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?