6.22.2006

urban test

Last March, Readers Digest International sent thousands of undercover "behaviour testers" into cities all over the world. For three days, the testers walked into public buildings behind other people to see whether they would hold a door open, dropped a folder full of papers to see whether anyone would help pick them up, and counted how many times people said "please" and "thank you" while conducting business in stores. Each test was conducted 20 times in each city.

The results may surprise you, but they didn't surprise me.

Toronto came in third. And the most polite city in the world? New York.

New Yorkers are always in a hurry, and they generally don't spend time making idle chit-chat with strangers. But they hold doors, they pick up dropped change (and return it!), they give directions - constantly. In such a densely urban environment, where people are always in crowded public spaces, there is an ethos that encourages both anonymity and tolerance (be cool, don't stare, don't ask questions) and cooperation (we're all in this together).

I have always found that people are more polite in places where they travel on foot and by public transit than in places where they travel by car. Sure, the cashier at my local Loblaws will make small talk with me in a way that you'd never see in New York, but that's not being polite - it's just filling space. After the small talk, we each get in our cars, isolated from each other. The subway, the sidewalk, the streetcar - that lifestyle forces us to deal with each other. For the most part, people do it well.

From the CBC News website:
Toronto-based freelance writer Ian Harvey, who was one of the undercover testers in Toronto, said people shouldn't be surprised that big cities like New York and Toronto topped the list.

He said courtesy is the social lubricant that allows people to get along in densely packed urban areas.

What surprised him was that young people tended to be more courteous than the elderly.

"It was often the high school students or school-age kids that jumped right forward and dived in and were so polite," he said.
This also didn't surprise me. I only wish more people knew it.

In my experiences working with teenagers, they were generally the most considerate, courteous people, and went out of their way to return kindness when it was shown to them. My experience was almost entirely with troubled kids who had dropped out of high school and come from seriously damaged environments. I can't say if privileged kids would be as polite, but the inner-city teens I knew were the best.

The Readers Digest results are here. (It kills me to link to Readers Digest, which strung me along and screwed me over... grrr...) I love how the RD story says "civility [is] alive and well in a place you'd least expect." Meaning, their suburban readers, full of negative stereotypes about New York City, would not expect it.

18 comments:

James said...

In such a densely urban environment, where people are always in crowded public spaces, there is an ethos that encourages both anonymity and tolerance (be cool, don't stare, don't ask questions) and cooperation (we're all in this together).

Which is probably also part of why large urgan centres tend to be far more liberal than rural areas. "Every man for himself" doesn't work very well when no individual can provide all his or her own needs -- you have to depend on others, even if only to get your food shipped in and your garbage removed.

What surprised him was that young people tended to be more courteous than the elderly.

Well, when the elderly were forming their habits, the urban areas were less dense. If increased density increases politeness, it only stands to reason. :)

I'd be curious to see a study of how many people the average person in urban, suburban, and rural settings interact with each day (for some definition of "interact", like "speaks to or makes eye contact with"). Sure, 90% of urban interaction is brief and tenuous compared to rural interaction, where you know a lot about everyone you deal wtih. But that's why politeness is important in an urban setting: since you don't know the people you're interating with well, you can't make allowances for their idiosyncracies, so you pretty much have to default to courteous behaviour. Any other behaviour would lead to so much friction that you'd never be able to get anything done.

Lone Primate said...

Sometimes I'm shocked at the difference between people in a given place when you encounter them in person, and when you encounter them in traffic. It's really striking here in Toronto, but I bet it's not too different anywhere you go. The same person who held the door for you heading into the parking lot will cut you off heading onto the street. The anonymity and voicelessness of the automobile turns us into large, bleeting animals, selfish and inately competitive. As big a fan as I am of the liberty of North American car culture, I really disdain of the ugliness it brings out in people... myself included.

James said...

Sometimes I'm shocked at the difference between people in a given place when you encounter them in person, and when you encounter them in traffic.

I came across an interesting article a while back about traffic culture, which found that areas with very loose driving rules (no traffic signals at intersections, etc) tend to have much more curteous drivers than ones with strict rules, because when there are no rules, the only way to get anywhere is through courtesy -- otherwise everything jams up. Whereas when there are strict rules which ensure that things run "smoothly", people can reap huge benefits by breaking the rules by cutting others off, running lights, etc (a case of the Prisoner's Dilemma).

BTW, just got this in the mail:

For those who take the TTC or the GO...

Tax Credits in Effect July 1, 2006

Starting July 1, 2006 keep your TTC & GO Transit MONTHLY PASSES as proof of payment as you will be able to claim them as an expense when you are filing your taxes next year.

According to PricewaterhouseCoopers Tax News Network, the new budget will provide 15% on-refundable tax credit for the cost of public transportation passes after June 30, 2006. For more information on this story please visit News & Views -> 2006 Federal Budget: Focus on Tax Relief

Tax credit for public transit passes

The budget provides a non-refundable tax credit for the cost of public transit passes (i.e., on local bus, streetcar, subway, commuter train or bus, or local ferry) with a minimum duration of a month. The credit may be claimed by the individual or the individual's spouse or common-law partner in respect of transit after June 30, 2006 for the individual, individual's spouse or common-law partner and the individual's dependent children under 19 years of age. Claims must be supported by receipts or passes.

L-girl said...

Sure, 90% of urban interaction is brief and tenuous compared to rural interaction, where you know a lot about everyone you deal wtih. But that's why politeness is important in an urban setting:

Yes, very true. It's a paradox that the anonymity requires courtesy.

Sometimes I'm shocked at the difference between people in a given place when you encounter them in person, and when you encounter them in traffic. It's really striking here in Toronto, but I bet it's not too different anywhere you go.

