If you’re thinking that New York politeness sounds like an oxymoron, you might be in for a rough time hhere. New York is a city unlike any other and it also comes with its own set of manners and 8.4 million opinionated denizens to shame, scold and sass you into minding them. Stay mindful and follow the (often unspoken) rules and you’ll find yourself having a much easier time.
Here are ten courtesy questions you’ll find in New York.
1. House parties, Dinner parties and BBQs…
You are not expected to bring a gift or buy a drink for your hosts when you are invited to a public party. If you know the person very well and it’s a celebratory occasion (birthday, promotion, etc), you can offer to buy your host a drink or an appetizer for the table, but it’s not expected that guests will pick up the whole tab. If you do offer a drink and your host takes you up on it, it’s understood that your offer gets your significant other off the hook as well. Everyone knows New York is expensive and they’re just happy you came.
2. I’m on the subway and running late.
Everyone knows about phone service in the subway so if your friend rings you and it goes straight to voicemail, they’ll probably figure it out. During regular hours the trains come about every 20 minutes, but if you’re going to be more than 30 minutes late, consider taking a cab. If you’re more than 15 minutes late meeting someone one-on-one or it’s a professional meeting, get yourself out of the subway and hail a cab NOW. New York does not follow the “whenever” timeline of Los Angeles and it’s considered rude to keep someone waiting.
3. A lot of New York’s social culture is in bars, but you don’t drink.
If you’re in a group of people and don’t want to call attention to it, just do what thousands of non-drinking New Yorkers do: order a non-alcoholic beverage, stick a lime on the side and rock out with your bad self. If you don’t make a big deal about it, no one else will. If you’re in a higher-end cocktail bar, there’s a good chance they have a signature non-alcoholic “mocktail”. If you don’t want to go into bars, it’s no problem, but please don’t suggest a Starbucks. It’s so, so boring and New Yorkers practically live in them out of necessity. Instead, try suggesting a nice bakery or gelato shop, a cool tea joint, a quaint coffee shop or diner.
4. You’re walking with a group and you don’t want to lose anybody.
Seriously, relax. If you’re walking with children, then yes, by all means, hold their hands and keep them close. But if you’re walking in a gaggle of grownups, do not walk more than two abreast. It’s rude to other pedestrians, it makes every New Yorker roll their eyes at you and, if this doesn’t deter you already, it targets you as an outsider and therefore an easy crime target. Just don’t.
5. You are jumping and screaming “TAXI!” but the cabs are not stopping.
If a cab doesn’t stop for you, it means:
A) they’re off-duty
B) someone is already in the cab
C) the cabbie is just being a jerk or
D) you were being obnoxious.
When you get in, don’t make small talk: tell your cabbie exactly where you are going using cross streets. For example, don’t say “1775 York Avenue.” Say “92 and York.” For heaven’s sake, don’t haggle. (You can do this with livery cabs when you get to advanced level borough life, but stick to the meter for now.) You can pay with cash or on their credit card swiper. Either way, tip 15% at least.
6. You are walking through Times Square and you’re being stopped every few feet by solicitors.
There’s a balance between being a sucker and being a jerk. Times Square is a must-see for tourists and they’re primo Midtown blocks for hawking tickets, shows, sightseeing packages, you name it. These carnival-barker jobs are truly soul-sucking and there’s no reason for you to be nasty to them, but you don’t need to waste your time either. A simple “no thanks” will suffice. They’ll probably call out to you to reconsider as you walk away because that is literally their job. Don’t take it personally and don’t be mean.
7. You’re not sure what to do when panhandlers or homeless people hit you up for change.
It’s similar to turning down solicitors. Basically, just be a decent person, but you’re by no means obligated to give anything. That said, you’ll see some truly incredible musicians, dancers and magicians on the subway and the subway platform. Most people keep a few quarters in a handy pocket to toss in the hat when someone has really added value to ride. Just keep in mind, their livelihood depends on them staying in constant movement, so don’t be offended if they don’t want to stick around and talk about their act with you. Just toss in your change and flash a smile.
8. You’ve never seen people like this before!
Hey, it’s a broad and diverse city and that is part of New York’s charm. Just keep in mind that you’re part of the city, you’re not on a safari. If you’re actually engaged in a conversation with someone and they seem receptive, it’s okay to ask a respectful question about their piercings, tattoos, burqa, dastar, peyot, whatever. But just because someone looks differently from what you’re used to doesn’t give you license to stare, point or (God forbid) touch.
9. You’re lost…
It’s totally fine to ask for directions and most New Yorkers are happy to help you out. But keep in mind that in a city that runs on pedestrians and public transportation, you are holding up someone’s day. They don’t care that you’re new in town or you’re from wherever. Just say thank you and move on. Think of it this way: if you were to roll up to someone in your car and ask directions, how would you do it? You’d be quick to listen to the information and get out, right? That’s your model for asking for directions in New York.
10. People here are so rude, right?
Not a bit! New York has some of the friendliest, most genuine people in the world. What New York doesn’t have is a fake-nice culture. Even in a lot of the service industry, people won’t patronize you with a glazed-over faux-sweetness. What a lot of people read as rude is actually a sense of quickness and an abiding hatred of any kind of entitlement. Which, when you think of it, is really the very definition of a sense of community. Hang in there, keep your Metro Card in an easy to reach pocket and walk on the right side of the street. You’ll do just fine.