Wednesday, June 21, 2006

NYC Social Norms and Conventions

Fresh off Reader's Digest's claim that New York is the politest city in the world*, New York Magazine provides an extensive guide to urban etiquette in which the writers outline their view of current social norms and conventions. New social arrangements, new technologies, and new generations of people with their own ideas about the relative merits of traditional social norms, create new opportunities to offend and annoy those around you. As such, keeping up with basic etiquette is an important part of individual (and by extension, community) social capital, so you may want to check it out.

Here's the section on the newest mainstream technology, ipods (which I thought was reasonable):

The Four Levels of iPod Interaction

Whom you do and don’t have to unplug for.

LEVEL ONE -- Continue at full blast. Consider increasing the vigor of your head-nodding and/or humming.
• Guys passing out bargain-electronics-store flyers.
• Idealistic-looking whippersnappers holding clipboards.
• Scientologists.

LEVEL ONE AND A HALF -- Subtly turn down volume.
• People in the elevator you don’t know.
• Someone attractive who sits down next to you on the train while you are listening to the Goo Goo Dolls.

LEVEL TWO -- Make a big show of pressing PAUSE.
• Anyone who approaches you while you’re working out.
• Non-panhandlers on the subway (may be helpfully pointing out that your bag is open, may be distracting you in a Gangs of New York–style pickpocket ruse).
• Co-workers you hate.
• Friends.
• Your parents, if you’re a teenager.

LEVEL THREE -- Remove headphones, toss them jauntily over shoulder.
• People in the elevator you know.
• Anyone taking your money or instructions about how to prepare your food.
• Co-workers you don’t hate.
• Your parents, if you’re an adult.
• Police officers.

LEVEL FOUR -- Completely remove and enclose in nearest pocket/bag/ purse.
• Co-workers who could have you fired in less than an hour.
• Anyone who’s crying.
• Police officers standing next to someone who’s pointing at you and saying, “That’s him!”

* I am not sure I buy the Reader's Digest ranking. Here's what they reportedly did:
The Big Apple scored 80 per cent in a series of tests, including dropping papers in a street in a busy area, seeing how long it took for someone to help, noting whether doors were held open and if shop assistants said thank you after making a sale.

Reader's Digest magazine carried out the tests by sending journalists to cities in 35 countries.
I have three big questions about their approach. First, in each city, how big was their sample? Second, were the journalists conducting the experiments locals or were they all Americans (and thus obvious outsiders in many of the contexts)? Third (and most important), would everyone agree that a clear "proper" response exists for the situations examined regardless of cultural background? As discussed in class, norms and conventions vary a great deal across space. As such, it is kind of silly to take local social customs, see if others have the same customs, and then call them rude if they don't.

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