Ask A Native New Yorker: Is It OK To Make Eye Contact With Others?
A young Jake Dobkin throws up his hands and says “Fuck it, maybe I’m just a preppy after all!” (Courtesy Private Jake Dobkin Collection)
Are you relatively new to this fine metropolis? Don’t be shy about it, everyone was new to New York at one time… except, of course, those battle-hardened residents who’ve lived here their whole lives and Know It All. One of these lifers works among us at Gothamist—publisher Jake Dobkin grew up in Park Slope and currently resides in Brooklyn Heights. He is now fielding questions—ask him anything by sending an email here, but be advised that Dobkin is “not sure you guys will be able to handle my realness.” We can keep you anonymous if you prefer; just let us know what neighborhood you live in.
This week’s question comes from two newcomers who aren’t sure what to do with their eyes:
Dear Native New Yorker,
I’ve lived here for about nine months, and as I’ve been making my life here I’ve been tempted to tilt my head toward the sky to examine the beauty of the skyscrapers around me. The problem is when I do this I look like some tourist. How do native New Yorkers steal a glance of the architectural splendor around them? Or don’t they ever?
Dear Native New Yorker,
I’ve heard New Yorkers don’t make eye contact with each other on the street, so since I moved here last year, I’ve kept my eyes down, but now I’m always bumping into things. How do you guys live like this?
A Native New Yorker replies:
There are many New York stereotypes that seem ridiculous to us natives—for instance that we’re rude (that’s just honesty, motherfucker!), or that we can’t drive (or maybe you just don’t know how to cross a street, motherfucker!), or that we curse a lot. These misperceptions often come from the way the city is portrayed in movies and television, which are probably filmed in Vancouver, and lies put out by less cool cities like Dallas to make themselves feel better about not being so dope.
The most pernicious of these aspersions is that New Yorkers are rude, and that this rudeness can be seen in habits like not making eye-contact. This is blasphemy: history shows New York to be the most welcoming city in the country, through waves of immigration from the 17th century to the present. Our open-minded, multi-ethnic culture comes out of our roots as a Dutch trading post; traders don’t care much about religion, or background, just about whether you have money. In this sense, New York is still essentially New Amsterdam.
As for eye-contact, we natives make it all the time, especially in the neighborhoods where we live and work. In fact, I’d say that in general New Yorkers are more friendly, and make more eye contact that people in small towns and out in the rural countryside, where there’s a tendency to fear strangers and grab for your sidearm when some suspicious outsider comes sidling up the street.
If a New Yorker isn’t looking you in the eyes, it’s not because we’re being unfriendly, or we’re scared, it’s just because we’ve got something better to do. On the subway, for instance, we’re probably keeping our eyes down, but that’s because we’re reading about cronuts on our iPhones, or avoiding getting shanked by the crazy guy on the seat opposite.
By the same token, New Yorkers also occasionally look up and admire the architecture, pause to enjoy a Manhattanhenge sunset, or just to thank the Lord they don’t have to live in Boston. The reason you don’t notice this is that when a Native does this, they move to edge of the street, so as not to impede the flow of traffic, which is just another demonstration of our essential kind-heartedness, and conscientiousness towards others.
So raise your head proudly, and the next time some tourist tells you New Yorkers all act a certain way, tell them to shove it up their ass.
Ask A Native New Yorker anything by emailing our Tips address here.