Sunday, April 12, 2015

175. Are New Yorkers Rude? Plus a Note on Hoosiers


     “With all the opulence and splendor of this city, there is very little good breeding to be found…. They talk very loud, very fast and altogether.  If they ask you a question, before you can utter three words of your answer they will break in upon you again and talk away.”  So wrote John Adams, a Massachusetts man, in his diary for August 23, 1774, on the eve of the Revolution.  He was writing about New York and New Yorkers.

     And Thomas Jefferson, a Virginia gentleman suspicious of big cities and of New York in particular, called the city “the cloacina of all the depravities of human nature.”  (“Cloacina” was an old word for cesspool.)

     The Founding Fathers got to know the city well, since it served as the first national capital from 1785 until 1790, at which time the capital was moved temporarily to Philadelphia, pending the construction of a new capital on the banks of the Potomac.  But the Founders don’t seem to have loved New York or New Yorkers, which shows that the city and its residents had an image problem right from the start.

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Crowds, traffic, and congestion.  Is there room for courtesy? 
     That was then; how about today?  One would like to think that New Yorkers are a courteous and welcoming lot, since over 56 million people visited the city in 2014, adding a record $61 billion to the economy.  But New Yorkers are still said to be arrogant, brusque, and rude.  This I can understand, remembering my own first experience of the city and seeing  hordes of people pacing briskly on the sidewalks and jamming into the subway system, with its confusing maze of corridors and stairs and platforms, and the constant comings and goings of crowded, screeching trains.  And it didn’t enhance the city’s image when I took a taxi to the docks and, on arriving at my destination, heard the cabbie exclaim, with a slick look on his face, “Oh, I forgot to turn on my meter!  Well, let’s say the fare is five dollars.”  Young and green as I was, I knew I was being taken, so I gave him the five minus a tip.

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Riding the subway isn't exactly fun.
Pacific Coast Highway
     If one looks online at posts on the subject of New Yorkers and their perceived rudeness today, what does one find?  Here are some answers to the question “Why are New Yorkers stereotyped as rude or mean?”

1.    A fourth-generation New Yorker who knows all the boroughs finds most New Yorkers to be polite, helpful, and respectful.  Where does this dumb stereotype about New Yorkers being rude and mean come from?  It would be hard to find first responders (like the writer’s father, who still has health problems from 9/11), risking their lives on 9/11 and after Hurricane Sandy, elsewhere in the country.

2.    New Yorkers tend to be direct and to the point, which is perceived as rudeness in some parts of the country.  But the city also attracts ruthlessly ambitious people who can indeed be rude and mean.

3.    Most New Yorkers are nice and often surprisingly generous.  In the writer’s hometown you can’t get anyone to do anything for you unless you pay them first.

4.    New Yorkers can be rude.  When the writer gets coffee, people shout out “Small coffee, three sugars!” and they don’t say “please.”  This seeming rudeness occurs because there’s a long line to get coffee and people are in a hurry.  New Yorkers are rude, but it comes with the territory.

5.    When we New Yorkers order a sandwich at a deli, the polite thing is to order it fast and not make other people wait; no time for “May I please…”  But we do say “thank you,” because that doesn’t make anyone wait.  We’re not savages.

These are the voices of New Yorkers, whether born here or not, and therefore may be considered self-interested.  But the points they make are valid.  What’s rude in other places isn’t necessarily rude in New York, where getting to the point quickly often shows consideration for others.

     There are interesting comments online about New Yorkers’ directness vs. Southern or Midwestern politeness.  For instance (I’ll paraphrase):

·      I just moved from New York to Minnesota, whose residents have a reputation for being nice without being friendly, cheerful but bland, passive aggressive, and often not saying what they mean.  It’s weird.
·      I grew up in the South and have never lived in New York, but I’ve never thought New Yorkers rude.  I appreciate straight-talking New Yorkers more than the beat-around-the-bush niceties that you find in the South, where “hello” often means “fuck you.”
·      I’ve been living in Texas for ten years and I know, I know, I know that when my partner’s mom acts real sweet and friendly to your face and then complains about you behind your back, it’s because that’s what’s taught as politeness down here.  You aren’t ever supposed to forgo the “Southern hospitality” thing, especially if you’re a woman, so all the value is placed upon “making nice” in public.  But I was raised in a different culture where being blunt and to-the-point is valued.

