“Just looking around” in Manhattan


Spent the day in Midtown, Central Park, and the Met. “Gaze data” everywhere.

Some New Yorkers wear their emotions not on their sleeves but on their brows. They may be surrounded by hundreds of people, some in very close proximity, but they do not veil the gaze.

If you are, as I am, involuntarily empathic, you get split-second moments of access. The emotion in them becomes the emotion in you. This is streaming data, a succession of emotional lives: a women who is puzzling with a cryptic feature on her cell phone, a girl in front of a store window wondering what to get her girl friend, a man who is deciding that it is time to demand that senior partnership, damn it! These New Yorkers let you see right in.

This is weird. The English and the Japanese react to the close quarters of a small island by withholding emotional data. But then both England and Japan are hierarchical societies that give status to those who exercise emotional control. Candor costs them. Americans (especially New Yorkers?) see no status penalty to revealing their emotions and some of them come from cultures that actually penalize those who withhold them. Anyone from a Latin culture expects emotions to be front and center, and they are inclined to doubt the motives of those who wear dark glasses (thank you, Virginia) truly or metaphorically. On this small island, revelation is ok (when it is not obligatory).

I guess they can’t be New Yorkers unless they are well armored. Otherwise, this island, with its crowding, noise, and commotion, would eat them up and spit them out. This means that they do not have to worry about someone taking their candor as an invitation to approach. Approach a New Yorker at your peril. Canadians are declawed at birth. In New York, the nails grow long and are never clipped. Or to shift the metaphor, every New Yorker comes with a SWAT team built in. They can mobilize instantaneously to rebuff the intruder. With great internal defenses, they do not need external ones.

This is more “gaze as window” than “gaze as economy.” But there was plenty of the latter. People survey one another with open interest. There’s that raking glance that takes in what we are wearing top to bottom. I was walking with Pamela, and I saw women noticing her with intent. Intent to what, I wasn’t sure. Intent to evaluate, to judge, and sometimes to criticize, apparently. She was, I thought, wonderfully dressed but some observers were posting grudging scores (“7.7, 8.5, 8.3”). There were approving glances (“9.3, 8.8, 9.5”). And there were even a couple of looks that suggested intimidation, as if to say, “I could never in my life have taste and money enough to manage that.” (I guess this is a “10.”)

The nice thing about the city is that it is, still, a pretty diverse place, with lots of cultures and subcultures. So we might get an approving or neutral gaze from someone “like us,” but chances are that bike courier (all dread locks and attitude) didn’t think particularly well of my J.Crew not-a-clue outfit. In fact, he did not see me at all. (“4.4?”)

No New Yorker wins every contest. In fact, every New Yorker is going to see someone in the next 15 minutes who will bring them down a notch. This gaze economy has so many scales of value that no one gets to triumph. Indeed, the higher we score on one scale, the lower we score on another. Interestingly, there is no exit scenario. Unless we spend all our time at home and the club, we must expose ourselves to diminishment. Or to put this in the form of a trade off, we cannot present ourselves for approval, without exposing ourselves to the reminder that we are, in someone’s world, a dolt.

And this may be one of the secrets to Manhattan’s diversity. If New Yorkers cannot win the extensive game, they might as well play the intensive one. The rule of thumb: play where you can win. If they can’t wow everyone, they might as well narrow the audience, and compete more locally, with people like themselves.

A new market in the making: competition becomes more intense, distinctions finer, players more ferocious, stakes higher. If the bike courier is presenting himself to the entire city, even modest dread locks and attitude will get the job done. But once he competes in a smaller market, he ends up wondering whether he shouldn’t “go big or stay home.” And now the gaze economy begins to drive the real economy, as the market responds to each intensifying culture with more and finer choices.

This is weird, too. In a sense, the city grows more parochial and more cosmopolitan at the same time. Actually, it grows more parochial and cosmopolitan from the same motive. The economy of the gaze encourages everyone to be more “like they are” and in the process the city becomes less like it is. Plenitude begins with a gaze. We start “just looking around,” and it’s not long before someone is wearing really long dreadlocks.

10 thoughts on ““Just looking around” in Manhattan

  1. Steve Portigal

    My most recent New York experience finally gave me some data to reconcile the seemingly contradictory New Yorker conclusions I had drawn – New Yorkers are the friendliest most socially adjusted people vs. New Yorkers are rude, hostile, etc.

    I propose that the gaze defense/engagement is definitely a two-step process. Maybe other primates do this as well, but I suggest that in New York you will encounter immediate territory defining hostility (passive or agressive) that is held for a period of time, and then gives way to welcoming interactive graciousness.

    Example: the guy that won’t move his chair 2 inches when you are trying to sit down at the crowded Zabar’s breakfast bar area, ignores you entirely (age? language? too many hoods on his head? attitude?) and then minutes later when something else opens up will move his chair, move your chair, invite you to slide over, move your plate for you, smile and more.

    Grant – I probably should be expressing this in terms of gaze economics, but maybe the translation is easy 🙂

  2. Tom

    Remember, Grant, you’re describing an official, “NYC Tourist Certified Zone,” in midtown…come on downtown where we’re a little more hardcore!

  3. Grant

    Steve, very, very interesting, a moat, then a draw bridge (or something). Thanks. Grant

    Tom, looking forward to gathering data all over the island. On the other hand, I was in alphabet city a couple of years ago, and some guy said “I smell a yuppie” by which I’m pretty sure he meant me. I will look to you for advice on how to blend in. Thanks, Grant

  4. John Thacker

    New Yorkers tend to be incredibly polite in my experience when they realize that they’re talking to a tourist, at least in the “Tourist Zones.” They know that dealing with other New Yorkers, that’s not necessary, but recognize that outsiders sometimes like politeness.

    I should point out that in the American South, emotions are also quite often hid, albeit in a somewhat different way than in the UK or Japan. The South has its own traditions of making somewhat-insincere offers necessitated by honor and society, and expected refusals. When dealing with real Southerners, most offers require a refusal, and then are accepted only upon insistence.

  5. Grant

    John, thanks for the ethnographic data. Henceforth, I will hope to be identified as a tourist when in NYC. (Like I have any real choice.) As to south, I like the risk of these offers. We offer them with the assurance that they will be refused. And darn it’s annoying when someone takes us at our word. “How dare you, sir. Surely any idiot can see I was merely being polite!” Thanks again, Grant

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  7. Grant

    Robert, you and I are, I think, the only ones to have read Buamgartner’s great book. (I never see it cited.) Yes, some of the gaze economy is devoted to the question “who should I be avoiding.” As to college campuses, the McGill campus is in full gaze economy mode and this is truly hormone assisted (and of course stimulating). Some part of the college experience is being negotiated and indeed determined as a result. I am invisible, something I deeply resent and happily embrace, both at once. Thanks for a great post (and the Shirky quote)! Best, Grant

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