New York Becomes Seattle

Never mind anthrax—how should New Yorkers deal with their niceness epidemic?

New Yorkers reportedly are being nice to each other these days, and some are finding it strange. On a radio call-in show the other day, a caller described the amazing scene he had witnessed on a crowded subway car. It seems that a woman was sobbing, and not just one but two different people actually approached her to ask if she was OK! Non-New Yorkers might find the amazement more amazing than the incident itself. And of course New York has witnessed many, many acts of genuine heroism and enormous compassion on and since Sept. 11. But New York has never lacked for grand gestures. It is the petty, everyday kindness of strangers that surprises people.

Although New Yorkers seem to be enjoying their niceness epidemic, they may be disconcerted as well. What if this keeps up? Can civilization survive without sharp elbows and tough skins? O! Brave new world, that has nice people in it. What will it be like?

That, I think I can tell you: It will be like Seattle. The shock of adjustment that New Yorkers report undergoing will be familiar to anyone who has moved from the East Coast to the Pacific Northwest. People here really are nicer in the mundane interactions of life. On the highway, they let you cut in if you need to change lanes. At a downtown store, they’re happy to make change or let you use the lavatory without buying anything. At the supermarket, the checkout cashier at the end of a long shift is still saying “Have a nice day” as if she really wants you to. The average person’s stockpile of empathy, just sitting there waiting to exude, is enough to win a presidential primary in a midsized East Coast state.

This does not mean that Seattleites are better people in any moral sense. In fact, there are cynics—yes, even in the Pacific Northwest there are cynics—who believe that the shallow surface kindness camouflages a deeper egocentrism and indifference to others. (This directly parallels the belief among some sentimentalists—yes, even in New York there are sentimentalists—that underneath the tough New York hide beats the softest of hearts). In the early days after Sept. 11—before the patriotism kicked in—some local media and citizens were referring to the catastrophe as “the terrorist attack on the East Coast,” which does unintentionally suggest a capacity for psychological distance. But let us assume that people in Seattle and New York share roughly equal amounts of innate goodness per person. Is the Seattlelike veneer of niceness New Yorkers are now enjoying something worth trying to preserve?

Well, there are pros and cons.

On the negative side, it’s darned exhausting to be nice all the time, especially if you’re not used to it. “How are you” and “Have a nice day” are just the start of what it takes to get into and out of a casual conversation. I’m still working on what to say when someone says “How are you?” and you say “Fine. How are you?” and he then says, “Just great! And how are things?” And while I’m not one of those snobs who objects to being invited to have a nice day (“Miss Manners” Judith Martin’s classic response: “Thank you but I have other plans”), I really do start to feel oppressed when commanded to have a nice day AND take care of myself AND be good, simultaneously. Who has that kind of time?

New Yorkers also might legitimately worry whether all this niceness will make them soft. Will they still have the moxie they need to deal with other New Yorkers, let alone with Osama Bin Laden? As you get used to people being extraordinarily nice all day, even run-of-the-mill, look-we’re-both-busy commercial brusqueness starts to bruise. A full-throated bit of N’Yawk sarcasm is like a knife in the belly.

On the other hand, a culture of niceness is darned pleasant. The pleasure New Yorkers are feeling does not wear off and does not have to be small consolation for a horrible loss in order to be enjoyable. And so what if the niceness is just on the surface? Heck, that is where we spend most of the day anyway.

Another plus: The niceness culture is egalitarian. Cynics (them again) mock practices like waitresses introducing themselves and everybody going by first names, but these things really do break down barriers, in a small way, without being preachy about it. New Yorkers might claim that their (former?) culture of insult is egalitarian too, citing the famous passage in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (and in My Fair Lady):

Liza: He treats a flower girl as if she was a duchess.Higgins: And I treat a duchess as if she was a flower girl.

But treating everybody equally badly is not many people’s ideal of egalitarian behavior.

Finally, some of all this surface niceness surely must trickle down to deeper places in the communal soul. That’s not just a romantic notion. In a famous book published 16 years ago called The Evolution of Cooperation, a game-theory economist named Robert  Axelrod came very close to proving scientifically that niceness can be contagious. It won’t work with Osama Bin Laden, but it could well work with the noisy upstairs neighbor.

Once you start acting nice, day after normal day, it surely becomes a habit that is harder to break when tested by an extraordinary day. Grouchy old New York responded so nobly on Sept. 11. Just think what might have happened if New Yorkers had been nice already.