Not a freakin' travel article


Cabbie, Flickr image by Justin MorleyHaving been in Academia for more than a decade, I've learnt to guard against stereotyping. So on arrival in New York, I had not given a thought to the loud, brash New Yorker of legend. I wasn't expecting to encounter clones of Eddie Murphy, Sylvester Stallone or Jerry Seinfield.

Yet, they were all there, en masse. New York is full of ... well ... New Yorkers. And boy, are they loud!

On our first night in New York, we were content to leave the 'city that never sleeps' to its own devices and climb under the covers for an early night. We didn't expect to be disturbed. Wrong. Around midnight, we were woken by a voice. There was no one there. Was it the radio? The television? No. It was coming from the next room.

Believing the walls to be unusually thin we sat patiently while the voice gave a critique of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler. It then went on to explain the parallels between West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet, hardly drawing a breath. The monologue was punctuated by a second person's intermittent 'uh-huh'.

The oration was long, the breath control and voice projection awesome. The speaker was thorough. Luckily, they were not in possession of any insights on other Broadway shows — at least none that were shared that night.

But the walls were not thin. The critic had a voice that could penetrate 20 m of wet cement. It wasn't a unique skill in New York.

What's more, New Yorkers don't seem to have dialogues. You know, conversations where speakers take turns. It's most noticeable when they are on the phone (and they're always on the phone). There are just no gaps.

Taxi drivers are serial offenders. I'd often make the mistake of thinking the driver was talking to me and attempt an answer. My joining in never bothered them. They just kept talking on that phone as if I wasn't there. And I thought only my children had that talent.

Walking along Broadway in the Financial District we were privy to a mobile phone conversation that went on for more than ten blocks. The speaker was loud. And was he indiscreet? HELL, YEAH. If only I had known the identity of the listener (I knew most everything else) blackmail would have been almost obligatory. (But only if one had criminal tendencies — and everyone knows writers don't have those.)

Yet I am not suggesting New Yorkers are impolite. Insensitive to those around them, yes. Impolite, no. In fact most service providers had obviously been schooled in polite key phrases and told to use them often. 'You're welcome,' was the polite retort to everything that was said, whether it was the appropriate response or not.

Inappropriate responses are known as non-sequiturs. They're my husband's preferred mode of communication. In his case he is listening but is as deaf as a post. Not something to which he'll freely admit. To cover up his deafness, he guesses.

'Which stop are you getting off at?'


What's worse, since being in New York getting him to admit he's hearing deficient is impossible. He's heard every word that has been uttered while in New York, even through walls, hasn't he?

Interestingly, people speaking at high decibels did carry some rewards — in restaurants, for instance. While Hubby and myself quickly gave up on our own mealtime conversations (competition being too fierce), eavesdropping became mandatory and a bit of an art.

If you chose your dining neighbours wisely there was all sorts of interesting stuff you could pick up.

One man was planning to move to Korea to take up a teaching post. He got the job during a 'speed interview'. Akin to speed dating, he had gone to a jobs fair where one moved from employer to employer and had five minutes to convince the interviewer to hire you. Imagine that.

Conversely, you could be unlucky and just be privy to a mealtime of whining about the 'FREAKIN' ECONOMY'. Should I have interjected with a question about American culpability, do you think?

All of the New Yorkers we encountered were real people, not stereotypes. Nevertheless they were eerily familiar. I think that in our endeavours to be politically correct, we sometimes fail to understand that stereotypes are formed from particular and prevalent types. To ignore this is as misleading as to imagine that every one of a type will conform to a standard.

Susan MerrellSusan Merrell is a Sydney-based freelance journalist who has a PhD in political science. She has been published in Unleashed, Open Forum, and several suburban newspapers.

Topic tags: Susan Merrell, new york, stereotype



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Existing comments

Susan, I envy you! When my wife and I were in New York - Manhattan - last year, we felt cheated because we simply didn't encounter the stereotype you describe. We had expected to - but found everyone very polite, helpful, friendly and aware of those around them. We didn't waste an hour over there - what a magnificent city - and met a range of people (though not many taxi drivers, as we preferred the excellent subway system). Yes, we saw the poverty too, confined clearly to a minority of the population, mostly black people. Homelessness is not hidden - church steps being a popular sleeping spot.

I wonder whether, and how, the vibe has changed now that the US has been so badly hit by economic crisis.
Barry York | 01 July 2009

I had a contrary experience on a visit to New York about 12 years ago. My partner and I met up with an Australian friend who was a law scholar at Columbia University. Over dinner in a Times Square pizzeria, she explained the finer points of the Mabo and Wik decisions and their meanings in an international context. It was fascinating to us, and I wouldn't have thought she was taling loudly. The 'only in New York' came when a woman from a nearby table, getting up to leave, came over to our table and thanked our friend for a most interesting conversation.
Jonathan Shaw | 01 July 2009

A hilarious piece, for which thanks, and I speak as a native New Yawker. It's a world city, but filled with a unique salty lewd rude blunt funny devious artful zest and grace among its populace; and not just my clan....
Brian Doyle | 02 July 2009

Susan, I have never had a hotel experience such as yours in the USA, and your overall experience of New York sounds like a bizarre anomaly. I go to New York every year to visit family, and feel far more at home (and safer, and more comfortable) there than in,say,Sydney. I am glad you recognised New Yorkers' courtesy, however, and I agree with you on that. I would live there if I could!
Peter Downie | 02 July 2009

Let me set the record straight, I too loved New York. I admit I was astonished at the sheer volume of New Yorkers' voices, but, in the end, it all added to the charm of this incredible city.

I'll be back there in September (lucky me!) I can hardly wait. But I'm still taking earplugs.
Susan Merrell | 03 July 2009


If you would like to have a wonderful grassroots Christian experience in NY, you can turn up any weekday to volunteer at the huge (1200 meals a day) soup kitchen run by the Church of the Holy Apostles at 9th Ave and 28th St in Manhattan ( A fantastic Anglican initiative and a genuinely welcoming community. I'm jealous.
Peter Christopher Downie | 07 July 2009


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