Probably most of us have been in this situation when walking on the street and somebody else coming in the opposite direction, for a moment both hesitate on which side to take and doing a mini-awkward dance (a poor example in this video).

After spending some time in the UK, I noticed this happened to me way more often than it does at home. I also noticed that instinctively I always tend to lean to my right side first (in my country people drive in the right lane), while in the UK people tended to lean to their left side (in the UK people drive in the left lane).

So, when walking directly to someone coming in the opposite direction, taking the same side of the sidewalk as the lane used to drive in that country (left in places like UK, right in USA) is a social norm I'm not aware of, or is it just my imagination?

  • 2
    Only an anecdote, but I definitely find the reverse problem when I head to mainland Europe from the UK!
    – Gagravarr
    Feb 11 '15 at 14:03
  • Many visitors and new immigrants in the UK who came from right aide driving countries, this is one of reasons why its more often there.. Feb 11 '15 at 14:24
  • 1
    The trick is to stick to one direction of travel. Like this you let the other person decide how to go around you. The "dancing" begins only when both of you hesitate.
    – JoErNanO
    Feb 11 '15 at 15:24
  • Not necessarily my observation during early mornings or while people returning from work. During those times everything goes. But generally a dance happens when people are looking at their mobiles or reading something on the road.
    – DumbCoder
    Feb 11 '15 at 15:40
  • "Watching the English" by Kate Fox has a section about people bumping into each other. Great book.
    – Gayot Fow
    Feb 11 '15 at 18:11

I'm French and I've lived in England for a while.

In my experience, in France (and elsewhere on the continent) people instinctively pass on the right. When there's a corridor with people walking in both directions, on the continent, a flow naturally establishes itself with people sticking to their right most of the time. People usually overtake on the left. On escalators in the London underground, you stand on the right and overtake on the left; if there are escalators in both directions, the one on the right is the one going in your direction. I believe all of this applies to the US as well (another country that drives on the right).

In the UK, the situation isn't symmetric. Passing on the left is dominant but by no means universal. Large crowds do tend to organize themselves with a left lane going forward, but this a lot less systematic than the right-side throng in France. I think Londoners may be more prone to passing on the right than inhabitants of other parts of the country (suggesting a natural tendency to keep left partly curbed by the Underground?), but I don't really have enough data. In the London underground, there are corridors where people are requested to keep right and corridors where people are requested to keep left. On escalators in the London underground, if there are escalators in both directions, the one on the left is the one going in your direction (symmetric to the continent), however you always stand on the right and overtake on the left (like on the continent).

Other people confirm my observations:

I don't remember where and can't find a reference, but I've read that people tend to convey their intentions in a crowd (“I'm going to pass you on the left/right”, “I'm going to turn right”) through head and eye movements and other minute details of posture that are subconscious and not transcultural. This explains why tourists in a strange country tend to bump into people more than locals even if the locals don't know the place (so it isn't just a matter of knowing where you're going).


This got me when I first went to the US. I'm from NZ, and like the UK we drive on the left. I noticed after America that our escalators also tend to be on the left (ie if there are two escalators/travelators to/from a floor, the one you'll use tends to be on the left). In the US, I noticed a lot more on the right.

Initially in the US, I bumped into lots of people, doing 'the dance' like you say, and eventually got used to switching and it improved.

Then I returned home, and boom, opposite problem :(

When I went to the UK, I read Wikipedia and noticed they claimed Londoners would always stand to the right on escalators. I thought this a joke until I got there and found the social norm and semi-offical rule is certainly to do that.

In Australia, you stand on the left on escalators. Go figure.

In Japan, I was told Osaka differs from other cities for this rule.

So yes, there is a difference and sometimes it's an official 'rule' (ie the signs in London's underground saying 'stand on the right'), while as Gilles says, sometimes it's a societal thing, we self-organise based on other normalities - perhaps subconciously around doing the same as when we drive.


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