Today was one of those days when I was reminded how English I actually am. Until you have actually lived abroad, you often don’t realise how ingrained your cultural habits can be. Or how difference can so easily confuse and offend.
So here was my reminder. I was bantering at work with an American male colleague – and the back and forth suddenly rubbed him up the wrong way. This forced me – and not for the first time – to have to undo the damage of my ‘rudeness’ quite quickly. And on the way home, it set me thinking about what I, in contrast, struggled with in terms of New York culture. The answer came to me quickly – it was also rudeness, but of a different kind.
The rudeness that jars with Americans is the British art of sarcastic banter. You can call a British mate or friendly work colleague (within certain limits) a useless dickhead and it’s acknowledged that it’s a joke, a game. Not so even in New York, where I thought wisecracking was practically an art form.
I had been briefed in advance by an American work colleague in London that even when being sarcastic, it was wise to add ‘I’m just kidding’ afterwards. My failure to do so since arriving has got me into trouble on several occasions. The dryness of my humour is mistaken for trying to cause deliberate offence. The only guy with whom my repartee works is from the Far East, who has a similar sense of humour.
On the flip side, the rudeness that jars for me as an Englishman in New York is the lack, by British standards, of any manners. I’ve learnt to accept it now, but at first I was outraged at its absence. If you hold a door for someone, they will usually march through without even looking at you. People will sit on the subway with their bag on the seat – forcing others to stand – without batting an eyelid. In restaurants, they often omit to say excuse me, please or thank you to servers. One infamous time, a woman walked right at me in the street and then icily insisted I step out of her way. Rude, rude, rude, rude, rude.
Partly, it’s a New York thing. I was told the New Yorker joke about how tourists should learn to say ‘Do you know the way to the Empire State Building, or should I just go f**k myself?’. People from other parts of America stress that the rest of the States isn’t like this. One of my friends from the Midwest opened a door last week in the subway for an elderly lady, saying ‘let me get this for you, it’s heavy’. The woman’s response? ‘You’re an asshole’. ‘My first real New York moment’, is how she later put it.
So different city, different rules of what constitutes ‘rude’. The lesson being – in New York, hold the sarcasm, but not the door.