NYC and politeness

The NY Times online edition was redesigned a couple of weeks ago. On the whole, the redesign is effective, in my opinion. I’ve begun to read the online edition with more care, because the site is now more inviting and easier to navigate. I have become — ta-da — more engaged with the paper’s online edition. And so, I’ve decided to add my voice to the legion of those who blog about the NYTimes.com. Thus this blog, and below, my first post.

New Yorkers and Politeness: A brief tutorial for non-New Yorkers

Now, it may be news to you, but NYC is one of the most polite cities in the world. We even have politeness laws. This is the subject of discussion in a New York Times local color article today, called “New York Leads Politeness Trend? Get Outta Here!”.

Some of these politeness laws have existed for decades. And some are newer, having been recently passed to deal with things like the deliberately rude style of the hip-hop generation.

New Yorkers take pride in being helpful and polite. We rely, for the most part, on unwritten rules to promite civility in New York City. Strangely, many outsiders don’t see us as being polite. Real politeness comes from emotional and social openness — having a real caring for others’ well-being. New Yorkers have these qualities in abundance, but we’re not blatant in expressing them. Maybe that’s why people like to think of us as impolite.

Yet once you’re aware of some of our unwritten politeness rules, the picture will be entirely different for you. You’ll see the polite, caring nature of the typical New Yorker for what it is. Here’s a brief tutorial on two of our most important unwritten rules, for those of you who are not New Yorkers.

Lack of emotional openness in NYC? Not so! Our eye-contact rules prove otherwise!

The reason we’re not blantant in our emotional openness here in New York City is: NYC streets are very crowded, and we consider it very polite to stay out of others’ lives unless we’re invited. It’s even considered correct street etiquette to not look into others’ eyes. That means not at all — unless there’s an emergency of some kind (this is explained below).

The basis for our eye-contact rules is to give everyone a sense of emotional safety in public places. Yes, New Yorkers really care about you that much. Here are the basics of our eye-contact rules:

  • No eye contact of any kind is allowed — unless the city has been attacked, there’s been a power loss, or we’re in the first two or three days of transit strike.
  • If a New Yorker should happen to make eye contact with someone else accidentally, we’ll use two specific techniques to defuse the situation:
    • We’ll de-focus our own eyes immediately.
    • Then, we’ll shift our gaze minusculely.

These two defusing techniques are quite effective at making you question that we’d ever caught your eyes in the first place. This renders our momentary faux-pas almost invisible — as you should be to us, and we to you.

We use variations of the basic eye-contact rules to communicate with you, the visitor, non-verbally.

  • Here’s how we signify disapproval: (Imagine you’re the strange party.) We’ll engage your eyes for a moment, hold your gaze pointedly for two seconds or so, then drop our eyes, without a smile.
  • Now, when we want to signifiy approval, we’ll do the same, but this time we do it with a smile.
  • And when we want to signify to you that we think you’re really the best, we’ll start with the basic approval technique, and add to it, like this: We’ll continue to hold your gaze and smile until we’ve passed you by.

When you visit our fair city, if you feel ignored, take heart! Either you’re doing just fine as a human being (from our point of view), and so we’re ignoring you — or you’re completely hopeless (from our point of view) and you’ve been placed under the protection of a sensitive and merciful fog of anonymity, and so we’re ignoring you. Either way, when you’re invisible to us, you are one of us.

Socially unopen in NYC? Well, yes, but there are reasons…
and we New Yorkers are socially caring — our LSOTRC tourist pack rule will prove it!

The reason we’re not socially open is we’re from all parts of the world here in NYC, and we’re all strangers to each other. Why rock an already shaky boat with presumptions of friendship right off the bat? Yet New Yorkers really care about everyone, you included. A good example of how much we care about you. is how we New Yorkers handle the ubiquitous LSOTRC tourist packs that block our sidewalks.

