New York is renowned for the bluntness of its citizens, but what those who dismiss us as rude don’t see is a complex system of etiquette without which this densely packed city of overworked strivers would descend into chaos. Mutually beneficial behavior undergirded by a shared sense of decency and need for some semblance of order? There are worse things in the world. The following isn’t remotely comprehensive, and omits many rules that honestly should apply to any city, but hopefully it’s at least a bit instructive.
Don’t waste people’s time
It’s not that New Yorkers think their time is more valuable than everyone else’s. We just have less of it, because the work hours are crazy, and it takes forever to get across town, and population density means we have 4000 more acquaintances to keep up with, and… well, it goes on and on. To account for this:
Ask for directions with brusque efficiency
From a veteran food writer: “New Yorkers will happily give directions but won't make small talk. So don't ask for directions like this: ‘Hi, how are you? Sorry to bother you but I was looking for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and I was wondering if you happened to know how to get there?’ Ask like this: ‘Excuse me, do you know the way to the Met?’”
Keep right if you are the “slower traffic”
That goes not only for the streets, but also for the sidewalks, and by god it goes doubly for the escalators, where it’s stand on the right, hustle up/down the left. Seems like common sense, but all it takes is one oblivious commuter or follower of the “you’re not going to get there any faster” school to muck things up. Something else to consider: over the past year the London Underground has been experimenting with a “no walking” escalator policy, rightfully infuriating commuters; when you observe left/right rules, you’re not only being polite, you’re supporting our beleaguered British allies.
Know your quirky food ordering policies
The Soup Nazi isn’t an anomaly. All over New York, counter-service restaurants have efficiency-oriented policies that, if not followed, will perturb not only the employee taking your order but your fellow linemates as well. At Alidoro, you must pick a sandwich from the 40 or so on the menu -- and choose a bread (sfilatino, tramezzino, focaccia, semolina, white or wheat) -- before reaching the counter. At Katz’s, obviously don’t lose your ticket, but also: every meat cutter has their own line, so muscle up in front of one of them and ignore people who don’t realize your moves are owner-sanctioned.
“Speak up. Don’t be quiet. Don’t be shy or timid. Eye of the tiger. Get your elbows up and be aggressive.” - Jake Dell, Katz’s Deli
Similarly, at McSorley’s, designate one person to take the whole table’s order. All they offer is “Light” and “Dark” so you don’t have to know your companions all that intimately to order on their behalf.
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Always think small
NYC’s packed quarters affect everything. Here are just a few ways you can remain hyper-aware of that reality:
Pack or purchase a tiny umbrella
Golf umbrellas repel more rain, but they do nothing to repel the glares of people trying to navigate past a golf umbrella.
Don’t wait for bodega sandwiches in front of the sandwich station
This isn’t true everywhere, but in many bodegas the guys who make your sandwich will hand it to the cashier, who’ll then call your order. Waiting in front of the sandwich counter only blocks other people from ordering and/or from accessing the Carr’s Table Water Crackers.
Don’t treat your coat and bag like human beings
They don’t need their own chair or stool! Hang them on your chair, reach under the bar for a hook, or if you’re in Whiskey Tavern, take advantage (and later spread the gospel) of one of the greatest innovations in tavern history: fold up banquettes that reveal storage lockers underneath.
Embodying good New York manners despite hailing from across the Pond: the sleek new Jaguar XE. Its exceptional handling should be a legal requirement for anyone navigating streets strewn with double parkers, pell-mell bike messengers, and tourists whose eyes are focused on the tops of buildings instead of the “Don’t Walk” sign ahead.
Consider the rent
Like limited space, sky-high rent is a guiding reality of New York City. Etiquette-wise, this particularly affects restaurant and bars, whose owners might easily have dropped a half million just to get open. Monthly rent varies depend on the tightness of the lease, but you’re looking at anything from $10k to the roughly $54,000 Danny Meyer was asked to pony up for Union Square Cafe before he closed doors and left Union Square. With that in mind:
Always be ordering, never be loitering
It’s like Glengarry Glen Ross, except you’re spending money instead of making it. If you’re in a cocktail bar, you don’t necessarily have to order more drinks -- most have great food (between Happiest Hour, Holiday Lounge, and Boilermaker they’re frankly winning the NY burger wars right now) -- but you can’t just sit there drinking water, because none of these places want to become yet another bank branch.
Don’t always expect WiFi even in places that advertise WiFi
On a more specific note, don’t get upset with the barista if a coffee shop’s WiFi isn’t working. Some indie shops turn theirs off on weekends to facilitate table turnover. Otherwise, people would buy one cup, then sit there social media-ing four straight hours.
Recognize you’re in a cramped tube hurtling beneath the earth
Any subway anywhere in the world is going to observe many of the same, hopefully self-evident rules -- don’t get on ‘till others get off, don’t hog the pole, don’t thrust your backside into anyone’s face -- but there are a few NYC specials that bear mentioning.
Go ahead, read that map
If your car hasn’t been upgraded with an electronic stop ticker, feel free to lean in close over a seated passenger’s head in order to read one of the framed subway maps. The sitter should understand you have no choice and make way; if they insist on staying cheek-to-cheek, that’s on them.
Raise your seat gently
If you snag one of those rare folding seats, let it up gently when you stand up. Otherwise it will snap back with a thunderous clap, and everyone will react like it’s the apocalypse.
