Notes: To the Right

To_RightNo, this post is not about politics, it is about traffic flow. I am referring to the humanity on sidewalks and in public places. .

Recently, while walking back from a coffee shop with a friend, we came to a point where two other ladies were approaching from the opposite direction. These young ladies were involved with their conversation and phones. The sidewalk was not wide enough for all four of us to pass at once. My friend and I went immediately to the right and into single file mode, while the other two ladies continued on without a glance up from their bubble. We chuckled at their focus and commented on their lack of awareness of the world around them.

Then there is the ever awkward Side-to-Side Dance. This occurs when two people meet, one starts to yield and the other goes in the same direction. To avoid colliding, there is a series weight changes from one foot to the other, which results in the two finding the correct direction for each to pass safely. My observation is that there are between three and four changes of weight and that the right side usually prevails.

So, why is it that the right seems to be the preferred direction? Because the majority of us are right handed? For this post, I looked through the Social Arts Atlanta library and was not able to find any clues to the custom’s history. One of the earliest texts about etiquette that we have dates from 1884 and says;

Don’t neglect to keep the right of the promenade, otherwise there may be a collision and much confusion.

True, but is the “right of the promenade” the same as staying to the right? Promenade is French for walk. It is also a dance action in square dancing, a small turn on one leg in ballet and a feature of urban environments. Right could also mean correct and therefore not refer to direction.

After some time perusing blog posts on the internet, there seems to be a general convention that yielding to the right or left, walking to the right or left is dictated by the direction of vehicle traffic. There were no threads on why this is so and, sadly, it does not always follow. In Japan, they drive and walk on the left. In Australia and New Zealand, vehicle traffic is to the left and there is a “tendency, all be it a weak one” to walk to the left.  In England, vehicle traffic is to the left but according to Mr. Easton of the BBC;

Telling people how to walk is simply not British.

What should we do? The convention in the U.S. is to yield to the right. Everyday Manners published in 1923 emphatically directs boys and girls to;

Keep to the right always.

Then there is the width of the walkway to manage. Most texts about walking in public recommend walking no more than two across. If you are walking more than two across and/or the area is so narrow that only two can pass, someone has to fall back. The only advice I was able to find on how to do this also comes from Everyday Manners;

the member of your group who is at the outside of the walk should step behind the one next to him…

This works but does it need to be applied differently to a group with different ranks, ages and genders? Do ladies go ahead of gentlemen? A teenager should definitely fall behind a parent. But, what if someone in your party is elderly and it would be safer for an adult to lead? Certainly, the simplicity of who is on the outside is best but let your circumstance be your guide.

So, help humanity, work at keeping to the right (at least here at home in the U.S.) and, likely more important, being conscious that there are others that share the walkway with you. Awareness of others is helpful for both etiquette and politics.


Bunce, Oliver Bell. Don’t: A Manual of Mistakes & Improprieties More or Less Prevalent in Conduct and Speech. 2nd ed. Kent, England: Pryor Publications, 1982. Print. The Vellum-Parchment Shilling Series of Miscellaneous Literature.

Schultz, Dana H. “On Which Side (right/left) Should Pedestrians Walk on a Footpath? Frequently Asked in.” 21 Aug. 2013. Web. 03 Nov. 2015.

Easton, Mark. “Advice for Foreigners on How Britons Walk – BBC News.”BBC News. N.p., 18 July 2014. Web. 02 Nov. 2015.

Faculty of the South Philadelphia High School for Girls. Everyday Manners for American Boys and Girls. New York: Macmillan, 1923. Print.