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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Micro-Sociology of Swimmer's Etiquette

I went swimming today.  Usually, this is a way to relax.  But, sometimes it also becomes an added source of stress.

Here's why.  Today, I hopped into the "fast lane" and quickly realized that I was swimming faster than other people in my lane.  This is fine and something that I encounter regularly during recreational swimming hours.  It's also something that's easy to manage if people have a shared understanding of "swimmer's etiquette."

Swimming can flow, if everyone understands etiquette
Like any activity, swimming is one where conflicts can be avoided if people have a shared sense for how to act under different circumstances.  The sociologist Howard Becker writes about this in his work on jazz improvisation.  He writes that group jazz improvisation is only possible when people have a loose set of ideas about how they should do this together.  In many ensembles, players loosely agree that the most senior players get to dictate the flow of a group.  They are given this luxury by virtue of their status.  As such, it's considered locally rude or inconsiderate if a more junior player doesn't follow their lead in a jam session.  I've used a lot of his insights in my research on how emcees freestyle with each other, but think that the same ideas apply to swimming as well.

In my experience, most swimming conflicts emerge around how someone should pass another person. Typically, if you want to pass someone, you should lightly tap them on the foot.  This initiates the pass.  It's a signal that you are on a person's tail and that you want to get around them.  After you do the "foot tap," the person being tapped should make room for you to pass safely.  They can do this in a number of ways.  Here are four of the most common (please feel free to comment on others!):

1) They scoot closer to the lane line, giving you room to pass down the middle of the lane.
2) They scoot into the middle of the lane, giving you room to pass closer to the lane line.
3) They keep swimming until they get to the wall and then wait, letting you push off in front of them.
4)  They dive down to the bottom of the pool, allowing you to pass over them.

Unfortunately, today I jumped into a lane where other swimmers didn't seem to understand these unspoken rules.  Part of me wonders if this is another cultural difference between the US and Canada? I've swum competitively and recreationally in various contexts (e.g. club, high school, NCAA) and most people seem to have a basic sense of what a "foot tap" means while swimming.

But, people swimming at the pool today didn't seem to have this background knowledge.  In fact, people were very upset that I was swimming up behind them, tapping their feet, and trying to swim around them.  One of the people I was trying to pass would ignore my foot taps.  He would swim into the wall, do an open turn, and then push off diagonally, nearly colliding with me.  This was really annoying.  He did this about 3-4 times until I finally grabbed his calf and pulled him back, swimming by him.
A young Howard Becker in a jazz club

And then, there was a woman who got upset that I kept tapping her feet.  I would decelerate, tap her feet and wait for her to respond.  But, instead of doing one of the above actions, she started kicking her feet aggressively in my face.  I almost got kicked in the jaw once and opted to swim "heads up water polo freestyle" until I found an opening where I could safely pass her.

She then complained to the staff, who said that I should be waiting for a safe moment to pass.  When I explained what I was doing, the staff would say that I just needed to swim slower.  Really?  Since when is it the responsibility of the faster person to "swim slower?"  Why aren't passing dilemmas the shared responsibility of everyone in the lane?

This is a really frustrating thing about swimming in recreational hours.  Lifeguards will quickly tell a swimmer to move over into the "fast lane" if they are going much faster than people in the "slow" or "medium" lanes.  But, I've never seen lifeguards come and ask slower swimmers to move into the "medium" or "slow" lanes.  Is this because people are worried that they might hurt someone's feelings?  Is it because they don't understand "swimmer's etiquette?"

Anyways, this has been a little rant about swimmer's etiquette.  I would love it if more pools (especially here at the University of Toronto) would create infographics and other reminders that create a shared "swimmer's etiquette."  Not only does this potentially circumvent conflicts in the pool, it is also much safer for everyone.  


  1. Jooyoung, this post is very timely, as I've been swimming a lot in the last few months. I also swam competitively for years, and I can quickly spot other former swim clubbers when I am choosing my lane and getting in the pool. The problem (IMO) is that most swimmers in rec hours never swam in an organized "team" environment, and therefore never experienced the social interaction necessary to develop a shared sense of how to act. They get in the pool to do their workout as an individual. So instead of reading a foot tap as a signal to initiate a pass, they read it as an interruption of their workout. I don't think that this is a Canada vs. US issue, as I will regularly tap on the feet of people that I read as swim clubbers to pass them, and they understand quickly what I am getting at. But I don't even bother with people who are not; especially in the "double-wide" lanes that are so prevalent these days, I just pass up the middle.

    I’ve spent some time in the water recently thinking about how people determine which lane they belong in. I think this is partly because I swim at two different pools – at one, I am the fastest person in the pool (I’m not actually that fast, I am just lucky enough to be able to swim at a community pool in the middle of the day). At the other, I am in the medium fast lane, maybe in the fast lane depending on who shows up. I try to be responsible, and decide on which lane to swim in depending on the swimmers in the pool when I arrive. But I have realized that many people do not do this. I struck up a conversation in the locker room recently with a woman who I swam with several times now. She likes to swim very slowly in the fast lane – she gets in, starts swimming, and doesn’t stop for a break for 30 minutes. She doesn’t seem to care who is in the lane, how much faster they are, or that she is impeding everyone else. So, I swim around her quite regularly. And she said to me that she doesn’t like swimming in the medium lane because “people there stop and rest and chat, and she is there to swim hard”, and that while she realizes she is slower than some of the rest of us, she swims in the fast lane because she is “serious about her swimming”. As she was saying this to me, I struggled to think of a way to communicate “swimmer’s etiquette” to her, but I couldn’t find a way to get it across.

  2. Sorry for the novel! I didn't realize I had a rant of my own there til I hit publish...

    1. hehe...fortunately, I don't encounter too many folks who just swim slowly without stopping...I usually go at a time when there are other swimmers who know "swimmer's etiquette." Many are masters swimmers...Anyways, this is a tricky thing and I've often wondered why conflicts erupt in the pool, but rarely in other kinds of exercise facilities?