And I mean that title with the utmost of respect.
I’ve been a denizen of this fair[ly crappy] city my entire life, in one way or another. I spent some time in LA during college, but don’t worry, I got over it. The one thing, though, that I’ve consistently heard from around the US is that New York is a rude city.
This is, I feel, based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what this place is. New York is a massive city where most people have high-pressure jobs and their time is very precious. That isn’t unique, though it’s to an extreme in New York that most people from other parts of the US haven’t experienced.
It is also a city where the American infatuation with the combustion engine has been replaced by walking and public transportation. This is a small city, geographically, with an extensive system for getting you where you need to be without a car. Add to that tons of people, and it’s going to be one of the most crowded foot traffic experiences that most people have ever been a part of. This matters because it affects the basic rules of politeness within New York to a degree that you might not expect.
Many people realize, when they enter a small town, that there are unwritten codes of conduct amongst the people there that have been arrived at by years of social interaction. One of the things that an outsider has to do if they wish to be accepted is learn and respect these rules.
The same thing with foreign countries. The concept of rudeness in a foreign country will be alien to you. Many travelers wonder why they have a bad experience abroad; the answer is often that they didn’t learn the local rules for politeness and came off as total jerks. New York also has its unwritten code of conduct.
Yet, for some reason, a huge number of tourists to New York seem to totally forget that when you are a guest somewhere, it behooves YOU to learn the unwritten rules of conduct so that you will not upset the delicate social balance of the place you are visiting. Because New York relies so much on foot traffic, these people often utterly disrupt the flow in the subway or on the street, and then complain that New Yorkers are “rude” when we do not accommodate their interference with our lives.
Don’t understand what I’m talking about? At peak hours, there can be 150 people walking on a given avenue block trying to get to work. There can be 1000 or more people on a subway train. There can be 50 people trying to get off of a bus or a subway car. 100 people may be trying to go up or down a staircase or escalator at any given time.
And yet, every day I see tourists and just general social malefactors who stop in the middle of sidewalks, who hold up entire subway trains because they try to force the doors open, who block a stairwell or who try to get on a subway car before they let anyone else off.
This is a sense of entitlement that the pace of this city cannot abide.
I assure you, you do not have an excuse for delaying 1000 people who are trying to get to work. If you do, you’d be in a job where you’d have a car with sirens, at the very least. Your trip to the bank or to the American Museum of Natural History is not something that should interfere with the professional lives of 1000 people. So when you hold that subway car, and people curse at you, or when you prevent them from getting off the train and they barrel right into you, there’s a simple lesson: this is your fault, as much as it would be your fault if you blocked three lanes of the highway so you could get out and look at your map.
You’re not necessarily a bad person. You may just be unaware, you may have failed to learn about the city before you came to it, you may have forgotten to keep in mind that you’re inconveniencing a horde of other people. No doubt many of the times this happens, it’s just inconsiderate absentmindedness.
That said, it’s still rude. And when someone is rude, they will be treated rudely in return. If you come to this city, and you wonder why everyone is rude to you, what you should be asking yourself is this:
What am I doing wrong?
In life in general, you will get farther with other people if you do not always blame them for the things that go wrong in your life. Asking yourself what you are doing to produce a certain response from others will take you far in reaching a greater harmony.
And in the case of moving through New York City, it’ll help you get a long way on the road to not being rude.
Update: I’ve written a reply to some of the common feedback I get to this post. See "16% of People are Missing the Point About New York."
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