Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That, New York?

| January 10, 2012 4:00 AM video
Author: Henry Alford
Publisher: Twelve Books
Publication Date: Jan. 2012

Henry Alford has written for the New York Times and Vanity Fair for over a decade. For his latest book, “Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That: A Modern Guide to Manners,” his research led him as far as Japan — “the Fort Knox of the World Manners Reserve” — but he learned some of his most important lessons about etiquette right here at home in New York City.

In this excerpt from the book, Alford talks about his time volunteering as a “Big Apple Greeter” and what the overseas guests he toured the city with had to say about New Yorkers’ more boorish behaviors.

When I thought about what, precisely, about my city I wanted to share with these visitors, I thought back to when I first moved to New York, and tried to remember the behavior I witnessed that struck me as odd.

Gradually, three items emerged as standouts.

  • First, New Yorkers are in the habit of starting up conversations with strangers at the least provocation, or none. This can happen anywhere, including on the street and in small, contained spaces.
  • Second, New Yorkers have no trouble asking you how many square feet your house or apartment is, and how much you paid or pay for it.
  • Third, New Yorkers cut in line and steal cabs.
“That’s happened a lot already,” one of my charges — a hearty British woman in her 20s — told me when I broached the topic of New Yorkers’ gabbiness with her. She added, “You don’t know whether to indulge them or not. They might be crazy.”

“Probably the best policy, if you don’t want to engage with them,” I counseled her, “is to say something mild and then move along. Especially if there’s a strong liquor smell.”

“That might be the real offense — the smelling, not the talking,” she said.

“Yes,” I agreed. “And in combination: deadly.”

When I explained New Yorkers’ chatty tendencies to an older Australian couple, the husband nodded knowingly and, pointing to his tiny, cherubic wife, said, “They’re always drawn to her.”

Author Henry Alford volunteered as a Big Apple Greeter, a free public service that pairs locals with visiting tourists. The experience revealed a great deal about how New Yorkers behave compared to the rest of the world. Photo by John Woo.

Looking at the wife consolingly while I secretly surveilled her straw-brimmed hat and pink T-shirt, I said to her, “You look very friendly.”

“They know that I’m one of them.”

The topic of New Yorkers’ interest in real estate candor is a much more baffling one for foreigners. “Talking about money like that would be absolutely taboo in Holland. Absolutely taboo,” one Dutch woman, traveling with her college-aged daughter, told me. I told another Dutch woman — this one a smiley schoolteacher in her 30s traveling with her boyfriend — that New Yorkers sometimes ask how much rent you pay. I added, “When I first moved to New York, I was slightly flabbergasted by this.”

“Flabberblasted because they were friends, or strangers?”

“Either. Would people ask that in Holland?”

“No, we don’t talk about money.”

“So if a New Yorker asks you, how will you respond?”

She thought a moment, and replied, “ ‘I have a lovely garden. It will make you forget about money.’ ”

“That’s good,” I offered. “Now, what if you wanted to ask them how much they paid for rent?”

“I don’t think I would.”

“But say for some reason you had to. How would you ask?”

“ ‘Are you happy with your apartment?’ ”

“That sounds like you’re asking if it gets enough light.”

“Yes. Okay.” She looked at her boyfriend for guidance; he offered none. She tried again. “ ‘Would you say that you had a good deal?’ ” She smiled a diplomat’s smile and asked me, “How was that? Also, do I know this person well?”

“No. He’s a total stranger.”

She nodded and reiterated, “ ‘Would you say you had a good deal?’ ”

“Pretty good,” I said. “But New Yorkers are sometimes even more direct.”

“I’ve seen on television shows where people write down numbers on a piece of paper and then pass it to the other person and ask if the number is ‘comfortable’ for them. Maybe I would do this? Write a number on a piece of paper and ask if the person is comfortable.”

So far, the headiest reaction to being told that you might be asked how much your home costs came from the visitor in the straw hat. She told me, “They do it to see if you’re in the same price range as them. To know whether or not they want to be friends with you.”

“That’s very dark,” I told her.

“But this is how it is for some people.”

WATCH VIDEO:

A scene from HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which Larry David gets “upstreamed” while hailing a taxi in Manhattan. According to author Henry Alford, walking upstream of another person is permissible as long as the party being “upstreamed” cannot see you.

That New Yorkers cut in lines and steal cabs is not, on the whole, news to foreigners, many of whom face such chicanery in their own countries. But what did strike them as interesting was my assertion that if they ever need a cab, they will need to be willing to steal one from someone else. A German woman who was visiting her daughter in New York responded: “Oh, so it is a game of dirty poker that you play!”

To wit, it is my belief that if indeed you are in great need of a cab — you’re late for an appointment, or it is raining, or it is two in the morning and you are standing on a dicey part of Flatbush — then it is permissible to walk upstream of another party that is also hailing a cab, as long as you walk far enough upstream that that party cannot see you. Well, at least not glare at you.

“But they might walk up there and see you!” the German woman told me.

“Yes,” I said. “But the trained assassin is both methodical and efficient.”

Copyright © 2012 by Henry Alford. Reprinted by permission of Twelve Books. All rights reserved.

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