The Tentative Guide to Talking While Walking

People often walk together. In fact, though it varies dependent upon environment, about two thirds of all pedestrians walk in groups of two or more. Therefore, if you make a habit of walking by yourself, you’re a social deviant, and probably other people are noticing and secretly laughing at you as they talk in their fancy mobile friend groups.

One useful tip is to find another solitary walker, introduce yourself, and say, “Are you aware that by walking by yourself you are exhibiting abnormal social behavior? Would you like to conform to social norms by walking with me?” This can lead to a fast friendship, but the random nature of the selection process may lead you to becoming friends with sub-optimal people. And the success rate is not, in truth, as high as one would expect.

Of more concern is arranging to walk with people you already do like.

Imagine, you’re in class, at work,  or getting off the bus, and you’ve been enjoying a conversation with one or more people who aren’t friends of yours. Perhaps you’re good at this. Perhaps you speak regularly to people who aren’t your friends, and are, in a sense, extroverted. But now, the person you’ve been talking to is walking away, and you are once more caught by bewilderment and fear.

Should you walk with this person or not? How will you know whether they’re trying to escape you or not? If you walk with them, will it be seen as friendly walking, or creepy, uninvited following? Faced with this, it may be tempting to nod goodbye and say “See you later,” but I’m here to encourage you to bite the bullet, and walk with that person.

Walking with a single person:

First, the mechanics. Match the person’s pace, and walk directly next to him or her at an angle perpendicular to the direction of traffic, like so:

two walkers

with directly up the page being the direction of movement.

You should be close enough to talk easily, but not so close as to violate the other’s persons space. Use the rule of forearm: walk at such a distance from your partner, that, if you stretched out your arms, your arm would encounter the other’s side somewhere between elbow and wrist.

Be mindful that merely matching the pace once is not sufficient. Pace actually changes over time, and if you’re not careful, you could end up many feet in front of or behind your partner.

Walking in groups of three is more complex. You should from an obtuse V, open in the direction of movement, like so.


three or more complex

With ‘a’ being the angle, and ‘d’ the distance.

The general equation for walk formations is

walk equation

with f^0 being the walkers’ desired speed and trajectory, f^wall being the repulsion from physical objects such as walls, lamp posts, and traffic, fij being interactions with unattached walkers, and f^group being interactions within group. So, when in doubt as to how to arrange yourself, take your best guess at the values, and position yourself accordingly. If you can’t do the math in your head, just carry a calculator; they make acceptable conversation pieces.

The goal of the formation is simply for all group members to be able to see and converse with all other group members, and converse you must. I know that sometimes, when you’re not interested in the third person, but the third person is talking, it’s tempting to pull out a book or even a mobile telephone, but don’t. It’s seen as standoffish.

When walking with a group of 4, the formation resemble more a U, with the two centrist walkers dropping back, like so:

4 walkers

Again, the direction of movement is directly up the page.

What happens in groups of five or more is unfortunately under-researched. There’s a tendency for such large groups to break into subgroups, but it’s as yet unknown how these subgroups arrange themselves in relation to each other, or how such groups are arranged in cases where they do not break into subgroups. Anecdotal observations suggest that such formations are actually wider at the front than the back, almost snow plow like in appearance, particularly when crowd density is medium to high, but this has yet to be substantiated.

Whatever the group size, never walk backward facing your conversant/conversants. It’s showboating, and everyone knows it.

Even assuming that you arrange yourself correctly, you are only halfway there. The difficult part of talking while walking is not the walking so much as the talking.

Conversing While Walking 

This is counter intuitive, but it isn’t actually needful to talk constantly in order to justify one’s presence. In fact, it’s better not to.

Viewing the problem from an egalitarian perspective, we should assume that each person will talk roughly as often as each other person. Because it’s generally considered rude to talk while someone else talking, when in a group of two, you should aim to talk only about half the time. The other half, the other person will talk.

90% of this is just basic conversational skills, just the same as if you were sitting, but there are differences. When both conversants are sitting, and have no reason to leave, the conversation may be allowed to lapse. Indeed, it’s permissible to sit next to someone without first speaking to him or her. But when you commence walking next to someone, you must open by speaking. If you begin walking next to someone you don’t know well, without speaking, this may be taken as strange or frightening.

You must balance on the narrow beam separating conversational autocracy from close range stalking.

Life on the balance beam

The rule of equal time scales. In a group of three, speak a third of the time. In a group of four, one fourth of the time. This is true only roughly; in practice, some people prefer to listen more, and some to talk more, but it’s still a good idea to make a spreadsheet to keep track of who has talked; spreadsheets make great conversation pieces. However, you can get away with not doing that if you just remember that conversation is loosely a turn based exercise, rather like a board game. If your partner is silent for a prolonged period, you can prompt him or her by saying, “it’s your turn.”

Simply proffer your comment, and await reply. How to make a comment that will get a reply is part of the more general conversational arts, and is not the subject of this piece. Don’t make jokes about race, sex, or books your partner hasn’t heard of.

There is often a very challenging moment as the conversation lulls, particularly at junctions. One’s partner asks, “where are you going?” and it’s easy to take this is as a hint that he or she is uncomfortable, and think that you should make your excuses and break off. And this may be true, but don’t assume it. It is also possible that your partner is trying to ascertain whether you are available for further social interactions, and further social interactions are, after all, the ultimate goal. Say, “I’m free right now, how about you?” and much may occur.

But don’t say that too soon. Strike prematurely, and the potential friend may escape, like a fish not given enough line. Humans are skittish, so you should habituate them to your presence by standing near them and appearing to be paying attention to something else.

Habituation is the basic strategy for successful walking and talking.



For more on walking, peruse The Definitive Guide to Ambulated Reading.


A lot of credit to Mehdi Mossaid, Niriaska Perozo, Simon Garnier, Dirk Helbing, and Guy Theraulaz for their excellent paper,  The walking behavior of pedestrian social groups and its impact on crowd dynamics.



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