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July 10, 1999: i hate people when they're not polite


When I first learned to drive, I had difficulty playing the social interaction game.

That is, there are rules, and if everybody plays by the same rules, things work out pretty well. In particular, driving defensively came very naturally to me. So, if I was driving on a side street through an interesection with no stop sign for me but a stop sign for the cross street, and somebody was pulling up on that cross street, I found it hard not to slow down and make sure they were really stopping. Of course, slowing down at that point simply makes my travel through the intersection take longer, thus slowing me down and thus slowing them down; so it serves no purpose.

On the other hand, if those people would actually come quickly to a stop at the stop sign, instead of cruising on part way to the intersection, I might have a little more sympathy for them.

I don't drive much anymore, but I've thought for a while about the degree to which I am a defensive pedestrian these days. For example, I notice a lot of other pedestrians don't have much problem with forcing a route across the nearest semi-major road (think: a road with some streetlights) by walking out with the understanding that cars aren't stupid and they'll slow down if need be.

I find myself entirely unable to do that. Indeed, I've started thinking about being even more cautious--"what if," I ponder defensively, "the bag of groceries I'm carrying were to break while I was halfway across? What if I were to fall over and suffer a heart attack?" Even if these are slightly unrealistic concerns, consider it from the perspective of the guy driving the 18-wheeler in my general direction. He doesn't have very good braking distance. What goes through his mind when he sees me cross with "plenty of time", yet carrying a flimsy bag of groceries?

The other thing I noticed is that as a pedestrian, I take up a lot less than one pedestrian's worth of space. I do a lot of passing other pedestrians from behind, which generally requires going around them, or careful timing with people walking in the other direction, because three friendly humans tend to naturally walk side-by-side, totally oblivious to the possibility of people behind them wanting to pass. And, unfortunately, there's no clear etiquette to imply otherwise; 'excuse me', much like car horns, seems frequently viewed as impolite (and, sadly, politeness is in the eye of the beholder, in the long run).

As a driver and a pedestrian, I tend to be more "polite" than the average person. I tend to optimize not for my own self-interest, but for the maximum benefit of everyone. I don't like pushing 'walk' buttons as a pedestrian, because that will stop traffic for twenty or thirty seconds--unnecessary seconds, if I can manage to cross without it. I tend to stop and let cars make turns rather than blithely crossing sidestreet intersections where I have right of way, since those cars are often blocking traffic, or have narrow windows of opportunity to make the turns. (Major exception: if it's raining and I'm a pedestrian, and they're already stopped so there's no danger to me, I tend to take the view that saving a second or two of my time out in the miserable weather is worth the extra time for them in their shiny metal boxes.)

When I come back from the grocery store carrying two plastic bags, one in each hand, I'm conscious of just how unnaturally wide they make me (if you count them in me, if you know what I mean), and without much conscious thought if I need to pass somebody I pretty unconsciously put one hand in front of me and one hand behind me, narrowing my shape from the direction of passing. I tend to shift closer to the edge of the sidewalk, close to fences or walls, to make more room for everyone.

And I've never really thought about it, but nobody else does. And not just because there's plenty of room--I still bump shoulders with other people while doing this, all the time. I guess they just don't care. Or maybe there's some human pecking order, and the wimps make way for the pack leaders.

I've actually known about this, and been conscious of it (even if it's instinctive), for a long time, but walking back from the drugstore, a minor incident occurred. I turned a corner, walking along a sidewalk, with a chain-link fence on my right. Up ahead a small tree was planted, growing out of the sidewalk, creating a very narrow choke point. And coming towards me was a young woman. She was walking close enough to the fence that I automatically shifted to the left (I always try to stay on the right because that's how you play the game to minimize the chance of confusion), and as I passed her I noticed she had shifted very close to the fence--much farther than necessary to guarantee no physical contact as we passed. Of course, I was walking off the pavement and over the dirt by the tree.

I suppose it's possible that she was cowering from me physically; after all, I hadn't shaved in a week and was therefore looking a bit scruffy. But it strikes me that in all this time walking around, I've never run into anyone who approaches it the same way I do--really making space for other people as they go by. I found the experience astonishingly unnerving--not because of the behavior itself so much as the momentary glimpse of seeing someone else like me.

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