June 30, 2009

"The street etiquette of avoiding eye contact lets us go about our business without the distraction of interaction."

"Most people wear the New York 'street face.' It’s a kind of neutral expression with a touch of 'don’t mess with me.' It has a do-not-disturb aura. But the truth is that everyone is looking at everyone else all the time. It’s done on the sly, looking away when caught, often with instinctive pretense..."

Most people in New York wear the New York "street face." I do it in New York too and no one ever messed with me (in the 10+ years I lived there). But elsewhere, you can walk along looking happy and friendly. You can make eye contact and when it gets reciprocal eye contact, you can even say "hi," and still, no one messes with you.

Cool animation at the link, by the way...

24 comments:

nansealinks said...

Street ettiquette?

what about lane ettiquette?

there is this big buddha guy at the pool who always tried to make eye contact with me. Finally i gave in and met his eyes. He is very into the paranormal.

I know the possibilities of his behaviour and my human protective self shield wears thin at times.

Last summer he drove me home from the pool once because i really was too exhausted to walk. Instead of turning onto my street he said he would just drop me off at a stopping place on the main street around the corner. he dumped me off at the one strip joint in town. That made me angry.

This year i have avoided him until yesterday when he came in my lane to swim on a sunday when i do my meditational music and slow exercise. I avoided eye contact and brushed him off quickly. He got whiff of my human shield acting up. That paranormal freak made the wind blow when i got out of the pool to make my nipples stand up and stared at my other eyes. I however have forearms that are quick and powerful that dodge lighteing bolts like that if I want.

I think he thinks that all there really is is the hokey pokey. Not in my purgatory.

J Lee said...

The default position/attitude of New Yorkers is that the other person(s) they come in contact with are going to try and scam/harass/intimidate them, hence "The Face", to ward off any problems before they arrive (the corollary is once New Yorkers feel safe that the person they're dealing with is not going to try and scam/harass/intimidate them, they'll drop the dour look and open up like people in other parts of the country).

EDH said...

I'll never forget my introduction to the sidewalk culture during the first hour of my first stay in NYC for the 1980 Democratic National Convention.

Just arrived, still in my teens, had a beer in a bar.

After leaving the bar I was so excited to be there, taking in all the sights, that while walking down the street I must have been smiling ear to ear.

I really wasn't aware until two guys walking the other way down the sidewalk passed, and I could hear one of them say from behind "what the fuck was he smiling about!"

Thinking about it, my smile must have been so outside the norm that he stepped outside the norm, not by noticing (because "the truth is everyone is looking at everyone else all the time"), but by commenting about it, loudly.

Quayle said...

When in New York, I too use a street face.

But when here in Texas, I usually take my hand off my gun belt, and tip my hat to passing strangers.

Fred4Pres said...

There is actually a lot of eye contact in New York City in the neighborhood where you live. It is not so much at random street level but in the shops and places you go on a regular basis. New York is not one big city, but a collection of hundreds of neighborhoods and small communities. And if you live in one of those neighborhoods long enough you become part of that community. It is really not much different than life in a small town anywhere.

The sidewalk street face is often a defense from being overwhelmed with everything that is going on when you travel from your own community to elsewhere in the city. If you do not display that "face" you come off as a mark and target for the crazies (fortunately relatively few) who are out there.

Shanna said...

It also works well at the mall to avoid those annoying people trying to sell dead sea salts.

Fred4Pres said...

nansealinks...wow. That was quite the post.

nansealinks said...

oops not yesterday. yesterday was fine. it is tuesday. yesterday was monday and a fine day finding a green bathing suit and spending time with someone giving me directions and showing me the busstop.
i did wake up one more day, didn't I?

AllenS said...

Where I live, we smile at each other all the time. Which usually brings a response of: "Nice tooth."

traditionalguy said...

You stay alert for aggressive walkers who are into a performance of dominance. We pretend they are not there so that we don't have to confront them(who has the time?) or submit to them either. The young females are the most aggressive walkers these days. The black guys are less so now since Obama was elected. Just being zoned out and in ignorant bliss is another option. Angry looking white guys over 60 are the least attractive part of the parade these days.

nansealinks said...

shanna,

I had the most wonderful time in the mall with the dead sea salt guy last summer. He is used to approaching sceptics and has the seeling game as an act. i approached as a sceptic and he started his regular spiel. then i went out of the sceptic and started joking with him and countering with a kind of selling strategy of my own. We spent the time laughing and playing off each others words. i bought the salt just because of the entertainment we had together.

I remember him stopping in the middle of the act, looking at me directly and saying,

wow i like you.

dang that he was so young and beautiful to boot. the deepest darkest eyes i had seen for a while.

fact is during the winter when my house was freezing and i only had a space heater and the water was cold, those bath salts were the only way i bathed with a gallon of water heated on the stove. And i got so squeaky clean from them and my skin was softer than a baby's arse.

