I enjoyed Deborah Tannen‘s book You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation—it’s so nice to see a real linguist connect with a wide public, instead of the likes of Lynne Truss!—so I was glad to encounter her account of “New York Style” in PBS’s Do You Speak American? series. Sure, it’s anecdotal, but it comes with a bibliography, and the anecdotes are great:

New Yorkers seem to think the best thing two people can do is talk. Silence is okay when you’re watching a movie (though it might be better punctuated by clever asides), or when you’re asleep (collecting dreams to tell when you awake), but when two or more people find themselves together, it’s better to talk. That’s how we show we’re being friendly. And that’s why we like to talk to strangers—especially if we won’t be with them long, such as in an elevator or on a bank line. This often makes non-New Yorkers think we’re trying to start something more than a conversation.
Once, when I was visiting San Francisco, my friend and I stopped in the street to look something up in her guidebook, and she complained that the book wasn’t very clear. A man who was walking by turned to us and said “Oh, that book’s no good. The one you should get is this,” pulling a guidebook out of his bag to show us. I couldn’t resist checking out my hypothesis, so I asked where he was from. He had just flown in from New York.
After we talked about New York-California differences for a few minutes, the visiting New Yorker suggested that we exchange our guidebook for the one he recommended, so we all went back to the store where my friend had bought her book a few hours before. In the bookstore, our new friend called over his shoulder, “Have you read Garp?” I answered, “No should I?” “Yes,” he said, animatedly. “It’s great!” Then I heard a voice behind us saying, “Oh, is it?” I’ve been thinking of reading that.” I looked around and saw a woman no longer paying attention to us. I asked her where she was from: another New Yorker.

(Thanks for the link, Amelia!)


  1. SnowLeopard says

    It’s unclear to me how she chooses to define New Yorkers, so I’m not sure I qualify. Natives? People who move here from elsewhere in the US? People who move here from elsewhere on the planet? People who are not profound introverts? People who have ventured beyond the Gates of Solipsism to see another part of the country? I can count only four times in 10 years when anyone here has ever commented on my subway reading. Two, both five years ago, involved Iranians asking with excitement why I was teaching myself Farsi. One three years ago asked for the name of the author’s restaurant and blanched when I gave the French pronunciation. And the one this year asked me to define the term “aspect”, which appeared in the subtitle. People mostly just skim the blurb on the back cover and keep to themselves whatever thoughts they may have on mycology, cannibalism, Renaissance banking, and the rest.

  2. I always think of being a New Yorker as a state of mind. It is equally “New York” to say “Yeah, that’s just what we’re like! Lemme tell you about a time…” and to respond with “That’s a load of crap. Lemme tell you what New Yorkers are really like…”

  3. Well, you can’t expect strangers to talk to you on the New York subway, I think that’s crossing the line. But in other circumstances – waiting in lines, sporting events, book stores, bars, etc, I think it is true that New Yorkers are pretty loquacious, certainly compared to Bostonians.

  4. She has done a couple documentaries, which we watched in my Comp. Ling. class (I picked up this book at the same time). I’ve since bought several more of her works and have enjoyed them all. It’s a sociolinguistic perspective that I find engaging and enlightening and it dovetails very nicely with some of my own research in sociocultural anthropology.

  5. It’s definitely not just New York. Last summer, while walking back from a lakefront volleyball game in Chicago with a couple of acquaintances from Australia, I had occasion to chat with a stranger who was walking our way. The Aussies later told me they found it extremely odd, to the point of being slightly frightening, that I would talk to someone I hadn’t been introduced to (it might have had something to do with the fact that the stranger was male and the acquaintances were female). They seemed to think something weirdly sexual and/or criminal was going on.
    But I see people in Chicago chatting with strangers every day, and do it myself all the time, without a second thought.

  6. The contrast may be with Boston, where (according to my son, who spent two years in college there) no one will talk to you unless they know who you are.
    Strangers talk to you on the West Coast too, I think.

  7. My German sister-in-law says that in Germany you never talk to a stranger in a public place.
    Or Sweden. Desert island joke punchline (Steve’s heard it): “When a ship picked them up a year later the Norwegians were drunk, the Finns were fighting, the Danes were starting up a small export business, and the Swedes were waiting to be introduced.”

  8. Never done in Japan either. I suppose that isn’t very surprising. It _is_ surprising how many offworlders take it personally and/or racially, though.

  9. Ginger Yellow says

    As a Londoner, I firmly believe such bhaviour is freakish and wrong.

