New York Manners, or Thanks So Much for Nothing
You can’t trust nice people. Niceness is the easiest of all possible affects a person can take into the world. It’s dangerous out there and being nice is the surest way to ward off threats. It’s a way of apologizing in advance for an uncommitted sin.
I was thinking of all this walking around the city with my friend Scott, a red-cheeked North Carolina man I met when we shipped off to Peace Corps China together eight years ago. He’d come to visit for a drunken weekend of catching up and urban loafing. I love him, but he’s so sweetly, helplessly, hopelessly nice I started to wonder if something had gone wrong.
“Thanks so much,” he’d tell the cashier at my neighborhood coffee shop. This phrase reappeared throughout our weekend together, offered to cabbies, bartenders, waiters, and strangers in the subway. “How much is ‘so much?’” I wondered. Does the person taking up two seats on the subway need to be acquiesced to because they’re willing to take their bag off the empty seat next to them?
In the weeks after Scott left I noticed this mewling phrase everywhere. It seemed like the whole city had been infected with his fearful sign of apologia. The more I heard it the more pathetic it seemed, as if people were competing to see who could demonstrate their inadequacy with the most conviction.
It’s embarrassing to see someone grateful that their neighbor or fellow citizen would actually return to them what they were naturally owed. A human has more right to a seat on a subway than a backpack. When I’ve put a $20 bill on the bar I have every right to expect both a drink and the service that’s gone into making it.
This sense of entitlement is often described in negative terms. In twitchy company it might even be called misanthropy, but it seems that the obverse is true. To trust other people to do the right thing in a social encounter is a kind of faith in humankind that cannot come from dislike.
It’s the over-extended thanks for something that is a normal consequence of human exchange that belies mistrust and dislike. It makes selfish antagonists of the stranger on the subway to think they’d need to be coaxed ‘so much’ into the perfectly expectable act of setting their bag on the ground. Worse, it leaves no room to separate that act from ones of real generosity or courage, like a stranger jumping in to stop a mugging or the happy-eyed cashier giving you a free cookie with your morning coffee because you’re a regular.
I imagine in Scott’s world these acts of human kindness would mandate a year of indentured servitude. There might be a part of him that hopes they don’t ever come, so he staves them off in advance. Don’t come any closer. Thanks so much.
*Image via Nika
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