Chances are you have felt it at least once in your life, if not every damned day: the bubbling rage working through your veins, filling your soul, consuming your being, as you find yourself trapped behind a slow walker. Whether targeting people for moseying on a busy walkway while using their phones, groups for spreading out and forming plodding barricades, or tourists for being, well, tourists, screeds against slow walkers are a dime a dozen online.
This anger is so common it actually has an academic designation: sidewalk rage. Leon James, a University of Hawaii psychologist and leading expert on the phenomenon, likens it to road rage. While we often talk about sidewalk rage as an internal irk, or “private mental venting that consists of irrational assumptions regarding other pedestrians,” the feelings can escalate through fantasies of “violent acts against the inconsiderate sidewalk blockers” in some to “the overt expression of hostility and aggressiveness," James notes. Yet for all most of us know about sidewalk rage, few understand where it comes from, or why some feel it more acutely—at times or always—than others.
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Fast walkers often imply—if cheekily—that their rage stems from the fact that they are, in a cosmic sense, in the right. They trot out studies that suggest faster walkers may be less likely to die of heart disease, develop Alzheimer’s disease, or see their prostate cancer worsen, and that slow walkers seem to die earlier than the fleeter footed. (The causality between walking speed and the outcomes noted in these studies remains uncertain; walking speed could actually have nothing to do with them, or stand in for some other causal factor.)
They also argue that slow walkers are breaking implicit social rules in a city or culture that dictate how to use a walkway. (To wit, in New York: keep to the right, follow the flow of foot traffic, watch where you’re going, don’t cluster up if you’re moving in a large group, and for god’s sake veer off to the edge of the sidewalk if you insist on stopping or slowing down.)
Psychologists suggest that the rage some of us feel stems primarily from our own expectations and emotional states. Many people walk on autopilot based on our own expectation of how long it will take us to reach our endpoint, notes Marc Wittmann of the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology and Mental Health. Finding someone suddenly blocking our path breaks our autopilot: “The more we are on autopilot mode,” Wittmann says, “the less we can accept a sudden slowed pace.”
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This jarring breech of our expectations is stressful. But of course, it's even more stressful if we are already in a stressed mode to begin with. What’s more, when this interruption of expectations triggers rage, it can warp our perception of time. Our lack of control and anger make us feel like the moments we spend trapped behind someone are an eternity, which risks annoying us further.
It's hardly surprising that city dwellers seem to report the most sidewalk rage. As Wittmann notes, urban centers seem to encourage a faster average pace, and the conveniences of modern life shred our patience. Competition for personal space can also trigger or exacerbate this rage, James says. So it's fairly easy for a fast-moving, impatient city dweller to run into a snag that breaks that autopilot pace and exacerbates the latent stress many busy people may feel.
Living in a city, however, is hardly the only predictor of sidewalk rage, James says. He sees it as a socially learned behavior, both from our parents and through media. So our training as we grow up regarding how to process or react to the inconveniences plays a strong role, too. James seems to believe that sidewalk rage is a growing problem, which makes sense given the fact that modern life, especially in cities, is getting faster—and for many, more stressful. While many people might brush this off as a minor annoyance of modernity, however, James says that he sees it as “a public mental health crisis that needs to be addressed and reversed,” to reduce the violence it sometimes creates, aid our wellbeing, and improve civility in public life.
Fortunately, it's not too difficult to quell feelings of sidewalk rage in the moment. Usually when we feel irritated by a slow walker—or a fast walker trying to muscle past us, James notes—we “recite the details of another pedestrian's ‘objectionable’ behavior',” which intensifies our negative feelings. We also tend to fixate on our own stress, like how late we’re running. We just have to break these mental patterns, James says, through “motivation and self-training” in our everyday life.
This often involves simply stopping and recognizing when we’re starting to feel rage, dissecting that feeling, and acknowledging that someone is not evil for moving at their own pace. In those moments, we also need to understand that we are the ones in “activation mode,” who likely need to learn how to switch into a more relaxed, accepting mode if there is nothing we can do to escape an inconvenience, Wittmann notes. “You become a happier human being,” he says, “when you are able to change modes. You have more control over your emotions and life.”
Some people may reject the idea that they need to change, still insisting that slow walkers are in the cultural or moral wrong. Those people will likely feel sidewalk rage all of their lives. But for those who want to conquer these feelings, this mental shift and control is not as hard to develop as it may seem, as there are many simple exercises one can do to cultivate it. “I advise nervous people to go to a supermarket and choose the longest line at the cashier booths,” Wittmann says. “Say to yourself: Now I have time for myself and I can relax for a moment.” Accept that a slow moment now and then is normal, perhaps even a gift, if you are willing to take it as such, rather than berating others for not moving at the same speed.
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