     Another blogger asks visitors not to make fun of “our ‘New Yawka’” accent, and cites as an example “Ahright yous guys, let’s get outa hea’.”  Yes, there is a New York accent (I remember the amusement of my suburban Midwestern neighbors at a visiting New Yorker’s saying “commoicial”), but my Manhattan friends are all middle-class professionals or artists from elsewhere and don’t have a trace of that accent.  As for “Fuhgeddaboudit!” – a legendary saying attributed to natives of Brooklyn --  I’ve never actually heard it, but it does sum up the New York attitude perfectly in conveying “no way” or “impossible”: “The Democratic convention in Brooklyn?  Fuhgeddaboudit!”

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Here is the official spelling.
Daniel Schwen
     But how about the views of out-of-towners?  A poll conducted by Business Insider, a business news website based in New York City, interviewed 1600 Americans in 2013 and discovered these interesting facts:

·      Americans do indeed think New Yorkers are rude and arrogant, but also think New Yorkers serve the best food. 
·      The residents of Georgia and Minnesota are deemed the nicest.
·      Alaska has the worst food.
·      Colorado has the most beautiful scenery.
·      Texas should be kicked out of the United States.

     New Yorkers can be too critical of themselves.  Here are some items from a 2012 blog, apparently by a resident New Yorker, listing 55 of the rudest things New Yorkers do:

1.    Claim that you are poor when you make $700,000 a year.
2.    Drink the milk directly out of the container.
3.    Act like elderly people don’t have a right to exist in this city.
4.    Cheat.
5.    Cut the wallet out of drunk people’s pockets when they pass out while riding the subway.
6.    Chuckle, even inaudibly, when the subway door slams in the face of that loser.
7.    Think that you are better than other people because you are a New Yorker.
8.    Claim that New Yorkers are rude.

What world is this blogger living in?  I either haven’t observed any of these behaviors (#1, 3, 5, 6), or consider them too universal to blame on New Yorkers (#2, 4).  I might agree with #7, but suggest that residents of many cities, big and small, are inclined to do this.  As for #8, some of us do, rightly or wrongly, claim this, but isn’t that more honest than rude?

     Here, for the sake of visitors to the city, are three things that New Yorkers feel they have an inalienable right to do:

1.    Boast.  (About New York, of course.)
2.    Complain.  (About New York, of course.)
3.    Jaywalk.  (Which is why they get fined when visiting other, more compliant communities with laws against it.)

There may be other rights as well, but these are the three that come to mind.

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That's how we do it, sneaking in between cars stopped in a jam.

     When you visit another community, you are a guest there and need to learn the unwritten rules of conduct, if you wish to be accepted.  In New York, too, visitors should be aware of this, so as to avoid unpleasant experiences.  This is a crowded city where people hurry because they value their time.  It is also a city – especially Manhattan, the most visited borough  – where many people don’t have cars and get about by walking and using public transportation.  So here are some tips for visitors:

1.    Don’t walk three or four abreast on the sidewalk; you obstruct pedestrian traffic.
2.    For the same reason, don’t pause at the top of a stairway as you exit the subway system.  If you need to get your bearings, move out of the way before stopping.
3.    Don’t hold subway train doors open or try to force them open.  Let the frenzied natives commit this folly; there’ll soon be another train.
4.    Don’t enter a subway train before all the exiting passengers have left.
5.    When you ask a question, don’t beat around the bush.  If you get right to the point, most New Yorkers will be glad to help you, as I myself have often done.
6.    Don’t go to Times Square on New Year’s Eve, unless you enjoy  claustrophobia and don’t mind being packed in for hours with thousands of other celebrants.
7.    And if you value your life, don’t ever, ever get between a hurrying New Yorker and his bus or train.

