The Distance of a Hockey Stick

For years now I have walked every day in my Toronto neighborhood for exercise and chores. Lately, however, in the age of the coronavirus, I have been struck by the transformations in walking. I always feel better in times of crisis with a big slab of social science between me and the problem at hand, and what immediately came to mind was a classic from 1974, “Notes on the Art of Walking” by ethnomethodologists A. Lincoln Ryave and James N. Schenkein. They analyzed the unsaid and often unthought of “doing walking,” which was at that time not an “activity of worry.” In the era of an invisible airborne disease, the practice of walking on the streets, once unthought, is not only thought but fraught as we negotiate public space with new ideas about self-and-other hygiene.

A once egalitarian tolerance of proximity has itself been reframed as a transgression of civic responsibility.

In the very recent past, polite people in Toronto would share the sidewalk with unknown others in fairly close proximity, navigating to avoid touching. Bumping into someone by accident would require at least a mumbled apology, sometimes by both parties. Yet an obvious avoidance of the other, like jumping back as the other approached, would indicate insanity or a fear indicating an insalubrious prejudice. What Jane Jacobs called the “sidewalk ballet” is transmuting every day as we hear new information from above about the transmissibility of the disease, which makes what Erving Goffman calls the “soft shell” of the pedestrian seem even softer, more permeable. The practice of walking no longer seems natural.  Our practical consciousness has become discursive consciousness, even hectoring consciousness as we are lectured about the now acceptable social distance—there should always be two meters (six feet) between people in public, often translated into Canadian-speak as the “distance of a hockey stick!”

Part of the hectoring consciousness has been to try to instill consideration and acknowledgement that anyone could be a carrier of the disease, consciously or not. So new forms of politeness involve deliberate avoidance which would have been, until recently, rude transgression. Useful here is Goffman’s notion of “civil inattention;” a walker glances in the direction of the other walker on the street, acknowledging their presence. While not a greeting per se, it was a sign of courtesy. Now it seems that an appropriate sign of courtesy is the deliberate, obvious avoidance of the unknown other.

Today, what Goffman calls “scanning range” has expanded as strangers eye each other from a much further distance than before. People now often perform a dramatic, obvious crossing, often in the middle of the block, as the other approaches. The virtue of sharing the sidewalk has given way to the nobler gesture of not sharing it at all! A once egalitarian tolerance of proximity has itself been reframed as a transgression of civic responsibility.

While Ryave and Shenkein noted in 1974 that walking in the middle of the street is an “extraordinary event,” it has become much more common as people try to avoid other pedestrians. The polite person now obviously circles around the other, often stepping into the street, the domain of cars. When walkers veer abruptly into the street, they evoke honking and often cursing from indignant drivers who are going faster than usual on the now near-empty local streets. Many cyclists have noted the alarming tendency for contemporary walkers to dispense with the functional habit of glancing back to check for bicycles before hurling themselves into traffic to avoid other walkers. The vulnerability of the soft shell of the human to the unseen virus seems more urgent than the more immediate danger of having one’s soft pedestrian shell crushed by the harder shell of a car or a bike.

Some walkers stop making eye contact entirely, staring down at the ground, or turning their whole bodies away as if the mere sight of the other might be potentially infectious. However, not everyone is comfortable with abandoning former modes of politeness. Some of us feel compelled to do “repair work” by making our attention to the other more explicitly civil, through eye contact, a brief greeting, or even a smile from the now appropriate distance, to acknowledge that our seemingly rude behavior is motivated by a concern for our public good. Over the past few days, when I step back to let people pass, looking them directly in the eye, I often receive a “thank you,” audible despite a mask or a scarf. Yesterday I received a cry of “we’re really getting the hang of this” by a smiling woman who was a good hockey-stick length away from me.

Anne Meneley is a professor of anthropology at Trent University, Ontario.

Cite as: Meneley, Anne. 2020. “The Distance of a Hockey Stick.” Anthropology News website, June 29, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1448

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