To understand how we determine if we should apply the LSOTRC tourist pack rule, you’ll need to know the secret of how the New Yorker identifies someone as a tourist. There are two reliable methods:

  • Head alignment
    • New Yorkers look ahead or down (the better to avoid cracked pavement, potholes, gum and dog poop — the latter two requiring real alertness on hot days).
    • Tourists look up (the better to see the tops of all the skyscrapers).
  • Group size
    • New Yorkers walk along the sidewalk pavements singly, or in groups of twos or threes at the most.
    • Tourists move in packs.

Now when it comes to tourists in packs, tourists who come from countries that drive on the left side of the roads are a very special case. Not only do they move in packs, they also walk on the wrong side of our sidewalks.

The New Yorker has a polite, caring, and effective rule, with special techniques used to deal with packs of left-side-of-the-roads-country (LSOTRC) tourists who are either stopped and looking up, or walking and looking up, and who are, one way or another, blocking the wrong side of the sidewalk.

The rule is designed to help keep NYC sidewalks clear for other pedestrians. The rule’s techniques are designed to teach outsiders a standard NYC “streets and sidewalks” rule. The whole thing only takes a few seconds to do, and is always very considerate of the tourist pack members’ feelings and intelligence. Here’s how it works:

  • The New Yorker will first stop, and hold his or her ground until noticed by the pack of LSOTRC tourists, despite the slight risk this poses to the New Yorker for being pushed out of the way, or getting knocked down.
  • Once noticed, the New Yorker will engage the eyes of someone in the tourist pack, arch his or her eyebrows just a little, smile slightly (grimace-style smiles work best), then pointedly move aside, sometimes with a graceful bow-like flourish, so the tourists can continue on their way.
  • The New Yorker will then look over his or her shoulder, to stare sideways at the pack as it continues on its pavement-blocking way.
  • Now comes the real social connection, and the ignition point of the communication of an unwritten New York City rule and tradition: The smartest person in the LSOTRC pack will sense this post-encounter stare, and will look back over his or her shoulder, and catch the New Yorker’s eyes.
  • The New Yorker will then raise his or her eyebrows again, and smile at the smart tourist in a between-you-and-me sort of way.
  • At that point, the smart tourist will turn, and nudge the rest of the LSOTRC pack over to the correct side of the pavement.

For the New Yorker, this is mission accomplished — a NYC point of etiquette passed on in 5 seconds, to some who may themselves become New Yorkers in the future.

Younger New Yorkers are changing the techniques for this rule to suit their generation and work districts. My son works in a heavily tourist-infested area of Manhattan. When he encounters a LSOTRC tourist pack sidewalk blockage, he’ll choose between these two techniques — whichever seems most convenient and effective at the moment:

  • He plows right through them.
  • He takes to the street, to get around them.

My son’s generation, caught in a competitive squeeze, has less time to exercise the courtliness of older techniques. But notice the persistance of politeness even in the newer techniques. There is no pushing aside of tourists, no knocking them down, and certainly no shouting at them, in these newer methods of handling LSOTRC packs.

Note: The above tutorial on NYC politeness and sidewalk etiquette was written tongue in cheek — but only slightly so! This is pretty much the way it really works.

About Gray’s and their Polite New Yorker buttons

Apropos of another item in the “New York Leads Politeness Trend? Get Outta Here!” article, I actually have a Gray’s Papaya “Polite New Yorker” button stashed away somewhere.

In my experience, Gray’s employees usually leave the buttons off their uniforms. On those days when they wear them, the Gray’s counter guys all seem to be wearing slightly sardonic, glazed-eyed expressions along with the buttons. I like to imagine that the buttons and glazey eyes are because they’ve recently had a visit from management.

The Gray’s counter guys are exuberant when I give them a $2.25 tip (the change from a $5 bill for a $2.75 hot dog and drink purchase), which the two to five counter guys split between them — tips are not usually left for the workers at Gray’s stands. Draw your own conclusions.

By the way, Gray’s hot dogs are good, rich and salty. The papaya drink helps you digest the hot dog. Gray’s is a business in the real New York tradition: Affordable food that tastes good, and is cooked and served by people happy for a very small tip. As a cash business, it poses a particular temptation that’s also a long-standing New York tradition. I’m completely certain that the owners of Gray’s resist this traditional temptation with an uprightness that lends dignity to the term “New York City business”.

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