New Yorkers – Hostiles or What?

Based on four months of moving around New York City, I now feel equipped to address the age-old question whether New Yorkers are basically “hostile” or are they just “direct,” as many claim. I am prompted to address this, in part, because I recently received a report of an opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which encompasses New York, Connecticut and Vermont. In the legal profession, the Second Circuit is generally regarded as very influential because it decides a lot of important cases. But even the opinions on lesser matters can be revealing.

A case in point, and it’s a doozy, is Wright v. Musanti, decided April 13, 2018. The opinion consumes 25 pages and can be read, by those with stamina to slog through long discourse on court jurisdiction, here:  For”” the rest of you, and apropos of the central idea of this post, this brief description will suffice:

Wright cut in front of Musanti as they were walking to their respective Manhattan offices during rush hour. Musanti responded by kicking Wright’s legs, and a verbal and physical altercation ensued. Musanti pressed criminal charges, telling the police that Wright was the initial aggressor, but the district court, relying on video footage and the testimony of both parties, found that Musanti had been the initial aggressor and had given false information to the police. Musanti was found liable for the battery, assault, and false arrest of Wright. The district court awarded Wright nominal, compensatory, and punitive damages (totaling $15, 001). The Second Circuit affirmed, upholding findings that Musanti gave false information to the police by failing to inform them that she initiated the physical contact, and by intentionally downplaying her aggressive conduct and that in requesting that the police press charges, Musanti had induced the police to arrest Wright, because Wright likely would have been released but for her request. It was within the court’s discretion to find that conduct amply egregious to merit punitive damages. [ summary at]

Ouch. The actual opinion elaborates the facts more deeply but I will leave that to those with the curiosity to look at the actual opinion.

I do not for a moment suggest that the conduct described here is typical. Indeed, I am sure it’s not. In my own encounters with New Yorkers on the streets and in shops, I have found them, for the most part, to be helpful and often quite friendly. New Yorkers are indeed “direct” but this should not be confused with “hostile.” It is part cultural and partly, I speculate, a product of the time pressure that everyone seems to feel about almost everything. There are, for example, usually long lines in store check-outs, carry-outs and diners at popular times. People generally seem to feel they have no time for small talk. It’s “what do you want?” and “wait here.”

The key, I believe, is to not presume aggression and to smile a lot and even crack wise just a bit. I am not a gifted humorist but I generally can get a laugh or at least a smile. Sometimes, just shaking your head in an empathic gesture can draw a positive reaction from a worker who has just been disrespected by a customer in a hurry and short on manners.

On the streets, as I have noted before, I am generally the slowest walker (some elderly, of which there are many in The City, are slower than me – I’m talking about those not obviously encumbered by age or other infirmity}. It’s generally wise to stay to the right, but people in a hurry will sometimes pass you on the right even if it means going out into the street.

There is also a lot of crossing-in-front-of-you going on. People emerge from doors right onto the sidewalk as if there could not possibly be anyone walking there, when the reality is that always people are always walking by. It is also common to have people move diagonally across intersections to, apparently, save a few steps by avoiding right angles. They usually are moving faster than everyone else and yield to no one. This is expected and accepted. Those obsessed with “hurry” instinctively commiserate with others similarly afflicted.

The same is true for bike lanes. We had some bike lanes in Virginia but in the urban space of New York City, bike lanes are a critical element of commerce. Delivery men, mostly men, on bikes of various descriptions, roar by in expectation that pedestrians will not be in their way. They often move fast, with various forms of cargo on their backs, on racks, on the handle bars or even in plastic bags held in their teeth. You must remain situationally aware of the bikes at all times, as much as with the automobile traffic. [I will address the practice of horn-honking in a separate post]

All that being true, actual physical contact is rare. Not infrequently, people passing in tight spaces will say “excuse me” and if you yield to them so they can pass, they often say “thank you.” What more can you ask?

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