Over three years have passed since I moved out of New York—or returned to Seattle, however you want to look at it. I have had the good fortune to visit New York every year since my departure, though I was unable to last year due to my mother’s illness.
Whenever people ask me about my time in New York, I usually say something like, “I’m so thankful that I had the chance to live there, but I ultimately found it too overstimulating.” Sometimes I comment how I found myself laughing when I realized the number of people who seemed to take everything, including themselves, so seriously. I didn’t laugh because I found their behaviors funny; I often didn’t know how else to react.
When I was an intern in Seattle, one of the fellows told me about the year he spent in Boston earning an Master’s degree in public health. “Living on the East Coast is like going through assertiveness training,” he quipped.
Indeed, I found my three years in New York to be a course in assertiveness training. This training did not occur because “people are rude in New York”. To be clear, there are rude people in New York, but not more so than anywhere else.
People learn to assert themselves in New York City because of the constant crush of people and what seems like scarce resources. (“Resources” isn’t limited only to money; I refer also to time, attention, and space.) If you don’t assert yourself, people overlook you. And I’m not even talking about people overlooking you for promotions, relationships, or praise. I’m talking about crowds overlooking you while you try to get on a subway car[1. Here are photos of men taking up too much space on the train. Many of the photos feature the New York City subway.], taxi drivers overlooking you as they race down the avenues, or the guys at the pizza counter overlooking you when you’re trying to order a slice.
You learn to change the way you walk, the way you hold yourself, the way your form occupies space. You learn to arrange your body and face to announce, “I am here.” You don’t send that message because you want to be the center of attention; you just want to get stuff done.[2. Because you learn how to adjust your body and face to make your presence known and felt, you also learn how to turn all that off. Sometimes you want to disappear into the crowd; you just want to watch what is happening around you without having to take part.]
You learn to speak up. Speaking up doesn’t mean speaking more; you learn how to get enough attention for enough time to say what you need to say. You learn that if you don’t speak up, people
- may not realize you are there
- may not realize that you have something useful or helpful to offer
- may develop wrong opinions about you, what you think, or what you’re about
You learn to speak up and make your presence known because you witness someone else speak up and advocate for you. You pay that forward and notice that, for whatever reason, that karmic system works.
You also learn to assert yourself because sometimes you get attention you don’t want. There are all the irritating men who catcall you[3. I am an N of 1, but men in New York catcalled me way more than men in any other city I have lived in. That video resonated with me.], the taxis that trail you as you walk on the sidewalk, and the disgruntled people you happened to interact with at the wrong time. You learn to ignore the unwanted attention without showing discomfort or fear on your face. You arrange your body and face to announce, “I am here, but not for you.”
You learn that people respond to you—favorably!—when you assert yourself. You learn that when you speak up and deliver your message in an envelope of good manners, people often change their behavior. You learn who respects you. You also learn that one of the best ways to show respect to others is to tell them what you’re thinking and feeling. You learn that they can handle it. You also learn that you can handle it, too.
I remain grateful to New York for teaching me how to sharpen my assertiveness skills. I’ll be visiting the great city soon and trust that I will have no choice but to review the coursework.