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Rules of Etiquette for Mallwalking

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Mallwalking Etiquette
A primer for exercise protocol at the mall

 A personal essay by Paul H. Belz

 
The sedentary regimen of graduate studies at The Johns Hopkins University was the primary culprit in my thirty pound weight gain over a three year period. When the trend–line continued inexorably upward I groped for an epiphany and a strategy to reverse the trend and make the mirror a less formidable household utility.

The epiphany was provided by Oprah Winfrey’s televised weight reduction struggles and her subsequent completion of the New York Marathon in conjunction with my realization that, barring reform, a new wardrobe would soon be an inescapable necessity.

The strategy evolved through trial and error. A computer program provided the nutrient monitoring, discipline, and diet control.

Exercise was a much more problematic matter. To be effective, diet and exercise changes must be lifelong commitments. The problem with exercise is to find one that is rationalization–proof.

Health clubs are expensive, crowded at convenient times, often outdated, and frequently unsanitary. Tennis, golf, basketball, bicycling, and running frequently result in injuries and those outdoor activities offer leg problems, bad weather, traffic hazards, boredom, and dog bites as disincentives. Gardening is seasonal in Maryland and non-aerobic unless the regimen includes chasing deer. My choice was mallwalking.

Walking at my huge regional mall is an exercise that’s convenient (a five minute drive or a fifteen minute walk), accessible (7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day), safe, free, and injury resistant. The mall is climate controlled, pervaded with “popular” music, patrolled by security, and possessed of clean restrooms in the morning.

Each of the mall’s four floors is roughly a one–quarter mile round trip, the same distance as a boredom-inducing outdoor high school track. The periodically changing store fronts provide a more interesting view than never–changing neighborhood scenes. There are no hills to exhaust you and no heaving slabs of concrete to trip you. I’ve yet to be chased by a dog, stung by a bee, or bitten by a mosquito. There is one danger. Coffee outlets permeate the mall with pastry smells, singing an ever–present siren song luring victims’ diets to their deaths.

Mallwalking is an exercise I have not been able to rationalize away in eight years and my weight is now back to that of my college days. I walk seven days a week and have missed only a handful of days when either the mall was closed or alternative exercise such as leaf raking made a walk superfluous.

As with most human endeavors, however, just when you believe you’re approaching nirvana, a glitch rears its ugly head. It’s a people-related psychological glitch. There is simply no “hello” protocol for mallwalkers.

The dilemma is simple. Since the object of the exercise endeavor is weight control and good health at minimal time and dollar loss, it’s important to maintain a keen focus on those goals.

Medical experts recommend reaching a target heart rate and sustaining it for the exercise period. The friendlier your personality, however, the more likely it is that the routine will evolve from an aerobic outing to a stop–and–go social hour.

Once you become recognized as an early-morning mallwalking regular who’s gregarious, there will be other walkers, security and custodial personnel, and store clerks awaiting their key-bearing managers who may ambush you for chats.

Mall personnel won’t walk along with you, so your health–enhancing, elevated heart rate is not sustained while you’re discussing the weighty issues of the day with them.

Many regular walkers will make friendly overtures but most will not walk at your preferred or health–optimizing pace, forcing you to either slow down or accelerate in order to converse with them.

With slow walkers, the alternative is to risk being brusque with these perfectly amiable people or lose the goal of a target heart rate, prolong the workout, and, possibly be late for work. With the speediest walkers you risk injury if you over–stride in an effort to keep pace.

If you keep your distance from mall society, ultimately it will be interpreted as aloofness or snobbery. If you are gregarious such a development will be discomfiting.

Regular walkers who don’t arrive at the mall with companions in tow often execute a trial-by-error winnowing process to find walking partners with compatible pace and tolerable conversational skills. This is where feelings get hurt and psychological “icebergs” start drifting through the mall promenades.

Consequently, you need to begin mallwalking with a “hello” strategy firmly in hand with the resolve to ruthlessly adhere to it. Let’s examine some of the possibilities and explore some of the hurdles to overcome.

It would be unrealistic to attempt to greet everyone you pass at the mall during early morning mallwalking. At that hour a big regional mall will have hundreds of pedestrians, as workers, shoppers–in–waiting, and exercisers begin their days. An excessively friendly greeting regimen is guaranteed to initiate conversations that impede your workout. No one in my experience has taken this approach and endured as a mallwalker.

