Photo: Daniel Perez Lozao Carrasco / Getty Images
Picture the scene. A couple stroll along, arm in arm, gazing into each other’s eyes. Now picture this: one person striding ahead and another giving chase, legs whirring like a sausage dog’s in the attempt to keep up. The first image might be cringe, but the second, well that’s just infuriating. It also happens to look a lot like me and my boyfriend, moments before we have our most regular argument.
To give him fair dues, my boyfriend is a giant. At 6’4”, he is the same height as Erling Haaland. When we’re in a rush, I feel like I’m trying to keep up with an actual race horse, shouting out “I’m not slow, I’m smaller” as I go. I have even resorted to step count comparisons to prove I take at least three steps for his two. Has that helped? Not really.I know I’m not alone though – I see reflections of myself everywhere. Flustered and frustrated women, pacing the streets a few yards behind guys who don’t see the daggers shooting out of their lady-companion’s eyes. Oblivious turbo-charged fellas are so common in fact they’re now a TikTok meme, with Munya Chawawa including one in his “boyfriends on holiday” video, alongside men’s tendency not to wear sunscreen. It’s not just boyfriends though, and it’s not just straight dudes (indeed, there’s even a petition to create “gay walking lanes” in the UK, because gay men supposedly walk so fast). So, what gives? Why do so many dads and brothers and bosses and Large Adult Sons walk so goddamn quickly??In the hope of answering this question once and for all – and publicly shaming my boyfriend into changing his ways – I asked everyone I know about what I am calling “the gender walking gap”.
“That is the story of my life,” my friend Eleni replies instantly. “I thought this was in my head!” Ria exclaims. “This is such a thing!” Amy adds the extremely important observation that fast walking is often also “combined with the really infuriating habit of crossing the road at speed and without warning, so suddenly they’re on the other side of the street and you’re there looking bewildered”. Anecdotal evidence, sure. But I’m just a slow moving girl, I can’t keep up with rigorous scientific evidence. I prefer vibes. And oh boy, the vibes kept rolling in.“I have this with ‘Tom’ specifically about running,” reports one of my friends, who wanted to remain anonymous because for some reason she sees public humiliation as a bad thing for her relationship, unlike me. “He’s always like, why are you so slow, and I’m like… your legs are literally a foot longer than mine.” She sometimes makes him match her stride length “to understand what it’s like for me”. But is stride length the whole problem? I can’t help thinking there is something more at play than just height disparity (not to mention the fact that the fastest person I know is 4’11). Basically, it feels like there is a touch of the ol’ gendered expectations to these interactions.
Ria, for example, is 5’7”. Her ex was 6’1”, which, as she says, “isn’t that much taller”. But he would “constantly walk ahead… to the point where I would grab his arm and be like, ‘can you please just walk at my pace”. Ria would feel embarrassed, “because people would be watching me scurrying along behind him, trying to catch up and shouting out his name”. This often caused arguments when they were out. “If we were trying to get to a reservation and we were running late, he would just stride ahead,” she says. “And I’m like, why don’t you just call the restaurant and say we’ll be ten minutes late, and just walk with me instead of rushing me everywhere?”According to life coach and behavioural psychology expert Justin Gasparovic, the answer does come down to pesky gender roles. “From the get-go, we get these nudges about how boys and girls ‘should’ act,” he says. “Men might feel the push to take the lead, and women might feel they should hang back a bit. This could show up in how fast or slow we walk.”Essentially, Ria’s ex might have been socially ‘nudged’ to march ahead to ‘fix the problem’ of being late, while Ria might have been trained to put the interpersonal relationship between her and her partner first. (This is certainly what I sense whenever I try to get my boyfriend to treat our walk to the shops less like a mission and more like Quality Time together.)
Ria’s embarrassment also seems important here though. It sounds like her ex was task-oriented – focused on himself and where he needed to be – while she was more concerned with how they were perceived as a couple. If so, this might partly be down to how we react to men walking around us. “Men don’t tend to adjust their speed when walking with women friends, and they are likely to walk faster when walking with other men,” mindset psychologist Dr Rebekah Wanic says. But Wanic says men do tend to adjust their pace if they’re in a relationship “by slowing down to match their partner's speed”. Indeed, Gasparovic calls this the “couple's shuffle”. “It's a sweet way of syncing up,” he says. “It's often a reflection of compromise and harmony.”It doesn’t take a genius to deduce that the shame and annoyance women feel lagging behind stems from feeling like we’re not being treated like partners, but competitors. This can open up an emotional chasm between a couple, and also rubs up against icky but entrenched ideas about women’s inferiority.Jasmine is explicit about how poisonous these feelings can be. “It’s one of the reasons I dumped my ex,” she tells me. “Even thinking about it annoys me. He would always walk off miles in front and ‘lead the way’. I would feel so inferior, and it was draining.” Now, she believes it was “a weird power play”.
“Someone marching ahead of you all the time makes you feel lesser,” Ria says about her now ex. “I felt like a ‘little woman’ trying to keep up with a man.”For me, this gets to the heart of the matter. It might seem like a velocity issue for guys, while for us girls it’s a maddening reminder of the gender norms we have to navigate everyday. It also explains why some of the most infuriating instances aren’t in relationships at all, but in situations where power imbalances are more stark. Holly’s worked for male bosses for over five years, and says she spends her “whole working life walking roughly two steps behind them, trying to keep up”. “They don’t seem to notice but everything is said twice,” she says. “I’m always like ‘sorry, what was that’, because they’re saying it into the air three feet in front of me.” None of this is conducive to feeling like a strong, independent working woman.Ultimately, gendered expectations about speed and efficiency boil down to deep-rooted expectations about who is most able to move freely and easily through the world, and who has to adjust their needs for others’ comfort. “As a disabled person who experiences fatigue and pain, I often have people of all genders walking ahead of me, unwilling to slow down,” Emily tells me, but adds it feels “more loaded” with men. “They seem to be more likely to laugh off a request to slow down or be patronising about it, as if it says something about my being a woman that I can't keep up.” This is also why she hates the terms ‘slow walker’ or ‘slow coach’, “and the way people act as though it says something about your character”. So fellas, before you pop “I hate slow walkers” into your Hinge profile, in an attempt to signal that you’re ‘active’ and own Salomons, think about what you’re also signalling. As Emily puts it: “Walking fast is not a personality!”