The Myth of the Rude New Yorker

post by Jessica

When R and I moved here, we weren’t totally sure what to expect. On the one hand, we had a set of friends that hated living in the city and were keen to point out how miserable it can be. On the other hand,  most of what they complained about is true of many cities (rats, crime, lack of personal space, bad landlords).  I do have friends who are currently having trouble with their landlords (a common complaint here) and ours is sometimes less than attentive, but he’s been great with the big things – like making sure the exterminator came ASAP when we saw a mouse.

Of course, in a city with this many people, the nature of the people in general can help or hurt your experience. For instance, if, at every turn, someone is being nasty or rude, that will negatively effect your experience. Many people have the impression that all New Yorkers are like that, without exception – loud, rude, nasty for the sake of elbowing you in the stomach. Admit it – as you read that, you were able to conjure the perfect image in your head, whether aided by media or not.

The reality? A lot of that went out as the city grew more livable in the nineties, at least from conversations I have had with people who’ve lived here much longer than I. The new model New Yorker is less stressed out, less hassled by crime, and therefore, more friendly. However, there are a lot of things about city culture that could be interpreted as unfriendly – on the subway, for instance, I spend the majority of my time NOT looking at people, ignoring the fact that rush hour traffic has me squished up against a person I’ve never met (and will likely never see again) and then, a few minutes later, squished up against an entirely different person whom I’ve never met (and will likely not see again). Ask a New Yorker – they admit freely the attitude “if I’m not looking at you, you don’t exist.” This attitude can stray into the times when the subway isn’t that busy, or just onto the street in general, and can be perceived as being ignored or being unfriendly. Fair enough – but it’s part of city life.

At the same time, I hear people talking about giving directions to tourists and trying to help out as best they can. I even helped an older British duo (brother and sister) get to where they were going one evening on the 1 train, and a friend saw a woman go out of her way to help a foreign gentleman get to the right subway station for the hospital where his sister was being treated.

Are there those people you conjured above? The angry New Yorkers who hate everyone for no reason? Of course. A city of this size, this squished together and you’re bound to come into contact with them more often than even in a city like Chicago. But the old guy running people down in the grocery store with his shopping cart, the lady yelling randomly at me on the sidewalk for being surprised at a siren and the guys making rude comments about each other on the subway are the exception to the rule – three or four incidents since we moved here in August. We’ve also been lucky, I’m sure, and open to the city in the way that comes of knowing we have to be here, so why make it miserable for ourselves? Still, the fact that we can do that proves that it’s not such a bad place to live.

That’s not to say that the city has no failings: the trains are unreliable when you really need them to be on time, the cost of living can be astounding and everyone does have that one DOOZY of a story, but as far as the unrelentingly terrible New Yorkers? I get the feeling that that went out of style in the 90s…

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3 thoughts on “The Myth of the Rude New Yorker

  1. Of course, it’s a stereotype but as a native New Yorker, I know that there is some truth to that. There is nothing that upsets us more than trying to get through Time Square and being surrounded by tourists who walk like wherever they are from…which is nothing like the NY speed-walk.

    I can even confess to being friends with and at some point myself…elbowing my way through Times Square when I was in my 20s. I know of people who purposely give tourists wrong directions though yes, I always tried to help when I was asked.

    In NY, you can get killed for looking at someone the wrong way or at the very least assaulted or verbally attacked. It has happened. Forget, correcting someone who is being loud or someone who is smacking on their child in front of you (though this seems to work across cities, even “friendly” LA). In NY, unless you live in some kind of ethnic community, it is also likely that you don’t know or might never know your neighbors.

    It’s noisy, it’s smelly and that’s how we cope, especially if we don’t know anything else and we think that (and most New Yorkers do) that New York is the only REAL place in the world and THE BEST place in the world. Blast the Sinatra or Jay-Z with Alicia Keyes tribute song.

    When I moved to LA, I had to get used to traffic…where people didn’t give each other the middle finger and even honking at each other is “rude.” I had to get used to strangers smiling at you and making eye contact…oh and but getting stared at like a psycho if I walked ANYWHERE for a lengthy period of time with a granny cart or G-d forbid without looking like it was for exercise purposes. Every city has its stereotypes. But I believe that LA was voted least friendly, dethroning NYC.

