So, Are New Yorkers Jerks?

From Time Out New York Student Guide,


Fall 2000

Our completely unscientific survey of random pedestrians says: Fuhgeddaboutit!

Whenever I go home to Pittsburgh I cross paths with my Aunt Tess, who never fails to recount the story of her trip through Grand Central Terminal in 1952. “The way those people pushed and shoved, you would have thought there was a gold rush,” she says. “Oh, they’re rude in New York.” Stories like Aunt Tess’s reinforce the idea that New Yorkers are an obnoxious lot. But in the 21st century, is there any truth to that cliché? One my first afternoon in New York five years ago, as meandered around a busy midtown corner looking up at the buildings, a businessman nearly trampled me, then told me to watch where I was going. Perhaps it was my memory of being the pokiest member of an alert, fast-moving family when I was a kid, but I caught on quickly: To thrive and be happy here, I’d have to adapt. And indeed, picking up the pace and increasing my awareness has stood me in good stead.

Was the businessman rude? Well, he could have been nicer, but his attitude reflected the premium most New Yorkers place on time. People here tend to be busy—working, playing, living—which means they don’t like it when others waste their time. Recognizing this impatience for what it is—someone making haste rather than a personal insult—is part of becoming a New Yorker.

Impatience is one thing, but what about the idea that New Yorkers won’t give you the time of day unless they want something from you? Seeking an answer, I recently conducted an experiment. Starting on the Upper West Side and working my way down to Times Square, and on to Soho, I attempted to engage 30 random strangers in conversation. I approached them in a polite manner, staring with, “Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you, but I was hoping to ask you a quick question.” Thirty-four of 40 stopped, and one was willing to help but didn’t speak English. Of the five people who didn’t stop, only two failed to acknowledge me; the other three said, “Sorry” or “Not a good time.” In the course of this survey, I spoke to people of every race, of many ethnicities, of both sexes, and of a range of ages. Almost three-fourths of the people I stopped were originally from somewhere else (only two were tourists); the places they hailed from included Florida, Kentucky, Luxembourg, Pakistan, Trinidad, Israel, Japan, Mexico, and Germany.

The question I asked these strangers (after explaining I was doing research for a column) was, “do you think New Yorkers are more rude than people in other parts of the world?” The verdict: six said “yes,” five said “maybe” or “depends on the circumstances” and a whopping 23 said, “no.”

“Absolutely not,” said Judy Berger, an education specialist and native New Yorker. “We live at a frenetic pace, and sometimes we’re sharp, but we’ll go out of our way for you.”

I then posed another question to those willing to indulge me: “What do you like about living in New York?” Again and again, what I overwhelmingly heard was “the diversity of people and cultures.”

“Life’s exciting in New York because there are so many different kinds of people,” said Matthew Yeoman, a census worker who moved here from London to get into computer sales.

“The mixture of nationalities and cultures creates a new culture—something good, liberal, and open-minded,” said Noel Kayo, 25, a medical student at Bridgeport University who hails from Luxembourg.

Those enthusiastic responses, in fact, confirmed my long-held suspicion: I claim that New Yorkers, contrary to conventional wisdom, are actually among the most civilized people in the world. After all, what are manners but a reflection of one’s respect for other people? While some of us are gruff or impatient on occasion, I think most New Yorkers demonstrate a deeper, more meaningful kind of character: tolerance for, and appreciation of, diversity. It’s not that residents of other places are necessarily intolerant; it’s that New Yorkers, in order to be happy and remain here, must necessarily be tolerant. How could, say, a white supremacist thrive in a city where you’re forever shoehorning yourself into confined spaces with people of every color and creed imaginable?

No one would deny that we do have occasional fare-ups of intolerance in this city, and it’s true that there are unresolved racial tensions. But consider, too, that the millions of people living and pursuing millions of different goals in this small space manage to get along just fine. The inescapable conclusion is that New Yorkers rise to the challenge of respecting one another’s differences—and we’re a better people for it.

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