It thrills me to no end that I am going to a retreat this weekend with a bunch of students from NYC. Why? Because I won’t have to talk so slow and constantly regulate my enthusiasm and keep myself from interrupting. I won’t have to count to three when someone is done speaking just to make sure I’m not interjecting too quickly. I’m not particularly good at doing those things, mind you: I’m still from New York and have all the speech patterns Deborah Tannen talks about in this article.
A Californian who visited New York once told me he’d found New Yorkers unfriendly when he’d tried to make casual conversation. I asked what he made conversation about. Well, for example, how nice the weather was. Of course! No New Yorker would start talking to a stranger about the weather—unless it was really bad. We find it most appropriate to make comments to strangers when there’s something to complain about—“Why don’t they do something about this garbage!” “Ever since they changed the schedules, you can’t get a bus!” Complaining gives us a sense of togetherness in adversity. The angry edge is aimed at the impersonal “they” who are always doing things wrong. The person is thus welcomed into a warm little group. Since Californians don’t pick up this distinction between “us” and “them,” they are put off by the hostility, which they feel could be turned on them at any moment.
But around other New Yorkers I can fucking relax and expect people to be a little louder, a little more dramatic, to clip my sentences and know, when I clip theirs, that I am only showing enthusiasm.
In a really good New York conversation, more than one person is talking a lot of the time. Throughout the conversations I have taped and analyzed, New York listeners punctuate a speaker’s talk with comments, reactions, questions (often asking for the very information that is obviously about to come). None of this makes the New York speaker stop. On the contrary, he talks even more—louder, faster—and has even more fun, because he doesn’t feel he’s in the conversation alone. When a non-New Yorker stops talking at the first sign of participation from the New Yorker, he’s the one who’s creating the interruption, making a conversational bully out of a perfectly well-intentioned cooperative overlapper.
This was the part that made me laugh the hardest, though:
New Yorkers also think it’s nice to let others in on their thoughts and tell about their personal experiences; the expectation is that others will do the same. Often, however, the others do not understand this unspoken arrangement. A friend of mine from the Midwest had a date with a Jewish man who regaled her with stories of his personal life. In exasperation, she asked, “Why are you telling me all this?” and was utterly bewildered when he explained, “I want to get to know you.”
Because this business is exactly what gets me in trouble here. Moreso is that when people do respond by telling me equally personal things, they seem to get uncomfortable at having done so later and then get a little distant.
But for a weekend, fellow New Yorkers, and all together we can complain and interrupt and show untoward enthusiasm. I can’t wait.
And much thanks to my fabulous new friend Mary who first turned me onto this article and who, after I apologized for cutting her off in conversation, said “Don’t worry about it. You’re a New Yorker. That’s normal for you guys.” So now I know it takes an anthropologist from the Midwest to understand what the fuck I’m talking about.