Many months ago, James told us, when it comes to driving, you can throw out everything you've heard about polite Canadians - and we have really found it to be true. If you have to change lanes to make an exit, people don't let you in, they don't "wave you in" if you're trying to get in or out of a parking lot, and such.

It seems much more pronounced here than it did in NY State - but I didn't drive every day there, only now and again.

The anonymity and voicelessness of the automobile turns us into large, bleeting animals, selfish and inately competitive.

I agree. We're seeing the world from this giant protective shell, and we can speed by each other without looking each other in the eye. This is another reason why urban life is more courteous than suburban life, IMO.

James said...

If you have to change lanes to make an exit, people don't let you in, they don't "wave you in" if you're trying to get in or out of a parking lot, and such.

Some will, some won't. Unfortunately, the "won't"s are the more memorable, since they cause the most grief. Even if they're in the minority, there are too many of them (it only takes a handful to ruin things for everyone else).

L-girl said...

Some will, some won't.

In Mississauga, the "wills" would be much more memorable, because they would be such oddities. That is, if I ever saw one. It almost never happens. Driving in Mississauga is very selfish and aggressive.

Alex Elliott said...

I think that one reason that New York City gets written off as impolite is that people don't understand New York politeness. In a big, crowded city, everyone has to exist in their own invisible bubble of privacy. New York "standoffishness" isn't impoliteness - it's actually people being polite and recongnizing everone else's bubbles of privacy. If New Yorkers didn't have this bubble-forming ability, then situations like Manhattan restaurants where each dining table is four inches from the next one would be completely intolerable.

L-girl said...

In a big, crowded city, everyone has to exist in their own invisible bubble of privacy. New York "standoffishness" isn't impoliteness - it's actually people being polite and recongnizing everone else's bubbles of privacy.

This is SO true. You've even used the same expression I use all the time - the bubble.

I recently had a potentially irritating experience while shopping for our party - what was I thinking, going to a mall on a Friday afternoon when school is out!? - but I sailed through it because my bubble was working so well. The hordes of suburban shoppers were no match for my bubble, forged in the fires of NYC restaurants. :-)

andrea said...

I wish Vancouver had been one of the test cities. There is so much made about how much more "laid back" we are here on the west coast, so I'd like to see how "laid back" stacks up against "courteous". If driving habits are any indication then we're about even with Toronto. It's a jungle out there in Vancouver traffic now, though it's had the opposite effect on me: fear of the other guy's irrational reaction has made me chill out a lot more. I love James' comments about liberal leanings and young people. Very insightful.

Lone Primate said...

For those who take the TTC or the GO... Tax Credits in Effect July 1, 2006

Jesus. It took the Tories to come up with that? Cripes. Well, chalk one up for them.

James said...

Jesus. It took the Tories to come up with that? Cripes. Well, chalk one up for them.

Credit where credit's due -- it's a good idea. Of course, it's part of a broader program of "tax relief", which will likely involve cutting gov't revenues so much that services will suffer.

Lone Primate said...

Or we go back into deficit spending like the United States.

L-girl said...

which will likely involve cutting gov't revenues so much that services will suffer.

Or we go back into deficit spending like the United States.

That would be both - deficit spending, and near-total lack of services. War is very expensive, especially when it turns a large profit.

M@ said...

My parents visited New York a few years ago and were stunned by how polite the people were. They said that every time they stopped to open their map, someone came up and offered to give directions. I'm sure that it's partly a prevailing feeling of politeness, but also part of New Yorkers' obvious pride in their city. Either way, it was remarkable for tourists. I'm not surprised they took top spot.

(This kind of courtesy, unfortunately, did not extend to the ticket agents on the subway.)

When my wife and I visited NYC recently, we didn't find any remarkable courtesy, but people certainly seemed a lot nicer than Torontonians. I don't find Toronto a particularly polite city at all.

L-girl said...

I'm sure that it's partly a prevailing feeling of politeness, but also part of New Yorkers' obvious pride in their city.

Definitely true. Many NYers feel, as I always did, that we're ambassadors for our city, and we like to show the tourists our largess. (And then make fun of them behind their backs, but all tourist towns do that.)

(This kind of courtesy, unfortunately, did not extend to the ticket agents on the subway.)

Ooboy, that's true, too. They're called token-booth clerks, by the way. And they are not generally polite.

impudent strumpet said...

I think some people equate politeness with token words or actions (e.g. waving to people while driving in rural areas, saying hello to people, uttering the actual words "please", "thank you" and "you're welcome"), while other people equate it with overall behaviour (i.e. holding doors for people, patiently waiting your turn). I find that, overall, Toronto is better than less urban environments where I've spent time. Suburbs and rural areas have more token words and gestures, but less goodwill, in my experience.

I agree with what people said about the difference between car interaction and in-person interaction. I read that this is because when you're in the car, every person you see is a potential obstacle or danger. On foot, there is the potential for them to be a danger because they might be some kind of nut, but overall you perceive them more as a fellow human being rather than an obstacle.

M@ said...

Well one token-booth clerk actually had my poor little aunt in tears. But this is not really related to public politeness.

Anyhow, I thought y'all might get a chuckle from this Manhattanite's take on the survey:

A couple of facts they seem to have missed:

1. People are paid to hold the door open for you in this city. They are called "doormen" and in fact they are unionized.

2. "Thank you" is New York dialect for "hurry up".

3. When we help you pick up papers on the street we're picking your pocket.

and you'll notice, they didn't test the subway!

L-girl said...

1. People are paid to hold the door open for you in this city. They are called "doormen" and in fact they are unionized.

Hm, I see what tax bracket she's coming from! What percentage of New Yorkers have a doorman, do you think...

2. "Thank you" is New York dialect for "hurry up".

This is true! :)