English Politeness and Deference: Passing in Tight Places

I mostly appreciate the politeness I encounter in the towns and villages in northwest England, but sometimes my American and more urban sensibilities leave me a little frustrated. Necessity and custom in England require both vehicles and pedestrians to negotiate who will pass when space is too limited for traffic to move unimpeded. When the pause in movement is required by limitations of space, of course I appreciate theIMG_6911 polite manner most English residents negotiate who will pass first.

I don’t drive myself in England, so I will leave a discussion of vehicular negotiations for later, but walks often require similar etiquette. Walking on a footpath or pavement (sidewalk for the Americans) sometimes requires making space for someone to pass.* English manners demand that often both pedestrians will pause, turn to the side, and motion for the other to proceed. In short order, one or the other will give in and pass first with a cheery “thank you” to ensure that English politeness is rewarded.

That’s all quaint and lovely, and I find it absolutely comforting to know that people will still look out for one another in this way. Sometimes, though, the path is plenty wide for two people to pass without even pausing, but some insist on pausing and standing to the side anyway. As an American, I just find this to be an unnecessary and, I admit, annoying waste of time and effort. I still mutter a quiet “thanks” as I pass, but not without a taste of resentment. Sometimes, you just want to get on with your life, you know? I guess if I want that kind of life, I should stay in the city where one must look after oneself.

*In rural America, this scenario doesn’t play out often if at all. Rural America doesn’t have the population density of the English countryside, so it isn’t often you will pass anyone you don’t know. If you do pass someone you don’t know, you are likely to be suspicious and try to ascertain the stranger’s business in the area. Also, in America, if you are walking in the countryside, you are probably on private land, so you would definitely expect to know everyone you encounter. Any stranger would be a trespasser, and no one in America ever fought for the freedom to roam across farms and ranches. If you are English, please don’t ever try to cross a farmer’s land in the US. Most farmers will approach you with a loaded gun in hand, and shooting you would be completely legal.

About ethicsbeyondcompliance

I hold a PhD in medical humanities with an major emphasis in ethics. I began teaching college-level ethics in 2000.
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