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Note to Self: Give People a Wide Berth

May 14, 2013 // By Marcus Brotherton

Near my house is a 2.8 mile trail that loops through tall, old growth forest, and as I hiked in solitude, I noticed a scowling middle-aged woman hiking straight toward me on the same trail.
The distance between us narrowed. I inched closer to the right hand side of the trail, expecting the woman to inch toward her right side so we could easily pass one another. It seemed the logical thing to do, particularly to a male mindset—for two hikers to pass like two cars would on a North American road.
Instead, the woman inched closer to the same side of the trail as I was hiking on. It looked deliberate, almost like a challenge. As the distance between us narrowed even further, the woman kept her course. We were hiking straight toward each other. So, out of sheer sociological curiosity, I kept my course. If one of us didn’t make a move soon, we would smack straight into each other.
Finally, when we were about six feet apart, the woman yelled, “PASS ON THE LEFT! ON THE LEFT!”
I obliged, stepped aside silently, and the woman and I passed on the trail. About five seconds after the woman had passed by me, my inquisitiveness got the best of me and I called back over my shoulder, “Out of curiosity, why pass on the left?”
“Well,” said the woman hotly, “it’s how pedestrians are supposed to pass each other.”
I continued down the trail a few steps without saying anything. Besides being a bit bewildered by the woman’s actions, I was a little miffed at her. I was no stranger to hiking this loop, and nobody I had ever seen before on the trail made such a big deal about passing on the left. Besides, nobody likes being told what to do, I thought.
To further drive the point home that I WAS RIGHT AND SHE WAS WRONG, as I hiked further down the trail, I passed at least a dozen more people walking toward me on the trail. Every single one of them passed by me on the right, like a car would do.
“Sheesh,” I thought. “That poor woman. She must have had a really rough hike if she felt it was her duty to set straight every single hiker she passed today.”
Ever been there?
You know you’re right. Or at least you’re pretty sure you’re right. And yet somebody else is hiking straight toward you. The other person is headstrong, same as you. You don’t want to give an inch. And neither does the other person.
What do you do?
While I was on this hike, I thought about a classic children’s story I’ve often read to our kids. It’s called “The Zax,” by Dr. Seuss.
If you’ve never read it … Two funky looking creatures, called “Zax,” are out walking one day in the Prairie of Prax.
One Zax is heading north.
The other Zax is heading south.
The two creatures meet face to face and stop. Each refuses to move east or west or any direction except their respective headings.
So the two Zaxes stand there arguing and arguing and arguing and become stuck in their conflict. The two Zaxes stand so long that eventually days pass … and then years ….
… and eventually a highway overpass is built around them.
The story ends with the Zaxes still standing there eons later, “unbudged in their tracks.”
That’s my confession.
Too many times I am just like one of those Zaxes.
As I hike down the road of life, I encounter some sort of disagreement with another person and I refuse to budge. I’ve got my way of doing things, a way that seems logical to me, even a way of doing things that might seem logical to most people, and if someone heads my way with a different idea, I don’t like being told what to do.
I’d rather make a case for being right. I’d rather vent and yell and shout that I’ve been wronged. Or I’d rather just stuff the conflict down inside me, buried but not resolved.
I don’t naturally want to see things from another person’s perspective. I don’t want to crawl into someone else’s hiking boots and try to understand how she’s looking at the world. It’s easy for me to remain stuck in conflict while a highway overpass is built right over my head.
Can you relate?
The apostle Paul urges us, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (italics added)
That’s our invitation: to let a headstrong person go ahead. At least as far as it depends on us. It’s often wisest to give a person like that a really wide berth. Just step to the side, and let the other person go his or her headstrong way.
The action saves you a whole heck of a lot of headache in the end.
Fortunately for me on the hiking trail, this story has a happy ending. About half an hour later, since the trail went in a circle, I spotted this same scowling woman hiking straight toward me again.
I’d sorted through the situation by then in my own mind, worked through my feelings of disgruntlement, decided it wasn’t in my best interest to get into a debate, and even felt a bit of sympathy toward the woman.
I was able to call out a polite, “Nice to see you again,” as I passed by her on the left, and I even meant it. I sincerely wished the best for this woman, scowling though she was.
We were two fellow hikers passing each other on the trail of life. Each with different ways of doing things, yes, but hopefully not at odds with each other.
Life’s too short to be all worked up over something like that.
At least it is for me.
Question: When was the last time you went head to head with a person? Have you ever given a person “a wide berth?” If so, what resulted?
  • I have given a wide berth often and usually the hard thing is to not loose myself in that moment and get walked on. I found it is ok to say “I disagree” and continue having a relationship – although I took awhile to learn this.
    As far as going head to head – um perception seems to win.

