From giggles of recognition for a cartoon about poor deli line etiquette to guffaws at the physical humor in a story about two friends with different concepts of personal space, laughter was frequent during a recent workshop on the dos and don’ts of New York City etiquette held in NYU Law’s Furman Hall.
That’s the thing about the little mishaps that result when cultures collide: They’re funny when they’re not making your life miserable.
Preventing the latter is the name of the game for Associate Director for International Student Services Tom Sirinides, who led this thoughtful yet lighthearted discussion on the peculiarities of the five boroughs for a batch of lawyers recently arrived from all over the globe—mostly students in the School of Law’s LLM program, designed for those already practicing law in their home countries.
Sirinides cautioned that—despite being a New Jersey native who married a born-and-bred Manhattanite—he couldn’t possibly answer every conceivable question about life in the Big Apple. But he gamely fielded queries on everything from the aggressive chattiness of waiters (they’re working for tips, he explained to one bewildered Brazilian) to what to make of the chill already creeping into the September air. His recommendation to a Nigerian staring down her first Northeastern winter? “Buy a big puffy coat. And layer underneath.”
The Europeans in attendance seemed to find especially edifying Sirinides’ analysis of the curious American habit of asking, “How are you?” and then more or less ignoring the answer. “It’s not really a question—it’s a greeting,” he explained, walking briskly across the room to demonstrate how one might lob the phrase toward a passing colleague without slowing to listen for a response.
Much of Sirinides’ advice on staying out of trouble in a city where people can seem brusque boiled down to a single rule of thumb—one even those of us who’ve lived here a while would do well to keep in mind when we’re feeling fragile: New Yorkers don’t mean to be rude; they’re just impatient. Time is highly valued here, so we show others respect by making an effort not to waste theirs. This means:
Watch where you walk. On stairs, keep right. When traveling in a group, stick to walking single file or two-by-two so others can pass on the sidewalk. Don’t pause right at the top of the subway steps, no matter how tired you are—take just a few more steps to get out of the way of traffic behind you. And if you haven’t decided exactly what you want on your sandwich by the time you reach the deli counter, offer to let the next person in line order first.
When asking for directions, get right to the point. New Yorkers will gladly help you once they know you’re lost, but lengthy introductions will only get in the way.
Be (relatively) punctual. Whereas in some cultures an agreement to meet at 10 really means to arrive at 10:30, here people start to get antsy after just a few minutes. A five-minute delay will be forgiven, but after 15 minutes things become tense. Arrive a half-hour late and you might face some real hostility.
Other topics covered included how to share space (probably not to plop down right next to someone if there’s plenty of room at the other end of the bench), how to greet someone you’ve just met (a firm handshake is a safe bet in most situations), and how to deal with frustration and homesickness (find someone you trust to answer your most embarrassing questions, and try to keep a sense of humor). Sirinides also handed out bookmarks with a diagram showing the different phases of cultural transition, from the fun “honeymoon” phase to disillusionment and avoidance and back to tolerance and understanding. He gently warned the group that after spending time abroad, they might also experience a kind of “reverse culture shock” upon returning home to a place that might suddenly seem different from how they remembered it. Travel changes people.
But the most important lesson? Never confuse differences in etiquette with moral failings—or, in other words, don’t assume someone is wrong or backward just because his or her customs differ from what you’re used to. That’s as true in your hometown as anywhere in the world you might visit.