Tuesday, March 24, 2009

New York - City of Marvels and Manners

If you want small town courtesy, come to New York City.

Several weeks ago, as I was walking along 34th Street near the Empire State Building, I saw a sweet young lady in the middle of the road attempting (foolishly) to cross where she should not be and waiting to proceed into the other side of the street. Then it happened. A taxicab--a New York City taxicab!-- came to a stop in the road..between intersections...when he didn't have to...and waved her across, making sure that she got to the other side safely. This is a great city.

I have not always seen things end that way. At the same point in the road a while ago I saw a black sports car going way too fast between lights hit a man J-walking and send him 10 feet into the air. It was very unsettling to see. But for all the traffic and the hurry, midtown accidents have been rare in my experience.

Though I do see rudeness from time to time, what has struck me about this city is the remarkable civility and even kindness. A woman at 34th and 6th, near Macy's, dropped her cell phone and kept walking. A few steps behind her a gangster-looking fellow said, respectfully, "Excuse me, Ma'am! You dropped your cell phone." He picked it up and handed it to her, and she thanked him.

Here is an example of thoughtfulness on a larger scale. The escalator taking people from the Penn Station concourse (subway and Long Island Rail Road) up to the surface at 34th St and 7th Ave is a long one. There are two of them separated by a stairway in the middle. The convention is that you stand to the right on the escalator so that people who want to climb it can pass by on the left. There are times when I see it full of people standing in a long line on the right hand side. When you're climbing the escalator and someone does happen to be blocking your way, you can gently say "excuse me," and the person will shift aside. You say "thank you," and the city works well.

Consider the significance of what's happening on that escalator. Twenty or thirty New Yorkers standing in a line thinking of other people's convenience. And that simple practice is in turn reinforcing the habit in them of thinking of others generally. I see this all the time, and it is how communities flourish. Twenty-five years ago, James Q. Wilson wrote about broadly improving civility through what one might call the trickle up effect of enforcing small improvements in self-restraint and mutual respect (James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, "Broken Windows," The Atlantic, March 1982).

It is no wonder to me that Reader's Digest ("How Polite Are We?") found New York City to be the most polite major city in the world, exceeding even Toronto in human decency. Ed Koch speculates that it might be the 9/11 effect. Personally, I suspect a combination of Christian influence (there are more of them in New York that you'd think), the residue of Christian culture, and the uniquely American egalitarianism that engenders a fellow feeling that makes this sort of mutual help second nature to those who live under its influence.

See "New York (!) named politest city in world"

Someone writing in the New York Times in 1910 found the same thing: "New York is the Politest City in the World."

Readers Digest explains the politeness test.

We sent undercover reporters -- half of them men, half women -- from Reader's Digest editions in 35 countries to assess the citizens of their most populous city. In each location we conducted three tests:

  • We walked into public buildings 20 times behind people to see if they would hold the door open for us.
  • We bought small items from 20 shops and recorded whether the sales assistants said "Thank you".
  • We dropped a folder full of papers in 20 busy locations to see if anyone would help pick them up.
It is interesting that Asia scores low for politeness, though the story led off with a flattering anecdote about a Korean store clerk. "Asia. Eight out of nine cities there finished in the bottom 11."

In last place was Mumbai, India, where courtesy in shops was particularly lacking. When our female reporter bought a pair of plastic hair clips at a convenience store, sales assistant Shivlal Kumavat turned his back on her as soon as she paid. Asked why, the 31-year-old was unapologetic: "Madam, I am not an educated guy. I hand goods over to the customers and that's it."

In a government-run supermarket a young female employee lied that she hadn't seen what had happened when asked why she didn't help our reporter pick up his papers. Another worker stepped on them. "That's nothing," said the store's security guard. "In Mumbai, they'll step over a person who has fallen in the street."
Good manners are a way of loving your neighbor, and when widely observed they make for a happier life. What contributes to this sort of citizen character is a matter of serious study. It is also a serious question as to whether our civic leaders should be paying any attention at all to the what cultivates this or that character in the citizens. A libertarian would say that people should be "free to choose" whether to be polite or not. (Isn't it amazing how some people can boil the vast complexity of life down to three words?) Serious statesmen, on the other hand, who feel the weight of their unique civic responsibility more heavily, know that it is not only bad company but also bad public policy that corrupts good manners.


RB Glennie said...

hello David -

I can certainly attest from personal experience, that quite contrary to the image of Ny'ers prevalent in the mass media, Gotham is quite a polite town!

It is indeed, far more polite than my own city of Ottawa, which is probably ten times smaller than NYC.

David C. Innes said...

Civil servants are rarely known for their civility.

RB Glennie said...

too true, David!

Richie said...

Fantastic piece. I can attest to dozens of stories similar to the dropped cell phone (and a few horror stories).

I would add that the incredible diversity of cultures represented on this tiny island demand a certain degree of civility.