It’s like reading about myself in one of those endless “How the Japanese cultural norms keep the world’s most densely-packed society running smoothly” articles. Except she’s talking about New York.
*pause for orchestral sting*
I lost count of the after-yous and the beaming you’re- welcomes, not only from paid suck-ups in restaurants or hotels, but busy-looking, fast-walking folks. Long ago I would have mocked “Have a nice day” as an international gold standard of American insincerity. But alone, ill-slept and, most of all, charmed by its contrast with my own country’s default mode of public aggression, I found it soothing, even kind.
So what if it isn’t truly meant or is parroted 1,000 times a day? It oils the squeaky old cogs of social interaction, makes it more pleasant for millions of hard-packed people to coexist in an often brutal, unnaturally vertical city. Manners keep public space clean and neutral; provide a little much-needed mental distance between us. And yet conversely, like my fellow northerners, New Yorkers are always talking to strangers in lifts or shops. Trying on shoes in Bergdorf’s, I was appraised with unexpected friendliness by two scarily well-groomed blondes: “Cute! You should buy them.”
That American smile is an agent of mobility, social and geographic; it presents your best self, shows you come in peace, bonds a disparate nation. As Britain becomes more diverse but more unequal, we really need to crack a few more. Yet in London we are both heedless and aloof, which has led to growing, just- below-the-surface violent rage. “What is it with London these days?” asked a British friend, a long-time New York resident, when he last came home. “Why is everyone angry all the time?”
Britain, a nation with a reputation for reserve and old-school etiquette, dropped formalities to sweep away snobbery and inequality. I suppose some kind of democratisation has been achieved: equal disrespect for all. Beautiful manners are mocked as affected, yet whenever I’ve come across them — most notably in Zac Goldsmith and Michael Gove — they have the power to bewitch and get results without ever seeming to push.
Then she gets to politics, how horrid and beastly and abusive we Republicans are (N-words! Swastikas! Rush Limbaugh!), in ways unheard of in Britain. Except they’re the ones electing the BNP. But y’know, we don’t talk about that.