15 August 2007

Thesis: New Yorkers Possibly Nicer Than Midwesterners

New Yorkers are rude: that's the going cliche. And folks from the Heartland brim over with good will and cheerfulness. I was raised in the Midwest and have lived in New York the past 20 years, so I've had ample opportunity to test the truthfulness of these two bits of conventional wisdom. I've often argued against the former. When a tourist scratches a New Yorker, they usually find a helpful, conscientious individual willing to spend a minute assisting a stranger. Conversely, I've generally accepted the veracity of the latter assertion without question. Midwesterners will knock you down with their niceness, it's so persistent. Or so I've always thought. My recent trip to the Wisconsin, however, made me reconsider.

There's no denying the sweet dispositions of most Wisconsinites. They go out of their way to smile and not offend and keep their voices and enthusiasm tamped down. But this time around it seems like a veneer, one easily cracked. And behind it was barely concealed impatience, irritability and intolerance.

One day I was in line at a book and toy store, buying a present for my son. As I was being rung up, I spotted an additional item I wanted and rushed to the back of the shop to get it. When I returned, there was a woman at the counter asking the clerk some questions. I silently sidled back to my previous position and handed the clerk the additional item. "Sorry," I said, explaining why I had cut in front of her, "I was in the middle of a purchase." The lady told me not to worry, it was nothing. But then she looked at me in a steely kind of way, smiles and said, "You certainly seem to be in a hurry." I glanced at her. Her meaning was clear. She didn't like me.

Another time, a woman was showing me around a lodge I was about to stay in. I asked several questions. I always ask lots of questions; I'm a curious guy. But after maybe the fifth question, she smiled big, looked down at my five-year-old son and said, "How do you put up with them?" Huh?

One day, The Wife spent the day at a nice cafe with wi-fi, because she had been suddenly called up to complete a writing assignment. She was there a few hours, spent money, got friendly with the people who ran the place. At one point she had to Skype without someone in Prague, and asked if the new-age music loop tape could be lowered a bit so she could hear. Now, mind you, this is a cafe that heavily advertises itself as a place for laptop users who can use it as a base to surf the internet all day. Anyway, the formerly nice counter person said, "I think what would work best for you is if you relocate." Which, translated from Midwestern, means "Get out!"

Then there was the smoothie altercation. The Wife went into a cafe that had thitherto proven very friendly and serviceable. She was after a smoothie for our hungry son. She observed that the counter person was about to make the smoothie with some sort of pre-fab fruit mix. Spotting some frozen bananas nearby, she asked if she couldn't have the smoothie made with fresh fruit. The woman became immediately flustered and angry. "I don't know how to make it any other way." My Wife explained how easy it was, one, two, three. "I can't do that!" the clerk answered. "I only can do it this way!" She made the smoothie as usual, slammed it on the counter and walked away in a huff.

There were other such incidents. My wife and I came to the conclusion that perhaps we were more New Yorkers than we thought we were. You know: demanding, particular, wanted our own way, blah, blah, blah. I try to watch out for those tendencies when traveling, but sometimes they seep out. But that couldn't have been the total explanation. We weren't asking for the moon, after all. Just a well-made smoothie. After some thought, I realized that these nice, kind Midwesterners were nice and kind because they were used to not being bothered or tested. People were accepting of whatever it was they were offering and asked nothing more. You smile, I smile, nobody's upset.

Our sin was that we asked questions, we requested things, we expected a certain kind of service. And we were disliked for it. In the Heartland, that's what's known as being "difficult." Everyone in line at every Starbucks in NYC is difficult by these standards.

Now I'm back in New York. I ask. I request. I inquire. The waiters and clerks don't smile necessarily. They're not "nice." But they try to give me what I ask for.

Now, that's nice.

16 comments:

FortGreener said...

And, cher ami, as you mentioned, you've been in NYC for two decades. In that time, the country has been changing and some of the hardest hit by the slide in standard of living and job quality and security live in "middle America"...not that things have not worsened for the working poor in our East Coast cities...but I agree with you on your observations of the increasing edginess and stressed condition that comes across from people you encounter in places that seem, to us, blissfully uncongested, countrified or "nice".