Conversely, if you were to pass the same people every day for a year without greeting them, this would understandably be construed as anti–social behavior. Some in my observations have taken this approach and it probably is the simplest and most effective way to ensure maximum workout benefits. I can visualize the epithets on such persons’ tombstones however; “he died in great shape, but no one gave a damn!”

What needs examining are the gray areas inherent in the “hello” issue. Who should get a “hello” from me and who should be left undisturbed? Let’s examine a typical scenario when someone begins the mallwalking experience and wishes to strike a balance between friendliness and the unforgiving necessity for a brisk workout without interruption.

At some point when a new walker appears on the mall scene, it becomes clear that he or she will become a regular. No one that I have observed greets every newcomer immediately.

There is no mallwalkers’ welcome wagon as in new suburban housing developments of 1960s vintage. But as days go by, at some point in the morning repetitions you sense that obliviousness to the newcomer’s presence is no longer appropriate and you begin to wrestle with the decision “should I take the initiative or let the newcomer?” How soon this happens depends on how outgoing your own personality is, but happen it will.

Since there is no published mall protocol on exchanging greetings, I have broken the issue into ten areas of consideration which should ameliorate the angst considerably for the novice mallwalker.

(1) How many daily sightings does it take before one determines a new person is a regular and warrants a “hello.” Should it be based on frequency of sightings? Assuming the individual is receptive to greetings my personal preference is to say hello after five or six sightings. This insulates you from characterizations as aggressive and officious or standoffish and cold.

(2) What is the role body language should play in the greeting decision? I believe this is very important. Today it is considered unsafe for a solitary woman to be drawn into a conversation with a lone man with whom she’s unacquainted. Consequently, the body language of some lone women walkers virtually screams “leave me alone or I’ll wreak mayhem on you!” Nevertheless, a smile, and eye contact are sure signs that a friendly greeting will probably be returned in kind. A person looking at the floor or veering sharply away from you will probably be annoyed by an unwanted “hello” so my advice is don’t press your luck with them.

(3) Should you greet mall personnel? Security and custodial personnel are often not closely supervised and will stop and chat for half an hour with little provocation.

None of them will walk with you, so a chat means your aerobic workout must begin again at square one. This easily becomes a habit and will destroy your morning schedule. Unless time is of no consequence, it is best to restrict your greetings to a simple “hello” and avoid conversations with mall employees. The downside of this is that they provide the most interesting gossip about this environment you’re spending time in each day.

(4) How do you treat the annoying sporadic greeter or the obsessive/compulsive appointment setter? One day a sporadic greeter will treat you like a long lost friend and the next day he or she will totally ignore you. Assuming I haven’t done or said anything stupid to aggravate them, I will persist with greetings until ignored three or four times. At that point I curtail friendly overtures and leave the initiative in their hands.

Dealing with the obsessive-compulsive appointment setter is easy. In a culture where lives are driven by schedules and a sea of trivial minutia, my mantra for recreation has become “SPONTANEITY AND SERENDIPITY.” If a walker suggests meeting me every day at 7:30 a.m., my reply is that “my work schedule simply precludes any such commitment.”

(5) How do you greet a regular group? Some people assume that any group walking at the mall is not discussing brain surgery so therefore they have no qualms about interrupting the group to greet or join them.

My personality dictates that I assume two or three people are having a private conversation unless one of them issues a courtesy invitation. On most mall promenades, four people together form a rolling roadblock. I don’t join groups of more than two because maintaining a brisk walking pace, avoiding obstacles, and enjoying a conversation becomes a collision hazard and an annoyance to passers–by. I will usually give a wave and a hello to such groups that pass me regularly.

(6) How to greet a lone woman or a lone man. The lone woman should wait for perhaps a month before taking the initiative in greeting a lone man. That gives her enough time to observe him interacting with others and to ascertain that he is not a homicidal maniac.

The lone man should take his cue from the woman’s body language and eye contact. If she wants no part of a morning greeting, don’t risk being banned from the mall for harassing women. If lone walkers seem outgoing and receptive and interact with others, I will greet them as soon as it becomes obvious they are going to be walking regularly.

