Overheard in New York

Duelling_1 Overheard in New York is one of the jewels of the web.  People hear things being said on the street, and post these on-line.

A little fragment of conversation comes drifting over the transom, ethnographic data for free.

Here’s a fragment now:

20-something girl with mom, hands full:    
            Could you hit One for me?

Man, pushing button:    
            You’re welcome.

20-something girl:          
            Oh! Thank you.

            Learn some manners.

20-something girl:                                  
            Man, I’d tell you to fuck yourself if my mom wasn’t with me.

(Overheard in New York City at 20th St & 1st Ave.)

New Yorkers survive the compression of urban life by agreeing to a set of rules.  These rules allow an amazing mutuality. The other day I was walking from a train in Grand Central to the subway under Grand Central.  It’s about a hundred yards.  As you go down the stairs into the subway, a group moving 10 across slows and funnels to become a group moving 5 across.  There was almost no room in front and almost no room beside. But I didn’t touch anyone and no one touched me.  Miraculous.

But it doesn’t always go this well.  Sometimes in the streets of New York, there is slippage.  Rules are unclear.  Interpretations are inconsistent.  Differences flourish.  Some New Yorkers exercise a courtly grace and solicitude.  Others suffer the delusion that the city belongs to them alone, that there are no other  New Yorkers.  The sidewalks take on a "rock ’em sock ’em" roller derby quality. 

In the conversation above, between two passengers in an elevator compartment, things start out well enough.  Passenger 1 calls for Floor one.  She puts this in the form of a question, and apparently Passenger 2 takes her at her word.  When he complies, Passenger 2 believes himself in possession of a marker or a debt.  What he hopes for, apparently, is a "thank you."  In most cases this is how these debts are discharged. 

But, no.  Passenger 1 is not forthcoming.  Passenger 2 reminds her of her debt by pretending that she has discharged it.  "You’re welcome," he says.   Passenger 1 tries to make amends: "Oh, thank you."  But this is not enough.  Passenger 2 is not mollified.  The debt remains.  "Learn some manners," he tells her. This is a calculated punishment.  It says, in effect, you have no manners.

Now it is the turn of Passenger 1 to take umbrage.  As a good New Yorker, she’ll be damned if she is going to take direction from a perfect stranger.  Passenger 2 has overstepped his bounds, and now it’s his turn for punishment.   

But there’s a problem.  Passenger 1 is with her Mom.  And this complicated things wonderfully, because mothers are the single most influential source of a child’s knowledge of, and instinct for, social rules.  Changes are Passenger 1 believes that her mother will by unhappy with the punishment she wishes to unleash. 

What to do?

Passenger 1 resorts to a strategy that is both crude and effective.  It is the equivalent of covering her Mom’s ears.  "Man, I’d tell you to fuck yourself if my mom wasn’t with me."  Propriety is satisfied.  Punishment is rendered. (I believe linguists would accept this as a case of diplomatic non-indexicality.)

We don’t know what happened next, but we can be certain that violence was out of the question.  Passenger 2 gave Passenger 1 a "look," and the contretemps was over.  The theater of disagreement is elastic enough to allow both parties to let fly and leave the field of combat with the sense that honor, their honor, has been satisfied. 

If my way from Grand Central to the subway is governed by an invisible, unspoken, emergent order, there are lots of occasion in which the rules must be stated and upheld…and New Yorkers are just the people for the job.

For the "overheard in New York" website, and this conversation fragment, go here

7 thoughts on “Overheard in New York

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  3. Peter

    Having spent extended periods of time in every continent except South America, and having worked and lived across both the USA and the UK, I have to state that, as a generalization, New Yorkers are the politest people around. One key purpose of good manners is to make strangers feel welcome, but manners are only effective for this purpose in cultures which welcome strangers. English culture, alas, does not. The English, who think they invented manners, are like unkempt and rowdy children in comparison with New Yorkers.

  4. Virginia Postrel

    I have to disagree with Peter. While New Yorkers are not as consistently rude as their reputation, they are indeed rude, in exactly the way this little exchange illustrates. They are terribly worried that someone will take advantage of them, even if by not saying “thank you.” Most other parts of the country are at least as welcoming to strangers (especially if they’re not planning to stay permanently) but more considerate in everyday life. I personally find Angelenos far more polite than New Yorkers, especially when driving (someone will always let you merge in), and equally or more welcoming of strangers.

  5. Tom Guarriello

    I’m not sure why Virginia sees this little snippet of NYC “inside baseball” a “rude.” Here’s why.

    I’m assuming this encounter has taken place in an apartment building (girl and mom together, hands full). Assumption, but I’m going with it. That implies understanding of the NYC rule-set. When the younger passenger transgresses, albeit in a minor fashion, the “gentleman” oversteps his bounds, in my opinion, with his second comment. One was fine as the younger passenger acknowledged. When the gentleman poked the young lady in the eye in a quintessentially New York fashion (“learn some manners”) I hear him speaking New Yorker to New Yorker; tribal logic shared only amongst ourselves. This is a very unlikely next step between a New Yorker and an obvious out-of-towner. As is the young woman’s response. She’s saying, “hey, I live here too and I know I screwed up but not that badly you asshole.” These are intra-familial goings on, no more “rudeness” than your kid sister calling you a poophead.

  6. Victor Lombardi

    We New Yorkers, with our diverse ranks, are rather stubborn in our insistence that we honestly express our emotions, despite how the Anglo-Saxons have consistently showed us that supressing one’s emotions is the civilized way.

    Perhaps we’re just doomed to having low “EQ”s.

  7. Virginia Postrel

    While I’m not exactly known for my fine manners, I was indeed raised in a household where “shut up” was banned and “poophead” was inconceivable. We were the only kids on the block who didn’t call our parents “Sir” and Ma’am.”

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