Privacy across cultures

I hear so many visitors say that New Yorkers are unfriendly.  I remember reading one particularly resonant (but stupid) comment:  “New Yorkers are so unfriendly—they don’t even look at each other on the street!”  Really?  So you’re unfriendly if you don’t look up at everyone who passes by?

I grew up in Seoul, South Korea, a suburb of D.C., and Central Jersey before moving to New York City for college.  (I consider the Jersey suburb my hometown.)  I didn’t find the city or its people overwhelming or off-putting at all, but then again, i did grow up in a fairly large and developed suburb.  On the contrary, i actually found New Yorkers to be much friendlier than Jerseyans.  I found myself in many an argument with those who complained about the unfriendliness of New Yorkers.  

In the end, it comes down to this:  it’s a matter of privacy, not friendliness.  New Yorkers, like all inhabitants of big cities, work hard to stay inside their individual bubbles.  Everyone is constantly bumping into one another, but they’re all encapsulated in their own dedicated bubbles, so they bounce right off of one another and keep on truckin’ along.  But once the bubble is broken—and they do break, whether by accident or purpose—they’re the same human beings as all the other human beings in the world.  (For a similar take on this, read these excerpts from E. B. White’s Here is New York.)  We need those bubbles; otherwise, we’d all go crazy from the constant contact and interaction!  We’re already overstimulated.  

So New Yorkers are not necessarily unfriendly; there’s just a stronger sense of and need for privacy in New York.  But the story doesn’t end there, does it?  The U.S. has a stronger sense of privacy than most countries.  The terrible time i had during my semester in Paris ultimately boiled down to one thing:  the lack of privacy.  It wasn’t just the cultural mindset; it was all levels of privacy, including the spatial, the visual, and the physical.  They stood too close, they stared, they touched.  The first i don’t have too much of a problem with, but the last two things, to me, signify a lack of respect.  When someone stares at me and continues to stare even when i look back, or uses my shoulder as support to walk through the metro when it is moving, i feel that that person is treating me not as a person, but as an object.  Many would say that i am overreacting, but you know what, i grew up in a culture (and region) that values privacy, and i don’t think my opinions on this matter are unshared.  

I struggled with the same lack of privacy when i visited Seoul this past summer.  I had to deal with the same things all over again:  the staring, the touching, the pushing….  Some people say that a culture’s sense of privacy may be directly relational to its heterogeneity, but i don’t think it’s as simple as that.  Yes, Seoul is very homogenous, but Paris isn’t.  I can’t put my finger on it yet, but suffice it to say that i don’t think a culture’s homo/heterogeneity is the only factor that plays into its sense of privacy.  

So what do you think?  What are your thoughts on privacy?  How important is it to you, and when you find yourself in a different culture, do you demand the amount of privacy that you are used to, or do you go with the flow?


Filed under culture, new york

3 responses to “Privacy across cultures

  1. Ronnie

    I am a native New Yorker transplanted in Connecticut and I think you have hit upon something with the privacy issue. I like your “bubble” analogy. I personally think New Yorkers (especially the natives) are some of the friendliest and genuinely nice people in the world. I can’t understand why New Yorkers have a reputation for unfriendliness. I personally think New Englanders are far more unfriendly. I have been living in CT for 8 years and still feel like a social misfit. People are very insular here and stay inside their little cocoons. They look at you like you have five heads if you even talk to them. You can never break through the bubble here. This is so the contrary in New York, it’s not funny. Any surface appearance of unfriendliness is soon dispelled as soon as you talk to a New Yorker. New Yorkers are open, talkative, and likely to offer you the shirt of their backs if you need it. Think I’m exaggerating? Try to remember what September 11th was like. New Yorkers pulled together so well that it shocked the people who had preconceived ideas about them.

    I had many friends when I lived in New York. It was easy to make friends there. People live a different kind of open, sociable lifestyle there. Here people only venture out of the house to go to the shopping malls. And forget about meeting anyone there! You can make friends in NY anywhere you go. All you have to do is sit in a pub and people will talk to you. My friends still living in NY all have social activities every day of the week, including my 81 year old father – While I sit at home looking at the four walls. What’s wrong with this picture? So I for one know that New Yorkers get a bad rap for being unfriendly.

    When I went to the Midwest people were over-friendly and I thought they were wonderful until I realized that it was all surface phoniness and that if you turned your back they still might stab you in the back. In NY it’s the opposite. They may not come off as friendly on the surface but once you break the ice they are the truest friends you’ll ever make.

  2. n

    Thanks for the wonderful comment, Ronnie. I agree with everything you said and couldn’t have said it better myself. I’m currently living in Central Jersey and commuting to New York for school, and it feels like i straddle two completely different worlds everyday. Life in a Jersey suburb, where everything looks and is mass-produced, including the people’s characters and ideologies, it seems, is suffocating to say the least.

    Stay strong in CT, and i hope you’ll soon be able to return to NY!

  3. Pingback: Privacy = Friendliness?? | TimeLords

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