A variation on this theme is the “wrong-way women.” Roughly 98% of mallwalkers walk counterclockwise. A woman wishing to be left alone can best avoid eye contact and greetings by walking with the flow of traffic.

Some women and fewer men seem to walk clockwise on a regular basis, in the tradition of British racetracks. This means that twice each lap a single woman will pass a single man face to face and in close proximity. This is often a transparent pick-up strategy and my advice is to respond in kind to the cues if you’re unattached and feeling adventurous.

(7) How to deal with the court-holder. As with any other social gathering, I suspect most malls have at least one court-holder and my mall is no exception. The court-holder is usually a prominent local citizen who likes to be the center of attention and zooms along at a breakneck pace. As he walks along, people join him, chat for a while, drop by the wayside and are replaced by others.

I’m a Civil War buff and each day when the court-holder passes me I get this vision of soldiers at Antietam marching at the double-quick. As soldiers were shot and lines were broken, reserves quickly filled the gaps. I try to walk a different floor than the court–holder but when he is occasionally left alone, he compulsively seeks someone out and invariably finds me.

I then genuinely enjoy his company for a few laps. I would never seek him, however, and would never attempt to join his “posse.”

(8) How to deal with the elderly. The same elderly folks show up like clockwork every morning. They claim proprietary rights to certain benches close to the first floor restaurant which serves the cheapest breakfast in town.

As the time prior to the restaurant opening reaches fifteen minutes and counting, they shuffle to the entrance gate and position themselves so that they can claim their regular booths inside.

I suspect these booths and the mall benches will be bequeathed to friends or relatives, much as old Baltimore Colts football tickets were.

I always have a smile and a hello for these regulars but only stop to chat when I have a lot of time on my hands. I am a good listener and lonely elderly folks need nothing in life more than to get their clutches on a good listener.

(9) How to treat the walker who will talk your ear off if you so much as smile at him or her and who unfortunately walks at a snail’s pace. The preponderance of this category is the elderly, infirm, and seriously overweight.

The considerate ones will chat for a minute and take the initiative to encourage you to walk ahead. The lonely ones will destroy your workout and devour your morning. This is one situation where you must steel yourself to hurt someone’s feelings if necessary.

The key for me is to be friendly, say hello, but DON’T SLOW DOWN. Once you slow down you are a lamb poised for slaughter.

(10) How to treat the person who assumes that if you’re walking alone you must be lonely and would love nothing more than his or her company? In reality I enjoy walking alone as much as with others, so often I opt to daydream and stroll solo.

Unfortunately, I have no way of advertising that desire. Some walkers have the discipline to bluntly say to unwanted companions: “I’d like to walk alone today, but I’d love to join you another time.” I tend to take the cowardly approach when I want to be alone.

Once I’ve identified the individuals on a mission to cure my perceived loneliness, I will move to another floor to avoid them rather than risk hurting their feelings.

One might reasonably ask what difference any of these whimsical strategies could possibly make?

My rejoinder is that you will continue to pass all of these people if you persist in mallwalking.

Inappropriate protocol means that you will either be compromising your friendly personality or your exercise program. Ignoring regular passers-by will create an “iceberg” environment rather than a “Bermuda high” for the psychic part of your walking experience. Being too friendly will lead to the demise of yet one more exercise strategy.

While this entire issue is ludicrous in the cosmic scheme of things—or to anyone who’s not a mallwalker—a happy life is constructed by the accumulation of small, pleasant, quality of life events more so than by the major milestones of life. A stress-free and consistent exercise hour is one such quality of life event.

Interacting to a reasonable extent with mallwalkers as opposed to taking the cocoon approach is also a great way to screen for new friends because as Plato said, “you can learn more about someone in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

Since protocol and civil behavior on the highways and society in general seem to be dissolving, it may be too much to ask that it be better at the mall. But rather than despair I try to heed the advice of Eleanor Roosevelt and “light one small candle instead of cursing the darkness.”

I make a conscious effort to be as friendly as possible while still maintaining the discipline of my morning workout.

This has made the exercise routine a pleasant one for me and one which I have not been able to rationalize away.

Each mallwalker will ultimately be true to his or her personality but a little “hello” protocol can help make a morning ritual a lifelong pleasure.