When I was little, we went on a lot of family walks in the countryside, especially in the Lake District in North West England. I quickly learnt that, in this particular social space (and most countryside areas), it’s polite to say “hello” to all the other walkers you pass, and well as any farmers, forestry workers, etc.
Of course, in the city, it would be exhausting to say “hello” to everyone. It would also be unwelcome to a lot of people, and frankly, you might come across as a weirdo. Anyone who lives in a city soon learns a certain way of behaving that’s appropriate for an urban environment, with a high degree of anonymity that protects us from being overloaded with social contact. This anonymity can also be isolating and dehumanising.
But what about that space between city and countryside? The roads, trails, greenways, and towpaths that offer runners an escape from running on city streets are a distinct social space in themselves. Like any other, they have the potential for conflict and for conviviality. Dog-walkers on a particular patch may get to know each other over time, but that same patch might see conflict between dog-walkers, runners, cyclists, or motorists. And maybe because these are in-between spaces, it feels like the rules of conduct are less clearly defined here. Some people keep up their impersonal, urban behaviour, while others treat it more like the countryside.
I want to talk about how to behave as a runner in these areas. In short, a while ago, as a semi-serious runner, I decided to say “hello,” or give some sort of acknowledgement to almost everyone (and I’ll come back to the few exceptions), even though this behaviour was by no means shared by all the people I came across. Probably some of them thought I was a weirdo, and that’s okay.
I’ve had a lot of time to think (overthink?) about this while out on runs, and I came to the conclusion that this is the best way to behave to help everyone rub along well in this space. I also think — at the risk of sounding soppy — that it’s one of the easiest ways to make a positive change to society, in a very intangible but potentially far-reaching way.
Saying “hello” to everyone can be more complicated than it sounds
To begin with, we need a few caveats. Although these in-between spaces are a distinct social space, they also bring with them a lot of social structures from elsewhere, including some ugly inequalities and prejudices. I can only speak as a cis-gendered, able-bodied, white, middle class male, and I acknowledge how that makes my engagements safer and easier. I don’t presume to speak on behalf of any other group. I do know that I lot of men fail to appreciate just how different these spaces feel to women in particular, and I would recommend that they read this excellent article by Cara Harbstreet (She/Her). But I would make several points about these complications:
- Some people may not feel comfortable engaging more with other people when running, they may not feel they can judge the social situation well enough, they may not feel it’s safe, or they may just not be able to for a number of reasons. I’m not saying anyone has any responsibility to do this, just that you might find it rewarding if it’s comfortable and safe for you to do so.
- If you’re in a position of social privilege and power, and that’s most people in at least some respect, you need to make sure that you’re not making anyone else feel uncomfortable or unsafe. This is addressed in my ‘rules of engagement’ below, but the most obvious example is to take great care not to intimidate a lone woman, especially when it’s dark or dusk.
- Some people just don’t want any social interaction, and we need to respect that. Again, this is addressed in my ‘rules of engagement’.
- Unfortunately, some people are actually rude, or otherwise not nice. Some runners might respond to rudeness with more rudeness. This isn’t my style, but encounters with rude people often used to get me down, and I might think of a witty retort about ten minutes later. My approach now aims to avoid letting it get to me, and just maybe to encourage that person to be less rude in future.
- The aim is not to make everybody be everyone else’s friend — personally, I don’t want to be everyone’s friend — but to transform the space into one where people acknowledge each other as individuals to be treated with respect, and more generally, something like neighbourliness.
Rules of engagement
This sounds far too serious, but these are the three things to keep in mind:
- Judge the situation: in the few seconds you have as you approach and pass someone or a group, consider what sort of address is appropriate, ranging from a small wave of acknowledgement (perhaps people are deep in conversation) to a much warmer address if someone is already offering you a smile or greeting. Err on the side of less, but most of the time I just use my standard “hello,” or “thank you” (or both) if they’ve made the slightest effort to move aside for me.
- Don’t demand anything of anyone: Remember, you’re offering up a greeting, offering to make eye contact, but not forcing anyone to engage, and shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed if someone doesn’t respond.
- If someone doesn’t respond, that’s fine, and if they respond negatively, just try to let it go. Try to avoid making assumptions about what they’re like: you don’t know them, or what sort of a day they’ve been having.
So let’s consider some possible situations. I’m already assuming that you’re acting responsibly, not barging past people, and not thinking that people have an obligation to make way for you:
- General adult walkers: say “hello.” Easy.
- There’s exceptionally good or bad weather: a warmer greeting for everyone, with a note of shared enjoyment or solidarity.
- Other runners: greeting them acknowledges that you have a shared membership of a tribe, whatever your other differences might be. If you’re passing at speed, or if they have earphones, just a little wave might be appropriate.
- Dog walkers, cyclists, or others whose use of the space might conflict with your own: greet them and thank them. Even if they have not been accommodating, still thank them, and not sarcastically, and they might actually be more polite next time.
- Horses and their riders: these are yet more people to greet and build community with. Also, if you make contact with the rider and the horse as you approach you’re less likely to startle them when you pass. It’s best to pass at walking pace.
- A driver on a country road: if they make space for you on the road, give a wave of thanks. If they don’t make space for you, also give a wave of thanks. Once again, it may help them to realise that you’re another human being, and they might act better next time (or they might just not know that you need more space).
- Family groups: I’ve been surprised to find that, although plenty of family groups are very friendly, some can be quite touchy, and even among the worst people at sharing public space. To be on the safe side, I give a minimal greeting addressed to the group as a whole.
- Someone with a visible disability together with someone without a visible disability: address them both, do not just address the person without a visible disability. I don’t think I need to explain why.
- Individual people who might, for whatever reason, feel vulnerable: in some circumstances it might be best just to give them a wide berth, but otherwise you want to reassure them that you’re a friendly presence, but without intruding, and without demanding any engagement in return (even eye contact).
What are the benefits?
The way we interact with others in shared public space becomes second nature to us, but it is also one of the foundations of our society. It also varies a lot between cultures, which can come as a surprise when we travel. For example, there’s a big difference in behaviour even between Southern England and the generally friendlier North of England, and in some cultures (in Russia, for example) people can be friendly but without smiling. I’m not proposing to impose one model on all situations, but rather to nudge the sociability dial a little higher in a way that’s appropriate for the environment you run in.
On a personal level, I’ve found that this immediately makes for a more positive experience of the space. It takes almost no effort, but instead of resenting the other people clogging up your running route, you can take a little pleasure from the positive engagements you have. Over time, you’ll find that you start to recognise the other regular users of a given space, and even without knowing any of their names, this makes the space both friendlier and safer.
But even more generally, I believe that a change in this very basic level of interaction with our fellow citizens can have a broad positive effect. Many of the iniquities in our societies, ranging from individual prejudices right through to harmful government policies, are made possible by dehumanising or othering certain groups, or simply people outside our immediate group of friends and family. It might not be possible in the city, but in the in-between spaces just outside them, we runners can choose to act in a way that affirms that everyone deserves respect.