I have always been fascinated by how things move. Even as a young child I was one of those who played on the beach by building dams and waterways in the sand, watching the different gullies being etched away, detecting the ebb and flow of the tides, following the eddies in the lee of the jetties, trying to predict how it would all flow together. And sure, this is part of my greater love of water, but it has also deeply informed how I watch other things move. Especially crowds.
I don’t know exactly when I started, but by the time I was hitting puberty, I knew how crowds worked. I can predict their movement. I am easily aggravated when I know the best way to do something and the designers clearly do not. (Don’t get me started on bathroom design…) Probably the first time I remember really being aware of crowd disfunction was at a women’s conference and all of us were trying to get to the exit, and none of us were moving. Everyone was putting themselves first and so keeping anyone around them from going where they needed to go. (Is it irony that this was a Christian conference? I’m thinking so. We have so much to learn.)
Since then, I’ve watched crowds at theme parks and ball fields, traffic patterns on hi-ways and parking snafus, people who are oblivious in conferences and airports, and the thousand other places I’ve been since. I get annoyed at people who don’t understand that they shouldn’t block an entrance, but simultaneously recognize that I have been thinking about the crowd around me while the individuals in the crowd are concerned with other things. On some level I know that I am over-thinking how the crowd moves, but I also want each individual in the crowd to know the best way for the crowd itself to move. I don’t believe that is ever going to happen. I’m not even sure it should.
When I was in Tokyo my sister informed me that the cultural pedestrian right of way is passing people on the right (always take the left side of the sidewalk when facing oncoming walkers). I religiously adhered to this in the same way that I always take the right here in the United States. Sometimes I would forget, and it would cause a pause between the two of us. But, because I was a visitor in a new culture, I always corrected to fit the culture norm. I consider it one of the most important things about travel, observing and respecting the culture of those with whom you walk, both metaphorically and literally. Don’t walk into people seems like something that shouldn’t have to be said, but I am constantly surprised of the number of times this feels like a relevant reminder.
When I watch crowds, it is always a dynamic observation. I know how to interpret these people in each individual place, and each group can move slightly differently depending on whether they are hungry, scared, joyful, tired, friendly, cautious, or anxious. Interpreting on the move can have advantages, but it also means that sometimes I leave people behind. I’m learning how not to leave people behind, but instead lead those with me so that we all get to the same place at the same time, together. It’s taken me over thirty years, but I have learned that getting somewhere together, with your people with you, is more important than getting there first. It is all about learning how to navigate the crowd.