Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
You Talkin' to Me?
2005-01-07 08:31
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to

Have you ever read something that you feel describes you to a tee? Yesterday, I read a couple of articles that resonated so strongly with me that I just had to share them with you. They are from the PBS website, from a show called, "Do You Speak American?" and are about how New Yorkers talk and relate to the world. Deborah Tannen, a socilolinguist, explains:

New Yorkers seem to think the best thing two people can do is talk. Silence is okay when you’re watching a movie (though it might be better punctuated by clever asides), or when you’re asleep (collecting dreams to tell when you awake), but when two or more people find themselves together, it’s better to talk. That’s how we show we’re being friendly. And that’s why we like to talk to strangers—especially if we won’t be with them long, such as in an elevator or on a bank line. This often makes non-New Yorkers think we’re trying to start something more than a conversation.

...A New York listener does a lot of talking. And if you like a story, or if you think someone has made a good point, you don’t appreciate it in silence. You show your reaction fast and loud. This creates trouble when New Yorkers talk to non-New Yorkers. In conversations I taped, again and again the Californians and Midwesterners stopped dead in their vocal tracks when a New Yorker tried to encourage them by exclaiming, “What!,” “Wow!,” or “Oh, God!” What was intended as a show of interest and appreciation sounded to the speaker like rude disbelief, or scared him into speechlessness.

Few forms of entertainment are as well loved by New Yorkers as telling stories. New Yorkers will often use dramatic gestures and facial expressions, change the pitch of their voices, or imitate the people they are quoting. A Midwesterner who worked for a few years in New York had a native friend who liked to tell him stories while they were walking down the street. When the New Yorker got to the climax of the story, he’d stop walking, nudge his friend to stop too, and deliver the punch line face to face. The Midwesterner found this a public embarrassment. But a New Yorker can’t walk and tell a good story at the same time. He needs to gesture and to watch his audience watching him.

My girlfriend Emily has a distinct New York accent but she was raised in the suburbs and has more in common with the Midwestern sensibility described above than she does with the New York style. When we first started dating, we had all sorts of trouble because she felt I was constantly interrupting her when she was trying to tell me a story or how her day went. I wasn't trying to change the subject or take over the conversation, I just wanted to be involved in an exchange, not just be an audience for a monologue. I was trying being natural, trying to be friendly. But when I interjected a question or a thought, she'd shut down, and say, "I'm not finished yet." According to Tannen, our problem was not unique:

Unbeknownst to well-intentioned New Yorkers, high-involvement strategies seem intrusive to those who have what I call “high-considerateness” styles. They’re showing they are good people not by demonstrating eager involvement, but by not imposing. With volume held in check, they leave nice long pauses to make sure other speakers are finished before they start to talk. They are circumspect in dealing out talk, often waiting to be asked to speak, to make sure that others want to hear what they have to say. They state the points of their stories rather than acting them out, and the points are less likely to be personal. This leaves New Yorkers wondering whether the story has a point at all. Non-New Yorkers also make a lot less noise when they listen, causing New Yorkers to wonder if they’ve fallen asleep. They make sure a topic is exhausted before introducing a new one—a strategy that can exhaust a New Yorker who thinks the topic has been talked to death—and they would rather risk offense by saying too little than too much.

These differences wreak havoc in close relationships when only one partner is from New York. The New York-bred partner ends up doing all the talking and accuses the other of not holding up his or her end of the conversation. The non-New York partner ends up seething: “You only want to hear yourself talk; you’re not interested in me.” Both attribute their dissatisfaction not to differences in conversational style, but to the other’s personality flaws and bad intentions.

Well, I've learned when to sit and listen and keep my mouth shut, and of course, it's made a world of difference. What I do when Em wants to share is get an idea of what she wants from me. Does she just want me to listen or is she looking for feedback? Once I've got those ground rules straight, it's easier for us to communicate. I'll be honest, it's not natural for me to listen to someone talk for ten, fifteen minutes straight without reacting at all. I couldn't make it through twenty minutes without participating at all, because it's just too much information to take in. I start to get over-loaded and lose my concentration. I know this is classic male-female relationship stuff--what? men have a hard time listening to women without trying to "fix" the situation? get out--but it's exaggerated in our cases because I'm a motor-mouthed New Yorker and Em's a demure chick from the sticks. Before we met, Emily told her mom that she wanted to date, "A Borough Jew." Well, I'm only half Jewish, but I'm 100% New Yorker. (Careful what you wish for, cause she got exactly what she wanted.)

Oh, and the beauty part about these articles is that I printed them out and was reading them on my subway ride home last night. I didn't notice that they were part of a PBS program until the woman sitting next to me said, "Did you see that show? It was on last night and I missed it." I told her I didn't even know it was a show and then explained who sent me the articles and why. We chatted for three or four stops, mostly about Malcolm Gladwell, "The Tipping Point," and his new book, "Blink" (which I highly recommend), speaking very quickly. Then she was off and I went back to reading. You know, she just happened to be a native New Yorker, right?

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