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Studies suggest city dwellers are meaner than their suburban counterparts. Here's what the researchers don't understand.

The summer after I graduated from high school, I got my first real job, selling ice cream from a pushcart on 45th Street in Manhattan. It was a great gig. I was outdoors all day long, I was making decent money, and I was selling something that everybody loves. A lot of my customers were tourists, and one of my favorite parts of the job was getting the chance to give them directions, or tips on what they should do to enjoy their visit to my city.

Over the course of that summer, I had essentially the same conversation about a million times. I’d dish out some advice or information along with the ice cream, and the out-of-towner would say something like, ”Thank you so much! Tell me, where are you from?”

And I’d say, “I’m from right here in New York.”

And they’d say, “That can’t be! You’re so nice!”

The stereotype that New Yorkers – or city-dwellers in general – aren’t very nice people is a persistent one. It came up again last week in an article by Will Doig on Salon titled, “It’s True: Cities Are Meaner.”

Doig brings out some of the most frequently quoted research on the subject, including Robert Levine’s studies that compare the helpfulness of strangers on the street in 22 cities around the world (spoiler alert: people in Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking cultures value kindness; New York doesn’t look so great). Doig also mentions the infamous 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, incorrectly stating “she was killed while dozens of witnesses looked on.” While the Genovese case is shocking and the details will never be clear, exhaustive analysis has proven that perhaps only one person realized the severity of Genovese’s situation (as several commenters on the Salon piece helpfully point out).

Doig’s article got me thinking again about the divide between my experience of city life and the way that it looks when it’s analyzed by researchers. Levine’s study, for instance, recorded how many people helped out in three different situations: an experimenter pretended to be blind; to have an injured leg; or to drop a pen. Here’s what he wrote about the pen-dropping experiment:

We also learned that there may be a difference between helping and civility. In places where people walked fast, they were less likely to be civil even when they did offer assistance. In New York, helping gestures often had a particularly hard edge. During the dropped-pen experiment, for example, helpful New Yorkers would typically call to the experimenter that he had dropped his pen, then quickly move on in the opposite direction. In contrast, helpers in laid-back Rio—where a leisurely gait and simpático personality are ways of life—were more likely to return the pen personally, sometimes running to catch up with the experimenter. In the blind-person trials, helpful New Yorkers would often wait until the light turned green, tersely announce that it was safe to cross and then quickly walk ahead. In the friendlier cities, helpers were more likely to offer to walk the experimenter across the street, and they sometimes asked if he then needed further assistance. Indeed, one of our experimenters' problems in these places was how to separate from particularly caring strangers.

OK, guilty as charged. New Yorkers do things in a hurry. But conducting business swiftly is considered to be polite here, not impolite. Time is valuable. People talk faster, walk faster … and help faster.

In my experience, New Yorkers can also treat helping as a competitive sport. If Levine had analyzed the response to people asking for directions, I bet he would have had a different outcome. More than once, when I’ve been giving someone directions on the subway, another New Yorker has jumped in to suggest an alternative – supposedly superior – route. We don’t just want to help, in cases like this. We want to be the best at helping.

Anecdotally, there are countless stories of truly valiant kindness in cities – honest cabbies returning items of great value to their passengers, subway heroes who risk their lives to save others, ordinary citizens who call 911 to report crimes in progress.

Part of the problem – and Doig makes this point in his piece – is that city dwellers can be overwhelmed by the number of human interactions they have every day. And this gets to the heart of my problem with the criticism of urban kindness.

If you’re living in rural America, or even the suburbs, you’re in contact with strangers much less often. For the most part, you’re either at home, at work, or in your car. And there’s not a lot of helping blind people across the street or picking up pens that happens when you’re in a motor vehicle.

The degree of insulation from other human beings experienced by people outside of cities has only increased in the last generation. For many people, Main Street has been replaced by Walmart and its parking lot. A city-dweller – especially in a very dense city like New York -- is confronted with dozens of decisions every day about whether a stranger is worth helping. A suburban resident might go days without having to make such a choice, and thus be more enthusiastic when they get the opportunity to do the right thing.

In every community of every size, some people are nice, and others aren’t. Maybe people who live in cities just get more chances to show which side they’re on.

Top image: the adam design studio / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

Sarah Goodyear
Sarah Goodyear

Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.

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