Anonymous said...

You are a NYer. It sounds like you were a pain in the ass. Worse, like a typical parent and typical NYer, you don't get that you were a pain in the ass. I expect the tales would be told very differently by the employees.

Anonymous said...

I've lived in both WI and NYC for about equal amount of time (+10 years each). Been back in NYC again for past 6 years. First of all one thing you have to realize about WI is that while people are nice even by midwest standards its very passive aggressive with smiles accompanied by daggers in the eyes. Also the culture runs generally along the lines of status quo, accept whats offered, dont ask for more and dont ask questions. It was pretty hard adjusting to and from the nuances of midwest culture to the more direct life of NY.

That said looking at your post and only knowing the facts you provide you seem difficult even by NY standards. From what I read you jumped lines and only explained to people after the fact. You want extra special smoothies while the rest of the world gets regular ones. You ask a lot of questions. Etc etc. Most people would give you dirty looks at Duane Reed too.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Guys: what's wrong with asking questions? More than that, what's wrong with listening to questions and answering them? Or is that not part of the "nice" package? I can only ask you to take my word for it: these people were pressed VERY LITTLE before they turned. And they were NASTY. I may have been "difficult," but they were NASTY. As for how I'd be received at Duane Reade, the clerks there may be unresponsive and unhelpful, but at least they understand that questions and demands are part of the equation. I'll take their honest sullenness over the Midwesterners' fake kindness any day.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the second comment.

You sound like a bit of a pain and I'm thinking it isnt the whole story.

Self-awareness.......

Anonymous said...

They are the ugly Americans. You and your wife are the uglier New Yorkers. Case closed.

Anonymous said...

1. Order what they offer or go somewhere else. 2. It's rude to make other people wait while you run to the back of the store. Finish paying for what you have and then go back for whatever it was you forgot. 3. Probably a lot of your questions about the lodge could have been answered by doing a little research online first. And it's not so much what you request but how you request it. Your tone reveals an attitude of condescending parental entitlement. Very Park Slope.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

To all the brave, child-hating Anonymous readers who have commented on this post: If I an indeed a pain in the ass, I hope it's in yours.

AG said...

I'm from the Midwest (Nebraska) but moved to NYC as soon as it was practical, for exactly this reason. Your thesis is correct. What the Midwest frames as "niceness" is simply reserve. Any interaction deviating from a very narrow norm is grounds for your average Midwesterner to feel greatly put upon -- and since too many Midwesterners assume that everybody else thinks and feels exactly the same as they do (what's "normal," in other words), they feel perfecty justified in being nasty to whatever is annoying them.

I will, note, though, that fortgreener's got something there. Not only have conditions worsened in the middle of the country in the past twenty years, but the population itself has changed. In my small town, virtually all the people who stay there after high school are the ones who graduated at the bottom of their classes. Everyone else gets the hell out. If Wisconsin's folk are like those in rural Nebraska, you're dealing with people who are not just stressed but honestly not that functional. Encountering what appears to have been a series of sullen, slow-witted (it takes quick wits to deal with people acting "different," which is why yes, big-city folk really *are* better able to interact with others), hostile natives probably is a lot less coincidental than anyone would like to think.

Chris said...

Brooks not sure where you get the child hating part. SOme comments were a bit harsh. And the treatment you describe at the Smothie place does sound terrible. The cafe so-so. But sorry your behavior at the toy store, way out of line. I'd call you on it kids or no kids, fact is you had a sense of entitlement to even try that, I would have been far worse than you especially in NY. Fact is MWs may be rude to outsiders, sure, but your story also proves NYers think they are god's gifts and we should work around your schedule, you give us all a bad name. So I urge you to understand your wrong-doings as you point out those of others.

