I’m amazed at how often cashiers and servers comment on my manners. “You’re so polite!” they exclaim.
I usually shrug and smile before I give my standard reply, “I’m not from around here, so I can get away with it.”
I wasn’t raised in a big city, so I’ve really had to work on developing what I call “big city manners.” Obviously, big city manners are much different than the small town manners I was raised with. Some people would argue that big city manners don’t really exist, but I’ve noticed that there’s a standard protocol for dismissing strangers. Here are my observations on some of the differences between big city manners and small town manners.
Big City Versus Small Town Manners: Eye Contact
Making eye contact with strangers is not only a must in a small town, but a requirement. Should you find yourself passing a stranger while walking down a sidewalk, small town manners dictate that you make eye contact. After making eye contact, you may nod, smile, say hello, or any combination of the three.
Big city manners dictate that if you are passing a stranger on the sidewalk (and you do with a high frequency), eye contact is considered an intrusive or rude gesture. There is further protocol for when the sidewalk space you must pass through is narrow and you come in very close proximity to someone you aren’t supposed to look at directly. Fussing with your hair, checking your watch or cell phone, and glancing inside your bag are all courteous ways to avoid offending a stranger with your friendly face.
Big City Versus Small Town Manners: Small Talk
Small town manners dictate that you not only greet strangers, but also make small talk when in a position to do so. A curt hello at the grocery store cashier is unacceptable in a small town; instead, you must inquire about your cashier’s day and respond in kind. Often, your cashier will take the lead in directing the small talk. For example, “How many cats do you have?” is a standard small-town question when buying copious amounts of cat food.
Big city manners function in the opposite way. It is considered impolite and intrusive to press strangers for personal details, particularly if you’re in the service industry. And should you be kind enough to inquire about the nature of your cashier’s day, don’t be surprised if you get a funny look and no verbal acknowledgement of your question.
Big City Versus Small Town Manners: Ps and Qs
Pleases and thank yous are essentials to exhibiting small town manners. If someone extends a courtesy or performs a service that benefits you in someway, a sincere thank you is necessary. Should you need to ask for something, whether it be the salt across the dinner table or directions to the ladies’ room, your request needs to include a please.
While pleases and thank yous haven’t completely disappeared from big city manners, they certainly aren’t as essential to survival like in a small town. Should it be convenient for you to do so, you may please or thank someone if you feel the urge to do so. However, blessing a sneezing stranger won’t win you any cool points in the big city.
Big City Versus Small Town Manners: Hospitality
Living in a small town means that extending hospitality is an integral part of social manners. Should someone grace you with her presence in your home, you are responsible for fetching your guest whatever they need in terms of food, drink, entertainment, and anything else your guest may like for her comfort. Small town manners dictate that you do this as naturally as breathing.
Living in a big city means you’ll do less daily entertaining in your home, but you’ll have more overnight guests. After all, your spacious 200 square foot studio apartment is cheaper than a hotel. Expect people you barely know to call you, announce excitedly they’re coming to town and can’t wait to see you, and then say, “It’s okay if I stay at your place, right?” in a way that’s not really a question.
Big city hospitality means letting people crash on your floor, and that’s about it. Should you attempt to feed and entertain guests in the same manner you would small town guests, you’ll quickly gain a reputation as a smothering host. Should your guests want to go shopping at Nordstrom’s or see the Sears Tower Skydeck, don’t tag along unless you have a burning desire to do these things.
Big City Versus Small Town Manners: Personal Space
In a small town, taking the seat next to a stranger in a movie theater is a cardinal offense, but often a necessity in crowded big city theaters. In a small town, there is generally more available space for everything, from parking your car to coffee house seating. Small town manners dictate you give people their desired amount of personal space-there’s always enough to go around, so it’s not terribly inconvenient to spread out.
In a big city, however, space is at a premium. Heaven forbid you try to park an SUV in a miniscule $10 per hour parking space, because the 27 cars behind you are vying for the same space and can make do with less. It’s not uncommon for people in a big city to not move out of your way on the sidewalk, because it’s just expected you can make do with your six inches of personal sidewalk. Should you veer wildly around people on the sidewalk to give them the Midwestern three feet of personal space, you’ll be perceived not as a well-meaning stranger, but a jackass who never learned to walk right.
Most big city folks cope with the lack of personal space by not acknowledging the people nearby. When someone sits next to you on the subway, it’s not okay to start a conversation, make prolonged eye contact, or smile. In this way, personal space is created psychologically if not physically.
That doesn’t mean big city people don’t appreciate personal space; it just means personal space is more of a luxury than an everyday thing. Should you walk into a bar with only a few other patrons on a Monday afternoon, don’t immediately sit next to someone just because you think you should.