     Here now is the report of a cousin from Kokomo, Indiana, who visited New York with her twenty-year-old son.  Wanting to have a view of the Statue of Liberty, they got on a subway train but soon sensed something was wrong.  In the car with them were a foreign family who spoke no English, and a middle-aged woman who was sound asleep.  As my cousin and her son discussed their predicament, the middle-aged woman woke up and asked if they were lost.  “Absolutely!” my cousin replied, and told her where they wanted to go.  “Well, you’re in the Bronx,” she said, which meant that they were going in the opposite direction.  Shouting “Thank you!” they immediately got off the train, took one in the opposite direction, and finally, after an unintended visit to Chinatown and with more help from New Yorkers, got to their destination.  At one point other lost souls also asked for help, and everyone was helping everyone.  My cousin’s conclusion: No, New Yorkers aren’t rude, they’re helpful.  And she decided that a bit of Kokomo courtesy, with a good dose of “please” and “thank you,” would see her through in the future.

    Now, by way of comparison, let’s have a look at another great and much visited city, Paris.  Are the inhabitants of the ville lumiére more courteous and helpful that those of New York?  You may have heard of la politesse française (French politeness), but when, during my two years in France, I mentioned it to French friends and acquaintances, they invariably relied, “Ça n’existe plus” (That no longer exists).  They were probably right, yet I sensed a certain residue of courtesy among the French, except among the students, who, like students everywhere, were casual, irreverent, and sometimes blunt. 

     And the city itself?  One fellow American student told me of being jammed in among the crowds in the Metro and staggering out, at which point a middle-aged Frenchwoman taking tickets at the entrance remarked in sympathy, “Ah, mademoiselle n’est pas habituée aux moeurs de métro” (Ah, the young lady isn’t used to subway manners).

     I myself had a few bad experiences, as for example when an employee in the Gare Saint-Lazare told me my baggage was in the consigne.  I told him I didn’t understand consigne, whereupon he scowled fiercely and said, “Find an interpreter!”  All he needed to say was, “It’s where baggage is held.”  And on another occasion I saw a postal worker also scowl fiercely (the French can scowl magnificently) because some young American visitors were talking a bit too loudly in the post office.  But the worst incident I ever heard of was one I didn’t witness but read about: an American girl in tears because some state employee had called her “une sale Américaine” (a nasty American).  The French journalist reporting this could see nothing objectionable in the girl and asked in dismay, “What have we done to the Americans!”

     These incidents all involved fonctionnaires, low-level employees of the state bureaucracy.  I also had good experiences of French people in Paris: a hotel manager who spent considerable time helping me make a phone call in French, and another hotelier who was very congenial and held a room for me if I notified him by mail of my imminent return to Paris.  But speaking French reasonably well helps.  When my partner Bob went the first time to Paris and tried his very limited French on the Parisians, he was answered disdainfully in English.

     It has been my experience in France, Italy, Spain, and Mexico that foreign visitors have better experiences once they get out of the capitals, since in the less pressured provinces people have more time for you.  New York isn’t a political capital, but a capital of finance, fashion, publishing, and much more.  New Yorkers can be abrupt and hurried, but no more so than the residents of Paris, London, Rome, and Mexico City.  As for driving, the French are wild and the Italians crazy; they make American drivers look tame.

     So what do I conclude?  New Yorkers don’t mean to be rude, but they can seem so when judged by the standards of other communities where life is less pressured and hectic … but also less dynamic, less exciting.  My advice to visitors: by all means come, for New York is a must for travelers, an experience not to be missed.  You’ll be thrilled, entertained, and dazzled.  But come prepared.

