioned in another comment won’t work for us guys because, in any encounter with a female, we are presumed to be at fault, period. Likewise with a double-armload of “armor,” and the monster handbag is not on at all. But Worick’s coming to a dead stop and staring at them strategy occurred to me after my last encounter with a line of hogs stretched across the width of the sidewalk.

    I have since used that strategy against individual chicken challengers, only to find myself in a face-to-face stalemate a couple of times. (I seem to recall reading an illustrated Dr. Seuss story about that sort of thing, many years ago.) Satiric comments and gestures embarrassed two of my challengers into yielding. In my last encounter, when we were only about four feet apart, I said “Boo!” 😀

    People have always played dominance games, it is part of our animal heritage. Courtesy and manners developed in dense urban populations as a matter of survival, so that we did not wind up killing each other (think “road rage,” and that rash of freeway shootings). While rudeness once brought a physical challenge in response (and still does in some places), any physical response to rudeness now brings police intervention. People also feel disempowered and victimized, these days, and they are understandably angry about it. Sadly, people feel free (nearly entitled) to take their frustrations out on each other because there are no longer any real consequences for rudeness. What a mess.

    1. You said it, Jeff. Glad you found your strategy for dealing with the sidewalk hogs. Thanks for the added insights. Thanks also for reading and commenting. Please come back again.

  11. In Sydney Australia it is side walk law and etiquette to walk on the left on the footpath so this doesnt happen (there are fines about it) however extremely rude groupd of three stare you down and expect you in their self entitled little bubble to move. I’m 52 with a limp and disability and these women look at me with contempt or as if I’m invisible or a slave. What happened to respecting your elders? I dont need a psychiatrist they need manners and to learn how to treat people around rhem with compassion. It’s very sad to watch my city deteriorate before my eyes so quickly. Regards

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