On Kindness in a Big City


There are days when seemingly everyone you encounter is rude. And not rude in a subtle, didn’t-keep-the-door -open-for-those-behind-him kind of way. They’re angry and downright hostile, and it can be difficult to shake off those encounters. This is what city people are like, you start to think. They’re selfish; they’re mean; they’ve lost their humanity.

But then, just as you’ve lost hope, someone does something extraordinarily kind, and you realize it’s not about the city–it’s about how people behave in general. They run the gamut from saintly to evil and here in NYC, you have to deal with all of it. Every single version of a human is on perpetual display; there’s no escape. We can’t seal ourselves off in cars or in large-lot suburban homes. We’re crushed together–often literally–as we make our way through the day.

Some visitors might get annoyed that our faces aren’t always open and smiling, but that’s not how city residents show kindness. In fact, smiling at the thousands of people you pass on the street on a daily basis might make you seem deranged. Being aware of how much space you take up, not bothering people if they look like they want to be left alone–that’s what being nice is in NYC. Rules that make sense elsewhere don’t really make sense here. And no, the bar isn’t lower. The spirit of humanity is still very much on display.

If I slip on a city sidewalk, I often have too many people offer to help me up. When my husband and I have picked up furniture we bought through Craigslist, bystanders have helped us secure the pieces to a car, and different bystanders have helped us carry them up to our fifth-floor walkup, all without being asked. I’ve observed fellow New Yorkers help those in distress, help those who are injured or lost. And just yesterday, I witnessed something that might seem inconsequential to non-city dwellers: three separate subway riders gently touched the arms of their fellow commuters to prevent them from sitting in a puddle of water. Initiated physical contact is almost verboten here, so this tiny bit of interaction seemed almost poignant. The rescued commuters didn’t mind being touched; they were grateful to be saved from the indignity of a wet behind. It’s a delicate rhythm, and we try and learn it and live it as best we can.

None of this is to say that every NYC resident is kind. They’re everything and everyone. They’re humanity at its worst and at its best. There are too many New Yorkers, and we’re all too different, for it to be any other way.

4 thoughts on “On Kindness in a Big City

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Prior to moving here, I was concerned about the negative reputation NYC had and decided to put it through my own quantitative assessment while visiting my friend for the weekend. Very simple: a rating scale of 1 pt – 1pt for anything kind or positive I witnessed and a negative pt for anything unkind or negative. Over the course of a weekend I put the assessment to test. To my pleasant surprise, not only did NYC win as ultimately more positive acts of kindness from strangers than negative, it was so overwhelmingly positive I immediately put plans in place to move as soon as possible! Smiling on street street is nice, but often less genuine than actually helping someone in need, get directions, chase someone down who left their purse, etc. No one has time to be fake, so if someone is helping they really mean it.

  2. My friend Sandy was visiting NYC and she slipped and fell. She said that there were many displays of kindness towards her. People brought her water, ice and offered to help her in any way possible. As a former New Yorker ( born and bread there) I was proud to hear about the people who came to her aid. I was not surprised to hear of this because I know that New Yorkers sometimes have a bad reputation for being unfriendly, but I know otherwise.


    On Wed, Sep 28, 2016 at 11:08 PM, Notes from The Wonder City wrote:

    > notesfromthewondercity posted: ” There are days when seemingly everyone > you encounter is rude. And not rude in a subtle, didn’t-keep-the-door > -open-for-those-behind-him kind of way. They’re angry and downright > hostile, and it can be difficult to shake off those encounters. This is > what” >

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