  10. That’s bizarre. I always thought that New Yorkers (or people in any major city for that matter) were colder than that: the more densely populated, the more closed off you are from your neighbors. But perhaps that’s just my prejudice against large cities.
    The Londoner’s comment reinforces what I’ve heard about introvert-oriented England. I once remarked that I should go live there so people wouldn’t think I’m a freak for being an introvert (I was living in Haiti at the time). But what I really wish for is the elusive happy medium.
    By the way, I don’t think the critique of Lynne Truss is entirely fair. If you had read her book, you would see that her “zero-tolerance approach” is based on coherence (which of course is the purpose of punctuation), not stuffy prescriptivism.

  11. Ginger Yellow says

    It’s not an England-wide thing. Northerners are always mocking southerners, and Londoners in particular, for being unfriendly gits. Of course we’re not, we just don’t usually start talking randomly to strangers outside of specific social contexts. We talk to our neighbours and friends all the time. I suspect (anecdote /= data warning) it has to do with the hideously cramped nature of the London Underground and the high proportion of nutters/miscreants on the buses. It’s much easier/more relaxing to close yourself off in a little bubble.

  12. David Marjanović says

    My German sister-in-law says that in Germany you never talk to a stranger in a public place.

    Very rare in Austria, too. You’d most likely be considered slightly mentally ill, at least at first.

  13. One of the things that made me love Austin (TX) was that someone was likely to say hello and remark on the weather while passing on the street. For a northern midwesterner that seemed like the epitome of southern hospitality. After that, I felt really cheated in Portland (OR), where people hardly acknowledged each other. London (UK) was worse, given that people are just generally more uptight and not given to any sort of expressive gestures.
    I do find people to be both friendlier and more animated in the regional cities like Edinburgh, Newcastle and Hereford, where pub culture retains its conviviality, and there seems to be less judgement about one’s speech habits.
    But tops for public interaction has to be the Bay Area. I can’t think of any place else where people dress up for each other, put on silly and wonderful gear as a mode of creative dialogue. New Orleans maybe?

  14. mollymooly says

    In Ireland a man may chat to the stranger at the next urinal. However, everyone remains silent in a lift.

  15. I a Texan who does not live in Texas and who has lived in many of the places mentioned. Interesting.
    Reminded me of my honeymoon on a Virgin Island resort where I discovered “small talk instructions” in the welcome pack. Curious, I dove in.
    The meat of it was this:
    “When approaching another guest of the resort while on the property, please do not ask ‘How are you?’ or any other such question. Do not say “Hello.” On the islands we say “Good Morning, Good Afternoon or Good Evening.””
    EXACTLY what my Mama told us.
    It works well, is warm, is friendly but doesn’t rope you into to riduculous exchange which, at best goes like this:
    How are you?
    I’m fine thank you. And you?
    Also fine. Thank you.
    At worst:
    How are you?
    Not so good… blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. And you?
    Holy Christ! I was fine and now I just want to hide.

    Good Morning, Good Afternoon and Good Evening are the best.

  16. marie-lucie says

    In many cultures it is considered rude to ask questions, as you are putting people on the spot, obliging them not only to talk when they might not wish to, but to display their ignorance if they cannot answer.
    Personally, I am especially annoyed at the supermarket cashiers who greet every customer with “How are you?” or even “How are you today?” Sometimes I say “How are you yourself?”, which makes some of them uncomfortable. The British “Good morning (etc), nice day, isn’t it?” is at least neutral.
    Suzette Hagen Elgin wrote a book, “The gentle art of verbal self-defence”, in which she suggests ways to answer unwelcome questions without being rude oneself. For instance, launching into a catalog of one’s woes, pretending to get mixed up (let me see…, was it two years ago? no, wait, it must have been three years, because that was when my uncle …) etc., in order to bore the questioner into making their own excuse to avoid you.
    Not too long ago I heard a program on the radio on how to deal with telemarketers who interrupt your dinner intending to ask you lots of questions or sell you something. Some people were taking the opportunity as a creative challenge: how to string on the questioner, making them waste their time, or annoy them so much that they would take the lead in hanging up. The one I thought funniest was (if the questioner was a man): “Oh, Daddy, Daddy! when are you coming home?”

  17. I am over fifty and have always lived in South Florida but beginning in college and for the next twenty years, my clients were older than I by twenty years, Jewish, and New Yorkers. Perhaps there are cultural norms for business people in certain social situations that differ from the balance of a community. Whatever the reason, I always found myself out of step with people my own age. They find me abrupt and rude.
    But from my perspective, I find people who don’t share this heritage to be overly concerned with appearances to the point of being dishonest. So if I ask you how you are, I am prepared for a litany of complaint because I care about you.

  18. What an antifeminist twit, is Tannen. It’s okay that men are dominating and aggressive in conversation, it’s biological! Sorry, is that too “ad feminam”?

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