The Big Machine

-by Michael!

Last Fall, I wrote about people who feel it necessary to point out that they hate New York City when I tell them I live there, and how I find that to be more than a little bit rude. I’d like to follow that up with another item that I find inappropriate – and that is the just-as-common “I live in NYC” followup that goes “Oh, the people there are so rude!”

Not to repeat myself, but…

How on EARTH is that acceptable? First off, I just finished telling you that I live there, ergo you are labeling me as rude. More importantly, though, it betrays a lack of comprehension about the city itself.

Since moving here two years ago, I’ve adjusted to the rhythm, the pulse, the Darwinian struggle of movement about the city. The fact of the matter is that it’s a fast-paced place, and if you buy into that you’ll have a good time and find the people to be quite personable. Confused? Lost? By all means, ask for directions – because there is NOTHING that New Yorkers people anywhere like more than to prove that they know their way around – but do keep in mind that it’s not a theme-park, we’re not tourism employees, and that courtesy while asking is an important part of keeping the interaction civil. If you play your cards right, I’ll even help you hail a taxi, which is as much a learned skill as bicycle-riding. But people who come up to me and demand to be told where something is are quite likely to receive a “You have got to be kidding me” glare as I continue my march past them.

Simply put, the central idea of human interaction when working your way through NYC is this:

It’s a big machine, with lots of moving parts, and if you handle your business and I handle my business it will keep moving efficiently.

If you mess with that efficiency, I will tell you about it.

Sure, some people take it too far. It happens. I’ve heard profanity hurled at people for transgressions as simple as allowing a swift stop on the subway to shift you into another person’s Zone of Comfort. But that’s not as common as you would think. Much more frequent is a pointed “Excuse me,” which roughly translates into “Watch where you’re going and keep your hands – and other assorted body parts – to yourself.”

It can just as easily translate into “Yes, by all means come to a complete stop in the middle of the sidewalk for no apparent reason, because the people behind you do not have anywhere to be,” or “If you don’t plan on standing to the side, I will not be able to get off of the subway car, and if I am not able to get off of the subway car, you are not getting on it. Your move.” It’s a flexible phrase. And 99% of the time it does its job – people do a little double-take, realize what they did wrong, mumble something apologetic, and sheepishly fix the issue.

Part of the issue is that most people outside of the city do not live in pedestrian-heavy areas, and thus have a very different mindset about the act of walking. I’ve touched on this before, but it’s worth stating again: most people who are walking are not out on a walk. They are going to or coming from or in the midst of their work. What level of human interaction do you expect from the person driving that Corolla next to you on the highway? What exactly are you expressing when you honk your car horn at said Corolla for cutting you off?

Might it be that your message could be roughly translated into “Watch where you’re going and keep your car to yourself”? Or “Yes, by all means come to a complete stop in the middle of the road for no apparent reason?” If that is the case, are you rude for doing so?

No. Because you're helping things run efficiently. And that's worthwhile - and not rude, in and of itself - no matter the size of the machine.