  • Technically, I believe she was right. Passing on the left (and driving on the left) started so that one passed a stranger with one’s sword arm closer to the other person. That way if the stranger made an aggressive move one could more quickly defend oneself. Or so I’ve been told.

    That said, in America the convention is to pass on the right. So pass on the right. 🙂

  • Good thoughts, Ashenbrenners.

    @ Brian Hoch, interesting historical observation, thanks.

  • Jeff

    In my business setting I always look for the HIPPO in the room.(Highest Paid Person’s Opinion). I give them the deference and the wide berth because it is their decision in the end. If they ask for opinions I give one, if they don’t, we proceed.You pass on the side they ask you to pass on. Only in a matters of morality and depply held belief will I take a stand. That rarely happens at work.

  • Lee

    As for the path scenario, as i live in Australia where we drive on the left side of the road, it is also logical to pass oncoming people on the left, whether it be hiking or in a supermarket aisle, it seems to be that the unspoken law of pedestrians mirrors that of the written law of the road, so for your situation, if i were walking along a trail in the USA, i would presume that i would pass on the right.

    As for confrontations with people, it all depends on the circumstances and one must always pick their battles and the way in which to wage that war. While i always believe one should always be direct and make their position known, sometimes it is more beneficial to allow others to just think want they want or do what they will if it is of no consequence to you (particularly if it is a work supervisor, or a wife). Other times it may be important to stand your ground.

  • @Jeff … HIPPO–I like it. Thanks.

    @Lee, well put.

  • I think in your scenario it was more about this woman having a bad attitude than anything else. Some people are just looking for someone to snap at and correct. I imagine she goes around with that sort of negativity regardless of what she’s doing. When I encounter people like her I tend to think they must lead a pretty unhappy life if something so trivial causes such a caustic reaction. Then I’m just glad I’m not exposed to them on a regular basis. I don’t necessarily feel the need to point out the error of their ways if the situation is inconsequential in the scheme of things.

    I like the way you handled it with a polite inquiry and a friendly greeting. Staying calm and pleasant in the face of an irate person always makes me feel like I handled the situation well.

  • Kaylee, thanks for saying that. I hate to say it, but there’s a good chance you’re right about that hypothesis. Who knows what was going on with her right then?

  • Anonymous

    Chances are this woman is all kinds of crazy and you didn’t take her bait , you took a nibble but waited till you were past her, thats worth its weight in gold.

    Unless there is some signage saying which side to pass on it’s just an intuitive process.

    She is essentially bossing strangers around looking for confrontation.

  • On a road you stay to the right , on a straight walking path ( sidewalks) but on a race track or loop you’re usually turning left , so you lap people from behind not head on.

    Not sure if this logic applies to a hiking trail but 9 is a lot of people to pass head on, on a loop.

    14 people on a loop , 13 of them coming at you something is not right.

    • Marcus Brotherton

      Alex, thanks for your comment. I just saw it. You are correct. On this particular looped pathway, there is no clear signage at the trailhead to direct hikers either way. I’ve noticed people tend to go both directions at will. If it matters, I was walking counterclockwise, turning left this particular time, although I have hiked both directions before on this loop.

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the bestselling author or coauthor of more than 25 books. Welcome to my blog. Thoreau pointed out how too many people lead lives of quiet desperation. Their lives are bland and meaningless, or they make choices that trap them in despair and darkness. By contrast, I want to help people lead lives of excellence. Meet here regularly for powerful stories and insight into how to live and lead well.