Know when running is acceptable
New Yorkers are always in a hurry, but we’re about unremitting forward motion, not sprinting. Running through a crowded sidewalk because you think you’re in a bigger hurry than a bunch of people who are also in a hurry, is annoying; doing it for exercise is unconscionable considering we have miles of picturesque jogging paths stretching down both rivers. There are two situations where sprinting is surprisingly just fine:
At any crowded dim sum restaurant
“Dim Sum is definitely like Hunger Games,” says a New Yorker who partly grew up in Chinatown. “You gotta get up and run up to the carts with the good stuff. Wait for them to come to you and you're stuck with the weird jello looking stuff or cold fried shrimp. Also, don’t ask for a fork, and when you want more tea, just open up the lid and turn it over and the waiters will know!”
When you’re a woman, at a theater, and it’s intermission
Historically New York theaters have underserved women when it comes to restrooms; this isn’t opinion, it’s fact, as this old Times story explicates. Even in theaters where renovations have somewhat eased the situation, considering how expensive Broadway’s become, running as fast as you can to the necessary room isn’t considered gauche, it’s just sensible. [On a related note: due to line differential, it’s an unwritten rule that women have free reign of the Sheep’s Meadow men’s room; men, just deal with it.]
Don’t get starstruck
In LA, it’s surprisingly fine to tell celebrities how much you love them. In New York, the unspoken rule is, pretend you don’t see them, or at least that you have no idea that they’re famous. New York is a place celebrities come to be relatively anonymous; more importantly, simply by virtue of being a New Yorker, you’re far too important to kowtow to someone just because you once paid $14 to watch them reenact a tragic marriage or have intimate relations with a bear.
Know the difference between war and peace
There are certain, particular very crowded situations where decorum is expected, and others where it is definitively not. A few examples:
At the museums, it’s peace
If no one else is viewing an exhibit, stand directly center and take that masterpiece in. But the second someone joins you, step to the side to flank it. Sure, you’ve waited all your life to be this close to Christina’s World, but so have the 20 people next to you.
At the grocery, it’s war
At Trader Joe’s, “Full Contact” Fairway, and other great groceries with good prices, the accepted norm is to act as if the aforementioned apocalypse is coming, and you’re fighting to stock up your shelter. So if an old woman snatches a cottage cheese out of your hand because it’s the last one (this is a thing that actually happened), don’t berate her, just tell her “well played” and reconsider your dairy choices.
It is also war at sample sales
From a tipster: “The etiquette for sample sales in New York is to realize that all etiquette goes out the window the second you step inside some huge loft or warehouse space, packed to the gills with discounted designer duds, because New York women turn into feral animals inside those four walls. Accept the fact that you will be shoved, your feet will be stepped on, and that you'll have to fight for that glorious blouse (one size too big, but whatever, you'll make it work!). Instead of raging internally about how horribly everyone is behaving, come prepared for battle instead. Wear shoes that are easily removed, a tank top that you can try items over since there likely won't be dressing rooms, and whatever you do, don't make eye contact with your fellow shoppers -- it will only remind you that the person holding the other strap of that leather bag is a human being, your defenses will be worn down, and all of the sudden you'll hear yourself saying, ‘No, you take it, I'm sure I can find something else.’”
Dress down (mostly)
New York has a reputation for being excessively fashionable, but in reality, overdressing comes across as trying too hard, while underdressing is, generally speaking, totally cool. For instance:
You can wear sweats at Bergdorf’s, and bring a dog
Bergdorf-Goodman is one of the world’s tonyest department stores, but its sales associates are trained not to judge customers by their outfit -- why should people with money to spend on dressing up have to dress up while spending that money? -- and if you need a second opinion on that new jacket, you can bring in your very discriminating pooch.
You can even wear jeans at Ivy League clubs
After decades of snobbish resistance, denim "in good repair" is acceptable in select areas of the Yale Club, and in select areas -- or possibly the entirety -- of the Harvard Club (the terms are vague, presumably purposefully so). Both clubs welcome jackets, but do not require them. Meanwhile, the Soho House actually outlaws the wearing of suits.
As a counter-example, however:
The Campbell Apartment is very particular about shoes...
Athletic shoes are not allowed at this classic venue. Seems easy enough to prepare for, except here, athleisure shoes -- which these days everyone assumes are formal enough -- are still considered athletic.
...and that new Albert Trummer lounge is "formal or semi-formal"
Sanatorium, the Austrian-born beverage chemist's new Avenue C cocktail cavern, is consciously aiming to channel the refined ritz of bygone New York eras; even though it's caddy-corner from a defunct gas station, guys might want to wear a jacket. Bottom line, you can get in almost anywhere wearing jeans and sneakers, but because some places hold out while others harken back, you'd better check first just to be sure.
And a final note on what to wear, and not wear:
New York has quite the spa scene. Some places are sketchy, but some -- like the Russian Turkish Baths -- are legitimate cultural experiences. Even though nudity does happen here, it is not a fleshy free-for-all. Full nudity is allowed only during all-men or all-women hours. During coed hours, bottom bits must be covered. Neglecting to observe this could be the most awkward of all New York etiquette mistakes. Well, except for the thing about standing on the left side of an escalator.