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The Morning News Guide to Urban Etiquette: New York City

You’d be surprised at what you’ll see people do in New York. Or maybe you wouldn’t. But maybe you should. A guide to everyone who lives in New York, whether there for an hour or for a lifetime.

We see all kinds of behavior in New York, and as citizens, we practice our own varieties. Call it research, this constant bumping-into, hustling-over, spitted-on; some people behave well in this city, others don’t. Based on good and bad examples of etiquette we’ve witnessed, this guide has been compiled to help the tourist and veteran alike in navigating New York in the best possible manner.

On the Subway Platform

When entering the subway station pay utmost attention to the movements of the other travelers. Look for holes in the wave of those walking up the stairs and try to enter without disturbing the flow of human passage. Be hardy: despite whatever stress may come from trying to reach the subway platform, do not, under any circumstances, act upon your frustration—by groaning, rolling your eyes, standing still in contempt, etc.—you will only pain yourself in the face of an uncaring mob.

It is a law of physics that no two physical bodies can occupy the same point in space at the same time. Thus, when your train arrives, always let passengers off the train before you get on. This is no situation to be messing with physics.

On occasion, you may find your train pulling into the station as you are still descending the stairs. In such a case, put spring into your step and attempt to get aboard. If you are successful: bravo. If you are unsuccessful: pay it no mind; you’ll wait. If you’re halfway in-between and are trying to wedge the doors open with your satchel: give it up. It’s rude to the other passengers who are trying to reach their destination and the train conductor—a staunch proponent of urban etiquette—will never stand for it. Barely missing the open doors and appearing truly sad will sometimes melt their steely glare, but attempting to force your way on board will never—never—be met with pity.

It is always rude to bleed near someone, especially in a crowded train station. If you find yourself bleeding while waiting for the subway, excuse yourself and find a nearby dressing station. In the worst case scenario—where your head feels light and you’ve forgotten your name—go to a hospital. Do not board the train.

The subway platform exists for one purpose only: a place to bide time until your train arrives. And bide you will. When the occasion arises that fellow biders ask you for directions, make the most of it. You’ve time to kill and what better way to let it pass than helping someone out? If you don’t know which trains they should take, consult a map. Discuss possible routes and suggest worthwhile eateries and attractions they’ll find on arrival.

There is nothing more aggravating than a percussion performer on the subway platform, especially one that uses plastic tubs as drums. Do not offer money or encouragement to this person; save it for the violinist, the guitar player, or the mime.

In the Subway Car

If riding alone, keep to yourself. Read your book, listen to music (whether portable or imagined), stare at your feet. Don’t engage other passengers in mild conversation; they’re preoccupied with the same activities and usually don’t wish to be disturbed. The very act of riding the subway is a performance in itself. While many riders may secretly wish to have a chat with you (you may be very hot), they are far too involved—as should you be—in complete submersion in their chosen character: that of the mute.

If riding with friends, you may, of course, speak freely with them. Keep conversation personal, quiet, and, whenever possible, not about any of the other passengers’ appearance or fashion choices. In this case, keep to yourselves.

Subway trains are often crowded; if you’re standing by a door as the train pulls into the station, and you’re not getting off, get off anyway and allow people to exit the train, then rush back in before the next wave starts moving.

Pregnant women, old people, the disabled, people with strollers, and children deserve seats more than you, unless you fall into one of those categories, at which point ‘duking it out’ will decide who sits down. You are under no obligation to relinquish your seat just because someone asks for it, but if they’ve gone so far as to ask, it’s likely they need it more than you do.

At the Delicatessen

Deli counter lines are notoriously chaotic. First take a visual survey of the process, then cautiously enter the fray. If you are unsure about your order, allow other customers to step ahead; they really don’t care whether or not you’ll have bacon.

When ordering at the counter, place your order in a clear tone; this will ensure the proper construction of your meal, assuming the cook is focused and in a decent mood. Be precise: there’s a difference between roasted turkey and smoked turkey. If you want shredded lettuce, specify that you do, or you’ll receive whole-leaf lettuce. Most delis assume you want lettuce and tomato on anything you order; this is similar to Dunkin Donuts’s assumption that coffee can’t be made without milk and sugar. Be careful.

