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Sidewalk Etiquette in a Social-Distancing World

Who Moves?

Etiquette rules for the sidewalk? I know that sounds strange, so let me explain. 

A colleague recently called me and wanted some help. She said that she had been out walking and saw a couple approaching her on the sidewalk. She wanted to follow today’s social-distancing guidelines, and she realized that the other people were going to be too close to her if everyone continued walking straight. Her question: “Who should have moved over?” 

This question highlights an etiquette dilemma in our coronavirus-dominated world —to ensure adequate space between people outdoors, who moves out of the way when two or more people are sharing a walkway? 

This situation may arise more frequently as people are being encouraged to exercise. David Pogue, a correspondent for the television show Sunday Morning on CBS News, did a segment this week on How to live AND work at home without going stir crazy. His fifth rule was “Go Outside.” His suggestion was to take walks with people who live with you, but steer clear of others.

Obviously, etiquette concerns are nowhere near as critical as getting needed masks and respirators to hospitals, but having answers for day-to-day situations can help people to stay safe, and also give them a sense of having some control in our uncertain world.

Below are guidelines to help you safely navigate sidewalks and walkways shared with other people: 

1. Pay attention. Notice your surroundings and anticipate. If you are talking on the phone or texting, it’s easy to become distracted and not notice someone coming your way. If your view is obscured for any reason – such as when you are approaching a corner – you may be unable to see someone walking directly toward you. Be aware of that possibility, and proceed cautiously until you can see what’s ahead. You don’t want to bump into people!  

2. Who moves? If someone is approaching and you realize you’ll be too close when passing each other, what are you to do?  Generally, it is the responsibility of each walker to move to the right when passing so that there is at least six feet between you. If the person approaching you is walking with a cane, pushing a baby stroller, or struggling with agility issues, you are the one who should move out of the way. Bottom line: Don’t stand on ceremony. If you believe that someone will be too close to you, move over!   

3.  Walk single file. If you are walking side by side with someone – even if you are several feet apart – go to single file when passing others. If you don’t, you put the person approaching you in the awkward position of deciding whether to go around one of you or to go between the two of you. 

4. Don’t hog the sidewalk. If you block the walkway when you stop to chat with someone – from a safe distance! – or to let your dog do his business, it’s your responsibility to move aside and let other people pass.

5. Pass people carefully. If you want to pass someone, make your presence known. You can call out “behind you” or “on your left” so you don’t startle the person. You then move to the left, keeping your social distance. The other person can also move to the right, making it easier for the person who wants to pass.  

6. Greet others. People can hear a “good morning” or see a wave from six feet away. Even though we are social-distancing, we still want to be social. (See my blog on Greeting Others In A Social-Distancing World.) And remember, if someone says “hello” to you, good manners require that you say “hello” back.  

7.  Wash your hands when you return home. You don’t know what you might have touched while you were out. Frequent hand-washing is high on the list of recommendations for fighting this coronavirus. 

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