     A note on Hoosiers:

    The state of Indiana has had a bad press lately, because of a bill promoted by the Republican governor ostensibly to  defend religious freedom.  The moment it was enacted into law, a huge outcry arose nationwide, not just from gay rights advocates but also from the business community, who alleged that the bill, intentionally or not, could be used to justify discrimination against the state’s gay citizens.  Many supporters of the law – wedding caterers, florists, etc. -- admittedly hoped that it would give them the legal right to refuse service to gay people based on their religious beliefs, but the governor, heeding the protests, signed a revised version of the law stating that it could not be used to justify discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

     So is that the end of the story?  Not at all.  Both supporters and critics of the law agree that the brouhaha it provoked has given the state of Indiana a very black eye.  The hot debate, fueled by large corporations, national interest groups, and out-of-town news media, has tarnished Indiana’s reputation for friendliness and easygoing ways.  “Hoosier hospitality” – a phrase often bandied about in a state whose capital, Indianapolis, is eager to attract investment and conventions – now seems just a bit inhospitable, and Hoosiers of all persuasions are shocked and mortified. 

     So what does all this have to do with me, born and raised in Illinois but a lifelong New Yorker?  Everything.  Both my parents were from Indiana, and I have many relatives in Indianapolis and Kokomo.  I have often visited them and was always welcomed not just by friends and acquaintances, but also by strangers.  If I and Hoosiers might differ in opinions on political and religious matters, it was irrelevant; those subjects hardly came up.  I have always found Hoosiers to be warm, courteous, and congenial.

     This was put to the test when my cousin took me to the monthly meeting of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  The member who opened the meeting announced with a grin that, given the solid Republican commitment of the group, he wouldn’t dream of bringing a friend who was a Democrat to the meeting – a humorous comment greeted with smiles and applause.  But there was I, a guest from New York City, a hotbed of Democrats, in the midst of this hotbed of Republicans.  Did they snub me, insult me, or argue with me?  Not at all.  When the buffet lunch was announced, I feasted royally and was treated with the utmost courtesy, consideration, and humor.

     Afterward they introduced the speaker, a young vet who had served in Afghanistan and Iraq and was now a candidate for the House of Representatives.  He reported the only good news I have ever heard from that part of the world: medical help could now reach a wounded soldier within minutes, so that lives once lost were being saved.  When he finished, he invited questions from the audience.  I expected queries about medical matters, but the first question was “What can we do about Obama?”  (He had just begun his first term.)  Cheers and applause greeted the question, and the speaker gave the tried-and-true answer: “Organize and vote!”  I’m sure that they are solidly Republican to this day, but to me they were generous and welcoming.

     (An afterthought: The members at the meeting were all older vets from World War II and Vietnam, all white and all male.  Conspicuously absent were younger vets, women, and minorities.  Since then has this Old Boys’ Club begun to change?  I don’t know.)

     One further thought: Indianapolis is a big modern city, though not too big or too modern; it doesn’t overwhelm.  But Kokomo, an hour’s drive to the north, is a charming small town, a county seat with a town square lined by public buildings and a restaurant or two.  Imagine: the City Hall and Police Department are housed in the same building!  Quite a contrast with New York, where the police headquarters is a big separate building, and the city bureaucracy is housed in the huge 40-story Municipal Building, which by no means contains all the city offices.  And in Kokomo I once walked with relatives from one of their homes into town – a short, walkable distance – and had ice cream in an old-fashioned ice-cream parlor: a throwback to my childhood in suburban Illinois.  I love big, noisy New York, but I also love the quiet, laid-back sophistication of Indianapolis, and the still more leisurely pace of Kokomo.

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All in one building!  A New Yorker marvels.  And look at all that parking space!

     So I will say it once again: regardless of the recent brouhaha, Hoosiers are warm and friendly and welcoming.  Whatever their opinions, very few of them are out-and-out bigots.

     A short update:  Until recently, the most visited post in this blog was #43: “Man/Boy Love: The Great Taboo.”  But lately another post has surpassed it in the number of viewers: #174: “Money.”  I leave it to my audience to draw conclusions.

     Coming soon:  Outlaws: Which ones do we admire, and why?

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder


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