Man if that young guy has a father with eyes like that, i want to meet him.

also I now realize the lies i learned in sixth grade social studies about people not bathing and being stinking and filthy in europe. No, they used salts.

William said...

The ultimate shell shocked, neural shutdown NYC face used to be found on the subway. It's not so bad now, but during the 80's schizos and felons were released to the IRT to work on their social skills and make a few bucks panhandling. These were not people who avoided eye contact. I think the only way they could appreciate the importance of their existence was by reading the discomfort on their fellow passengers' faces.

Kirby Olson said...

You never know who's a psycho in NYC so it keeps everyone off of everyone else. I think they're the warmest people on oith.

rhhardin said...

Goffman called it civil inattention.

Aaron said...

The eerie subway silence was a thing to get over. on one of my few trips there i took the subway to see someone at the second circuit court of appeals. i wore a suit and i didn't realize it but part of my jacket was falling into a guy's face. he kind of spazzed out pushing it away but didn't say a word. i even said "sorry," but not a word.

But bluntly i wonder how much it is new yorkers believing the stereotypes of the city from 20 years ago. i remember my first trip and after having heard the legend for ten some odd years, that if i just made eye contact i would be stabbed or something, i found in fact the city was a pussycat. i felt totally safe and i didn't give a sh-- about keeping that front up. but then i am a guy, and we are inherently more intimidating by benefit of stereotype.

Beth said...

I live in a city, a Southern city, but urban for sure. I find expressions are circumstantial. In an area where I have to be careful, I have the urban, closed look - but I make eye contact with everyone, in an "I see you" warning.

But for the most part, people here are open-faced, and we smile at each other for no reason, just passing by. We'll talk with people we don't know at the drop of a hat.

rhhardin said...

You don't get civil inattention in dogs until everybody's sniffed everybody else's butt.

Richard Dolan said...

People overdo the "NYC face" thing. I've lived here a long time, and walk over the B'klyn Bridge most days to/from work. In a crowded city, it's just normal to respect other people's privacy. But it's not rooted in fear, or a concern that harassment and general unpleasantness are just one eye-contact away. You don't live in a city as crowded as this if you don't enjoy the sheer density and variety it offers, which makes people watching the NYC sport of choice, but you also learn quickly that a person's private space should be respected.

In my experience, NYers are happy to be helpful to strangers on the street but aren't likely to offer any unless asked. There is a natural reserve that NYers exhibit on the sidewalk or the subway. Except for the occasional jerk or wacko, they're not looking to butt into other peoples' lives. But for those who suggest it's a form of hostility or stems from a desire to avoid any interaction with strangers, I think you misunderestimate the native NY fauna. It's really a form of respect for the other person.

Kirby Olson said...

I agree with Richard here, that if you ask a civil question of a N Yorker without getting too far into their physical space, they will be inordinately helpful. They really are the warmest people on oith, probably because they are the happiest.

Lem said...

I knew there was a reason why we hadn’t seen Trooper ;)

joated said...

Coming from northern NJ, my son and I were driving the roads in the southwest Adirondacks where we had recently purchased a second home. Whenever I passed a driver going in the opposite direction or someone working in their yard, they would wave at me and I would wave back. Finally my son asked, "Dad, do you know them?" To which I replied, "No. Not yet."

That one has to don a "street face" in the city speaks volumes about the friendliness of such places.

Beth said...

I like that Adirondack story, because it's just like that here in the South. I may have posted this on another thread at some point, but this seems a good place for our favorite Cajun joke:

How do you get a one-armed Cajun out of a tree?


Wave at him.

Ohhh, it sounds mean but it's true.

kentuckyliz said...

Where I live, in the Appalachian mountains in the near South, there is no such thing as a stranger. You make eye contact and smile and say hi to people and strike up conversations with people. I prefer to live in this kind of a town, frankly. The town's motto, reflecting its beauty, simplicity, friendliness, and hard working productive nature, is "Mayberry With Muscle."

My sis lives on a farm in Iowa and I love that place too. The Iowa wave is when you are driving down the road in opposite directions and you lift your forefinger off the steering wheel as a little wave of acknowledgement to your neighbor. (You're interdependent, after all.) Sometimes I catch myself doing that out of resurrected habit, but it really isn't a Southern thing. In the South, you would actually stop on the road and roll down your window and talk to each other. LOL

I remember to put on my city mask as needed, though.

Mark Daniels said...

Whenever I have been to New York, I've always found it to be a very friendly place. Whether in Lower Manhattan, Harlem, or elsewhere, there have always been people who have initiated conversation on the streets and in the shops. By contrast, I find that the majority of people in the small Appalachian town of 6500 in which I now live never make eye contact while walking on the streets, never even acknowledge a person passing within a foot of them who says, "Hi." I'm not complaining about Logan, where people are extremely friendly in other settings. But on the street, not so much, a contrast to my experience of New York.