New York TimesWednesday, September 20, 2023OPINION
No, I Don’t Want to Go for a Walk With You
Opinion Columnist and co-host of the “Matter of Opinion” podcast
A new form of social tyranny has broken out. Opposition to it seems churlish and unsporting. Refusal risks offense. Other than actual or feigned injury, or bad weather, there is truly no escape.
I am speaking of the invitation that seems to arrive with ever increasing frequency from acquaintances, new friends and colleagues: Do you want to take a walk with me?
My answer is, in almost every case, no. I would not like to take a walk with you.
Don’t get me wrong. I love walking. I am a New Yorker, so I walk every day, several times a day. With my dogs in the park first thing in the morning. To the supermarket or the subway. And I am hardly a misanthrope. I love a coffee date or meeting for lunch. I’ll happily do drinks, soft or hard, depending on the mood and the hour. Or meet for a chat on a park bench.
But what began as a pandemic necessity has continued in a world where, despite a spike in Covid cases, normal life has come raging back.
This summer, people forked over wads of cash that could buy you a pretty decent used car to be wedged in close, screaming at the top of their lungs, at a Beyoncé concert or watching Coco Gauff pummel her way to her first Grand Slam title in the U.S. Open. These are ideal as shared activities. (For the record, I sadly didn’t score tickets to either of these extravaganzas.) Walking is another story.
I had a classic Generation X childhood that hovered just on the edge between free range and outright neglect. This meant I was expected, from quite a young age, to make myself scarce from home and find my own entertainment. My family moved around a lot; I was a bookish and awkward kid, more comfortable with adults than with people my own age. I spent a lot of time alone. I walked and walked and walked.
This was the 1980s, long before we could carry thousands of digitized songs in our pockets, and podcasts, of course, did not exist. Lacking a Walkman, I had nothing but my own thoughts to keep me company on these rambles, and my young, plastic mind formed indelible grooves and associations. Like most humans, I am a terrible multitasker. Invite me on a walk and I will struggle to keep up my end of the conversation because my brain cannot unlearn that walking time is thinking time, my mind wandering as widely and aimlessly as my feet.This became a problem for me even before the pandemic. It was the early 2010s: Sitting (once a comfort I associated with the pleasure of reading) was suddenly considered as bad as smoking (once a pleasure I associated with … pleasure). Walking, or “getting your steps in,” would lower cholesterol, forestall diabetes, improve your memory.
This news came in the wake of a big tech boom. The innovation gurus of Silicon Valley were coming up with wild new ideas that transformed our economy, powered by new ways of working — open office plans that supposedly encouraged collaboration, playful workplace amenities like Ping-Pong tables. And of course, walks. Steve Jobs set the blueprint: He loved a walking meeting, and his endless imitators adopted the habit.
I tried mightily to get onboard with this trend, especially in the years I spent as a media executive working in tech companies. But I never got the hang of the walk and talk. Years of training my mind to pay attention while still and wander while wandering proved impossible to dislodge.
Even passive listening kills the vibe. Gripped by the mania for optimization, I used to try to fill my walking time with podcasts and audiobooks. But over time I find that I do less and less of that, in no small part because I often struggle to pay attention to what I’m listening to.
I really do appreciate the arguments in favor of walking and talking. Walking is good for you. Some people find it easier to talk to someone while engaged in another activity. This is apparently especially true for boys and men (my theory is that’s because men have been socialized to feel uncomfortable making one-on-one eye contact with one another).
A walk is a way to meet someone without consuming things (coffee, alcohol and food being the most popular choices) and without creating the obligation to provide hospitality in your home. I have a special exception to my general rule for parents of young children, for whom a walk while pushing a slumbering infant in a stroller is a rare chance to connect with a grown-up. And of course a spontaneous walk with a close friend — someone with whom you have a genuine, intimate relationship — can be a joy.
And yet. Taking a walk with someone you don’t know that well feels, to me at least, a bit like a forced march into intimacy, or an unwanted conscription of a treasured morsel of leisure into our obsession with productivity and self-improvement.
Even the arguments for the creative benefits of walking can fall into this trap. Fans of walks love to point out that Virginia Woolf dreamed up “To the Lighthouse” on a walk around Tavistock Square. Insomniac walks through London powered Dickens’s novels. Bathtubs and apple trees get all the attention, but many more scientists have had their eureka moments while on long, solitary ambles. Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote that “only those thoughts that come by walking have any value.”
Sure. But the magic lies not in the end result but in the activity itself.
In her book “Wanderlust,” Rebecca Solnit captures solitary ambling perfectly: “Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them.”
The writer Teju Cole often gets invited to take walks, because his luminous novel, “Open City,” is filled with looping, interminable walks. But he usually demurs.
“Really, what I love more than walking itself is getting lost,” he said in an email. “And getting lost with someone else in tow is difficult. This might be why my favorite walks have been in solitude and in cities with which I am unfamiliar. One evening a few years ago, in the throes of jet lag, I set out from my Paris hotel without a map and without a phone, and I simply walked, for almost four hours. It remains my most memorable experience of that city.”
But even in your hometown, solitude rules. Or so Colson Whitehead, novelist and indefatigable New York walker, said of his peregrinations.
“Walking in New York is very much a solo pursuit for me,” he told me. “But I never feel alone because I have company — I’m walking with, not through, the City.”
Walking is a rare moment in our modern life where you can just let your mind wander. Aimless walking is a lost art in our ever-optimizing society. So let’s meet for coffee. I’m sure I’ll come up with lots of fun things to talk about on the walk over.