Do not request a sandwich ‘with everything.’ Why this is done, we really can’t say, but a number of times we’ve seen the cooks scratch their heads and say, ‘Really? Everything?’ People that order anything ‘with everything’ are obviously indiscriminate, a qualifying trait for homicidal psychopaths.

While waiting for your meal, feel free to browse the secondary foodstuffs. But not for too long! You should make your way back to the deli counter in a reasonable amount of time (two to three minutes) to pick up your order.

Above all else, when paying for your items at the register you should be as polite and understanding as possible. A New Yorker’s regular deli becomes his primary source of food. This food costs money, of which the New Yorker is often slightly short. A healthy relationship with the register staff ensures that when your wallet is less than healthy you’ll still be able to survive (within limits, of course). Smiles and thank-yous will suffice: such personal niceties are priceless in New York City.

At the ATM

Do not, ever, stand too close to someone who’s using an ATM machine, unless they’re a close friend or lover. If they’re a friend, but not close, you should wait by the deposit envelopes. If they’re a stranger, stay at least ten feet away and look distracted, though not obviously so, as in the case of a bad-actor-turned-burglar about to rob them.

Do not spend too much time at a single ATM; people are waiting and they have things to do. If you must treat the machine like your own personal accountant, spread your duties across multiple machines.

Do not feel the need to tip the person holding the door open for you; they do not work for the bank.

In the Taxi

Upon entering the taxi tell the driver your destination—clearly and audibly. Tell the driver any critical exits to take or turns to make. Tell the driver which side of the street you need to be let out on (if you know). Tell the driver anything you feel is necessary for you to reach your intended destination. Tell the driver everything except, ‘Step on it.’

If the driver begins telling you a story or offering political views, pay attention: it could be good anecdotal material. If the story interferes with the task of getting you where you’re trying to go, feel free to casually mention that it’ll be up here, on the left. Underneath the red canopy.

If the driver complains that your destination is too far, ask to be let out, pay whatever fare has accrued to that point—do not tip—and hail another taxi. Unless it’s cold or raining: That’s when hailing a cab is at its most competitive. In such cases, stick it out and pretend that you and the driver do not share a common language. Point a lot.

Tip according to service. A direct, comfortable ride, a clean cab, and a courteous driver construct the scale you should use for determining how much should be given. A bad cab ride is never forgotten, while a good one often is. Show your appreciation while you can remember to.

At the Bar

If a lady is holding a cigarette and you’re a man, it’s your job to light it without disturbing her or her conversation. For this, smoker or not, you should carry a lighter; otherwise you’ll have to scramble for a pack of matches and, as soon as you try to light one, a wind will suddenly appear. Feel free to silently curse The Fates.

The Goes-Around-Comes-Around principle must be assumed for a night of drinks to go smoothly. This means you offer to buy a round when it’s your turn and not wait to be reminded. Any members of the party not ‘buying their share’ should be explicitly told when it’s their turn, to save them any long-standing resentment their friends may carry afterwards.

We won’t even go into how to pick up men or women at a bar, except: if you don’t know how, no one can help you. And if you do know how, no one can help you. You’re helpless, any way you cut it.

Bartenders should always be tipped a dollar on every drink unless the bartender is cruel, slow, or bad. If the dollar is too fixed for you, think to yourself: If I was the type to tip my friends, would he or she qualify as a friend? If so, how good a friend? Though ‘buy-backs’ are recently illegal in New York, good tipping will encourage a free drink your way. If you’re entertaining out-of-town guests who do not normally tip at home, do not let them get away with any feeble excuses.

Any drink over eight dollars is not worth it unless (A) you just got a raise or (B) you just picked five out of six on the Powerball. If you answer yes to either question, you should be buying drinks for everyone.

At the Restaurant

It’s always better to be over-dressed at a restaurant than under-dressed. For men: shorts are not acceptable, except at lunch, on vacation, in your hotel room, a million miles away from anyone you know. For women: women can generally wear whatever they wish at the table and not look like fools doing it: they can even wear hats. The jury’s still out on culottes, though.

