I learned possibly the forever most interesting things at a recent Zoom panel titled “The Rise and Fall of Jewish New York Speech,” put together by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. In addition to fascinating technical descriptions of the indelible New York accent, one of the participants, a professor of linguistics, described the various components of New York conversational style, which she has studied for 35+ years. She described a host of defining qualities—qualities she reminds are notable only as relative to other national regions. New Yorkers are more direct, talk faster, have shorter pauses, tell more stories, offer more intimate details, use more dramatization, allusion, and subtext, complain as a mode of small talk, shift topics more often, and are more persistent in conveying a point. They (we) may make use of “machine gun” questions—You’re from LA? How do you like it? You’re a writer? Overall, she concludes, it is not a New Yorker’s business to make sure you have the floor to speak, but yours to wedge yourself in and make yourself heard.
This is why I love academics—I felt pretty bowled over by this simple expository language that perfectly outlines a banal (but extraordinary) truth. I may be one of the least New York-talking members of my family, which can occasionally be rather frustrating when I can’t get a word in edge-wise. So the professor’s continued analysis was very personally therapeutic, in discussing how speech reflects conceptions of self. New York speakers are frequently accused of being impolite, or gruff, by non-New Yorkers (or also, possibly, by other New Yorkers), but that isn’t because politeness is not valued by them—it is just conceived of uniquely. New Yorkers show that they’re good and well-meaning through “high involvement effort”—animation, interruption, standing closer, speaking louder, asking personal questions, sharing of themselves enthusiastically. Elsewhere, an equally valid way to convey conversational good faith is to do the exact opposite, by backing off and letting your conversant take the lead. But everyone intends to do good here, thinking of themselves as caring, empathetic, and interested, whatever that means to them. (Israelis, for example, escalate high involvement yet another aggressive notch, which even New Yorkers can find off-putting.)
The trouble begins, indeed, when these conversation styles are not shared, leading to negative impressions and judgments between in- and out-groups. In one of the professor’s examples (also maybe the funniest thing I’ve ever heard) she describes a New Yorker eating with a Midwesterner he’d just met. He spends the whole lunch talking about himself until, finally, she asks: “Why are you telling me all this?” He replies, “I’m trying to get to know you!” Similarly, a Californian talking to a New Yorker waits to enter the conversation until the New Yorker takes a long enough pause—long enough by Californian standards—to indicate it was their turn to speak. The pauses didn’t come. But, importantly, once they eventually worked through the misalignment, the Californian took the floor and talked at length. In reviewing the conversation, both parties had spoken the same amount.
Everything about New York is high-involvement effort, so we shouldn’t be surprised that our speaking style is too. Even the most disaffected New Yorkers, who just want to be left alone, seem to like to wear their misanthropy with high involvement. What is uniquely bizarre about urban life in a pandemic is to have to stop being so highly involved. In a magnificent essay by the superb writer, artist, and journalist Molly Crabapple (read her books, too), she captures both the tragedy and triumph of New York’s changing involvements during the last year. She documents New York’s big-hearted characters whose work never stopped, “the mail carrier who sauntered down the street, costume jewelry adorning her uniform, keeping the city running with her swagger.” She rages against the haves who promptly left the city, whose capital has “hollowed out the city,” who “don’t care and make nothing.” She recounts the occupation at City Hall, the thousands protesting the police budget as the police brutalized citizens, mainly Black and Latino. “The city had no money to help its people,” she writes. “It only had money to break their skulls.”
She writes lovingly and critically of newly sprouted mutual aid networks, and quick-emptying community fridges. “Why are mostly Black and Latina organizers packing grocery boxes without pay just so their neighbors can eat? They shouldn’t have to do this. But they do. Because Hedge Fund Brett never paid his share, and little of his wealth ever reached them. They needed to grind. It wouldn’t get done otherwise. They wanted their city to live.”
It’s a love and hate letter to New York and all who share it, which is exactly, perennially, how it feels to be here. Ultimately, though, she begs New Yorkers—the ones who gesticulate wildly, interrupt ferociously, drop their Rs and “glide their vowels high,” and whose enthusiasm and complaining in equal measure will not be repressed—to stay:
Stay because this is a city of ghosts, and we need someone to remember them. To lay flowers on the Day of the Dead shrines, or to scoop up graveyard dust and eat chicharrons in the cemeteries of our impious dead.
Stay because this city belongs to the living. To us. To the union guys hauling their inflatable rat in front of a job site that hires scab labor. To the undocumented moms selling mangos in plastic bags. To the vandals whose fingers are caked with wheat paste. To the owner of the Puerto Rican boxing gym in the Bronx. To the fake pocketbook vendors on Canal Street. To the home health care aides, to the bomba drummers, and the old queer artists still clinging to their rent-controlled apartments. To the guys hanging out on a beat-up old couch outside a bodega in Sunset Park, shooting the shit before the weather gets too cold and forces us all inside. The city belongs to those who love it enough to stay.
Happy Galentine’s Day.
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