Any not every anon blogger is a coward, most of usjust hate signing up for the 101 username/password.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Thanks for the comments, Chris and AG. Just one follow-up on Chris' question about where I get off accusing commenters of "child-hating." (A most sarcastic accusation, by the way; mostly, though not entirely.) I have observed an interesting tendency in the comments over the past year. Whenever I mention my son in a post (which is rarely), and someone doesn't like what I have to say, I am frequently accused of being a monstrous uber-parent, a stoller Nazi, and hailing from the apparently odious Park Slope. And the comment is always Anonymous.

L'Emmerdeur said...

Of course, when I pay $7-$8 for a smoothie, I don't demand that REAL FRIGGIN FRUIT be used, please, go ahead and use the plastic shit that comes from a factory in Guangdong. I will eat it and I will like it.

Idiots. Plastic food for plastic people.

These morons can't even make a decent smoothie, and we expected them to build a reliable car? Jesus. I can't wait until robots replace you in yet another job.

Earl said...

I get you 110!

As a London and NYC savvy Brit living in the heartland I could not be more offended on a daily basis!

Sadly, these people believe they are the best, yet, with their sluggish, low class, mouthy, passive-aggressive, [you name it] phobia, they are proven otherwise by outsiders.

If you have natural vibrancy, spirit, a soul, energy, value to add and share, character, civility, sophistication, meaningfulness, authenticity, global perspective, passion, trust, genuine affection, mental health, and something worth hearing,fly over these flatlanders!

Like so many before me, I'm returning to the sharper, friendlier Christianly people of the coasts! Tomorrow won't come soon enough!

Jasper said...

Wow. Entitled much?

I wouldn't like you either if I had to wait to pay for my purchase while you ran to the back of the store to get something you forgot. You lack of planning should not be made in an inconvenience for me.

The cafe offers internet service, that does not mean they are interested in changing their ambiance, for their customers because of your desires. They were right to refuse, otherwise everyone has to sit and listen to someone's useless blather on Skype, since the music is no longer there.

As to the smoothie, when you are offered something free, say please or no thank you. It is incredibly rude and ill bred to then demand that the free item be changed to something else. If they wanted to offer a smoothie made with real fruit they would have done so. The offer should have been declined if you didn't like what was available.

You are correct in thinking you were "difficult" because in all cases you were.

Anonymous said...

I know this sounds crazy...but I found your blog by googling "midwesterners rude" haha I actually have lived in Seattle until I was 12..then moved to Charlotte NC and then transferred to Louisville KY when I was 24. The funny thing is I found it extremely hard to make friends and feel wanted the entire 8 months I was there. I eventually moved back to Charlotte because I couldnt take it. Louisville itself is an amazing city, there is so much to do, however I was treated very rude, and your blog "NYC possibly nicer" completely hit home to me...I envisioned the midwest to be very friendly and open but I found it to be opposite to be completely honest. I had an earlier discussion with a co-worker who was also from the south and he made a valid point "Maybe why Charlotte is nicer is because there are so many people moving to, and are new to Charlotte that they are automatically friendly to all because they want to make friends" I realized living in KY that almost everyone I met was born and raised in Louisville or from small town KY and already have and kept their group of friends they grew up with. In contrast everyone I met in Charlotte was not from Charlotte..a common question was "where are you from?!" ...maybe that is the same in NYC? you are always nice in bars, shopping, etc. because everyone is searching for a friend? Even the comments are rude haha but I understant you are questioning it just as much as I have...I'm not saying all midwesterners are rude, but maybe there is a different state of mind....

Theresa said...

All these years later (I'm back home in New Jersey now)I still fail to understand why everyone I met in Iowa and Ohio (were we lived when dad was tranferred for his job) would mock my accent and make jokes at my expense -- suggesting each time that I was a "snob." This would happen to me upon any introduction, and as soon as people heard how I spoke, they POUNCED with the insults. Oh, the yuck yucking among them when they did that. After all, I'm just supposed to stand there and hear my own speech patterns made fun of with nasty jokes and half-a-dozen good old friendly midwesterners snickering out loud about my "nasal whine," right? But, of course, they're FRIENDLY, right? We did nothing to deserve that kind of nasty reaction from people, and my family experienced it way too often. Today we still scratch our heads over it -- THEY thought WE were rude?