Protocol professionals say sidewalk etiquette is straightforward. But do these basics still hold? Walk on the right side of the sidewalk, don’t hog it with a posse of friends, keep pets on a tight leash, and don’t spit or throw garbage.
Attorney Eric Makus, a self-described curmudgeon and a lifelong Seattleite, has been bemoaning the demise of basic street manners and common courtesy for years.
“You have bicycles on the sidewalks, skateboarders, panhandlers, drug addicts … you have the people with dogs, people who stop in the middle of the sidewalk and bozos running like salmon up the wrong side of the stream.”
But the worst, by far, he says, are the people on their cellphones.
“They are not even there,” Makus said. “They have no concept of their surroundings. Somebody could be stabbed five feet away from them, and they would be sending pictures of the lunch they just had on Snapchat.
“It drives me crazy,” he said.
He’s not alone. With thousands of people pouring into the nation’s fourth-fastest-growing city, and a decrease in the percentage of people driving alone in cars, it’s no surprise that the number of pedestrians has risen. And with the holidays here — when the Downtown Seattle Association says a 15 percent increase in foot traffic occurs — it’s no wonder that some walkers may long for the days when the rules were understood, courtesy was paramount and seasonal shopping wasn’t an obstacle course.
According to Michael Blake, a professor of philosophy, public policy and governance at the University of Washington, sidewalk etiquette is really just about norms, similar to the rules of driving.
“There’s nothing inherently better about any particular norms of courtesy, but things get bad when we can’t agree on a set,” he said. Conflict arises when people with different sets of standards encounter each other, he said, but over time, that generally works itself out.
Lizzie Post, co-president of the Emily Post Institute and the great-great-granddaughter of manners maven Emily Post, said there are a couple of ways to look at etiquette.
One way is to view etiquette as a set of proscribed behaviors or rules that have been condoned in a particular culture. Those can change over time. Here in the U.S., for example, sidewalk etiquette was once concerned primarily with which side of the walk a man should be on when accompanying a woman, Post said in a recent telephone interview.
“It was usually concerned with protecting women, either from splashes and splatters on the street side or from muggers and attackers on the building side,” Post said. “Nowadays it doesn’t really matter and both are considered appropriate.”
Protocol professionals say the basics of current sidewalk etiquette are fairly straightforward: Walk on the right side of the path, don’t hog the sidewalk with a posse of friends, keep pets on a tight leash and clean up after them, and don’t spit or throw garbage. In Seattle, it’s legal to ride a bicycle on the sidewalk “in a careful and prudent manner” so long as an “audible signal” is sounded before passing a pedestrian.
The deeper significance of etiquette, however, is something else.
“It is truly based on the founding principles of consideration, respect and honesty,” said Post. “Emily Post is not a stuck-up book of antiquated rules. When we are aware of the people around us and how they are affected by what we do, we are saying we see them as another person deserving of consideration, that we see their value and worth regardless of the circumstances, and that is absolutely integral to being able to operate in the world.”
So while folks may complain about the skateboarders and the sidewalk hogs, it’s really the subtle part of sidewalk etiquette, the recognition that passers-by are people worthy of acknowledgment, that people miss, Post said.
Former Mayor Greg Nickels — whose penchant for walking once led him to hoof the seven miles between his West Seattle home and the County Administration building downtown — still enjoys his Seattle strolls.
Especially, he said, after spending time in a couple of East Coast cities.
“I didn’t really think about how different it is here until I spent time in New York City and Boston, where the relationship between cars and pedestrians is a blood sport,” he said. “I felt like a fish out of water when I was the only person waiting for the ‘walk’ sign to come on.”
While Seattle’s sidewalks do not yet have the “aggressive environment” of those cities, Nickels said, he does note that fewer people make eye contact or say hello these days.
“I used to enjoy those little interactions,” he said.
That’s what Makus misses the most, too.
It irks him when he attempts to exchange pleasantries with someone — say, pay them a compliment or comment on the weather — only to find them staring at him blankly.
“They look at me like I’m from outer space then reach up to take off their headphones,” he said. “It’s the height of rudeness.”
Post said that cellphones, headphones and other electronic devices are here to stay, but there is an “incredible difference” between walking with headphones on and being aware and not being aware, which she agrees is rude.
“Try to look around, be helpful and participate in the environment you’re in,” she said.
Now, as much as ever and perhaps even more, the importance of courtesy is pronounced.
“Saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ won’t make the world perfect,” Post said, “but they go a long way toward restoring dignity and respect. Take the extra moment to treat each other well, to look out for one another and get down to the heart of things.”