Tuesday, 20 April 2010
Minding my P's and Q's
Of all the traits that will help you navigate your way through the urban jungle of New York-manners are pretty low on the list.
But being British means always saying you're sorry-usually in the form of two words "Excuse me?"
"Excuse me, can you help me?" "Excuse me can I just squeeze past?" "Excuse me, do you mind? "Excuse me do you know the way to Union Square/5th Avenue/ San Jose?""Excuse my breathing, excuse me living, excuse my excuses?" The only time New Yorkers say Excuse me is when you're in their way. Which I seem to be quite a lot. No matter where I stand. There's is not a genuine Excuse me though, it's a snippy forced one, spat out with vitriol and without a question mark. There is no time for punctuation. What they really mean is ''Get the hell out of my way you waste of skin."
Excuse me is the worst way you can start a conversation with an American. It confuses them, they think you're apologising for something, but they don't know what you're supposed to have done.
My own American goes so far as to say manners are annoying, frivolous and not necessary for a New Yorker. He theorises where population is dense, courtesies are squeezed out. I am reminded once more I am a Welsh Alien and how manners run gleefully back home-through the hills and towns- where we have plenty of space, enough for there to be more sheep than people.
Bring the Welsh to New York and they get caught out all the time.
"Excuse me?" says my Mother to a Mexican market stall holder in Boston train station, "Do you happen to know where the Bolt Bus for New York goes from?"
Excuse me is even worse when the person doesn't speak American as their first language. They just stare, blank faced. It's an expression I've seen many times before so I barge in.
"HEY! BOLT BUS? BACK TO NEW YORK?" I shout.
"Oh! Just over there. Gate 9!" he smiles back.
"You just have to shout and say less words." I tell Mum.
"Oww. Really? It just seems so...rude."
"I know, but it's the only way."
"But it's so...not...you know?...British."
"Yes, but you will spend too much time repeating yourself otherwise."
Mother looks bemused by this, but I suspect that it's because she has spent a lifetime repeating herself out of choice in the form of nagging.
I explain to her that Please and Thank Yous are something of an antiquated custom here. Akin to laying your coat across a puddle Sir Walter Raleigh style. Lay out your manners in the same way and it is you, not your coat that gets stepped on. You and your P's and Q's are a novelty.
I tell her how the common courtesy of holding a door open is greeted with...nothing...not even eye contact of gratitude. How I have taken to yelling "YOU'RE WELCOME!" at the top of voice to anyone who doesn't thank me. Which is everyone.
I say I have concluded that you have to pick and choose what British affectations to keep and which ones to lose.
She looks happy when I declare Please and Thank Yous will stay. I tell her am taking a nod from Beyonce when she says ''My Momma taught me better 'dan 'dat."
She looks bemused again. She doesn't get it, she is fluent in manners but she doesn't speak much American.
She doesn't speak New York.