If the restaurant offers coat check, you may refuse it and hang your coat on the back of your chair. However, if you’ve been shopping all day and have a dozen bags, these must be checked as it’s impolite to stuff them under your table and make your fellow diners jealous. If the restaurant gently insists that you check your coat, do so. Coat-check people should be tipped a dollar, regardless of whether or not they rummage around in your bags and rifle through your pockets.

A cell phone may not be used in a restaurant. Ever. If you must take a call (and that phone better have been on vibrate mode), excuse yourself and walk outside—not to the bar, not to the hall, not to the bathroom: outside. If you must place a call, you’re wrong: that call isn’t necessary. But if you continue in this delusion, go outside and start dialing once the door is closed. We don’t care if your baby’s crying, your mother’s dying, or your husband set his pants on fire; we’re trying to enjoy our meal, and we’d like to do so in quiet.

Women order first. If the waiter motions to the man to order before a lady, it is the man’s responsibility to look down humbly. It is the lady’s responsibility to order first, no matter what, unless she’s formed an agreement with her partners to order last because she hasn’t made up her mind. Also, if the lady disagrees with this rule, she may order whenever she wants; we were only trying to be courteous.

Do not pretend to know about wine if you don’t. Find the ablest wine-nerd at the table—usually the one who grabs for the list—and let them choose. If you’re offered the bottle, nod, then once offered a glass take a small sniff, two sips, and say something like, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ Do not return the bottle unless it’s obviously sour or plain wrong, or the waiter snickers after you say, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’ Wait to drink further until all glasses are poured.

In the case of being served wine that you didn’t order but is obviously better than you wanted, accept immediately and play it cool. Drink your fair share, and stick your friend with the check; the next day, when he brings it up, say ‘Yeah, but man, that wine was really good, right?’ And he’ll smile, forgetting the whole thing. You two are a couple of rascals—a couple of scamps.

Asking for the check with the flourish of a hand is OK; asking for the check by barking, waving, or commandeering stray waitresses is not.

Never be talked into ordering a wine that is too expensive. Never fear asking how much the specials cost. Always take home the leftovers, whether in bag, bottle, or purse.

At the Party

If you’ve been invited to a party, you are likely expected to bring something: a bottle of wine, a dessert, flowers (exceptions: business parties, launch parties, book parties, or parties thrown by the obscenely wealthy who probably wouldn’t want anything you can afford). Even if the host insists you should not bring something, they’re lying, and they will think better of you than the other guests when you arrive with a bottle of wine, a box of chocolates, and a dozen roses.

A smart guest will consult the host on what type of wine to bring; a smarter guest will bring two bottles.

If you are a guest of someone invited, you are also expected to bring something to the party, of similar—but more expensive—nature, in order to compensate for your lack of invitation. It would also be wise to compliment the host’s apartment, even if it’s a dump.

If you’ve been invited to a dinner party—large or small—you should assume that the host expects to be hosted in return. You should submit your invitation within three weeks of the host’s party, but no sooner than ten days after said party; you don’t want to seem eager or unappreciative, but a conscientious good friend.

On the Street

Be mindful that others on the street are trying to get someplace—fast; and also be aware that they should assume that you’re trying to get someplace—fast. This is why people on the streets of New York walk so quickly. It’s the ‘quickly’ part that aids the ‘fast’ part. So step quickly, sirs and madams. And, please, please, no serpentining down the sidewalk.

It’s impolite to broach strangers on the street and tell them how awful they look. It’s also impolite to start fights with homeless people. However, it is unbelievably rude to do both at the same time, while impersonating a homeless person. This has been witnessed.

At night, if you’re a man and you’re walking along a street on which a woman is walking, and there is no one else around, do not walk behind her. Switch to the other side of the street and make a subtle noise—jingle change, half-whistle (but not wolf-whistle), scuff your shoes—so as to alert the female that a slightly eccentric but completely non-threatening male is within a hundred yards. By no means may you speak to her, unless this is a case of genuine true love, at which point you should speak to her. Say something witty, simple and urbane—think timeless, like ‘Sorry, do you have the time?’—that will allow for further conversation. However, if it’s difficult to discern whether or not this is a true-love scenario, it isn’t.

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