    DC beats us for reliable trains but NYC beats everyone else…except on weekends. Forget weekend subway rides in the outer boroughs. And there are trains that are notoriously late…like the L or the G. And others, notoriously clean. Though not as clean as DC or Montreal. Or even the Metro North, the more expensive, fancy, reliable way to get around NYC FAST though mostly used by people commuting in from outside the five boroughs.

    Cost of living is awful. Food is expensive unless you know where to shop so you HAVE to find some native to tell you the tricks of where to go for what. Natives will also tell you where are the cheapest places to live, if you’re willing to let go of your safety a bit. Natives might add that sometimes little old ladies die and leave gems of rent-controlled apartments at crazy “cheap for NY” prices.

    Is the rude New Yorker a thing of the past? It depends on, as you noted so well, what you think rude means. It sounds like once you lived in NYC long enough, you learned why people don’t make eye contact or quickly chat up strangers. It can be a very lonely city but often, it can surprise you. My friend Rebecca, also a future Rebbetzin, chronicles her transition from growing up in London, living in Paris and moving to New York on her blog “Rebecca in Space”

  2. As for surprises? I have an anecdote. A awful male friend and I once trekked out to a concert in Long Island via car. He didn’t feel like “driving into the city” to drop me off once we reached Queens so he left me shivering in my tiny concert clothes in a mostly deserted subway station ALONE. I was TERRIFIED. Not even 20 years old and half-naked by anyone’s eyes, this was the kind of nightmare situation, my aunt, a retired NYC police officer, painted for me many times with really terrible, real life endings.

    Well, I dropped my beeper (dating myself) in the tracks by mistake. I must have looked poor and overly anxious as well as half-naked because a lovely African-American gentleman about the same age, without a word, jumped into the tracks for me, being careful of the third rail and handed it to me and walked away without even expecting a “Thanks.” Like regular natives who know the rules (especially long after midnight), we went our separate ways even though we sat in the same car. Another unspoken rule is men not talking to women in the subway after a certain time of evening since it’s REALLY scary even if they superhero save your beeper. 🙂

    In any another city, we probably would have become friends or in Hollywood, become fodder for some romantic comedy.

    Personally, I still find that people are much friendlier outside New York (and in the Caribbean and Italy). Especially in the Mid-west and Texas. After a 5-day road trip from Hell led me from NYC to Los Angeles, I was always surprised to stop at gas station, rest stops and supermarkets only to find myself greeted by smiles, hand shakes and overt friendliness from natives in small town USA.

    In Ohio, I was asked “Where are you from?” And when I said, “The Bronx,” the lady said, “Wow, that’s, like, one of those places you only here about on TV.” I hesitated to say, that as a native New Yorker, that’s how I felt about Ohio. In Oklahoma, as we entered the hotel, a woman by the doors stopped her cell phone conversation to say “Hello” even though she didn’t work for the hotel. We got the same treatment in Albuquerque, middle of nowhere Arizona, especially Texas and now sometimes that we live here, Los Angeles.

  3. I think of NYers as sabras. 🙂 In general, my experience with New Yorkers is positive, but my family is all from NYC so I grew up with New Yorkers and I know that a lot of it is just a part of living with so many people all the time.

    One time I dropped my wallet in the street and someone tapped me and handed it to me (without taking anything of course). One time I twisted my ankle as I fell down the stairs outside my apartment and a neighbor lady who didn’t speak English came and helped me up, rubbed my ankle which at first was kind of creepy but then OMG it felt better right away. I feel like I can ask anyone for directions no matter where I am and people will give them to me – even in Chicago people never stopped or even really looked at me when I was obviously lost and asking for directions. One time I was carrying my extremely heavy granny cart up the stairs on the subway and someone just picked up the bottom and helped me to the top, never said a word, didn’t even stop at the top long enough to let me say thank you.

    Stuff like that happens, I think, because when you live around so many people you either become overwhelmingly stressed out by it (and then elbow everyone in the street) or you just kind of realize that the way to make it work is to look out for each other.

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