Jan 14, 2018

New York style vs California/New England style conversation


The older I get the more I identify as a New Yorker. New York is where I grew up. New England and California is where I've spent most of my life. I live now in Maine surrounded by polite, thoughtful, articulate people and we mostly engage in what I would call California or New England style conversation--which is very different from New York style conversation.

In most of the United States, it's polite to let someone say what they have to say, listening attentively, perhaps nodding and smiling politely as they say it, and then taking your turn. To do otherwise shows disrespect. Interrupting is rude. Almost everywhere. And especially in California and in New England.

But not in New York. In New York, it's the opposite. Interrupting isn't rude, it's a sign of engagement, of interest, of caring, of respect.

From this article:
The next time someone accuses you of interrupting, you might want to explain that you are not being rude: You’re actually engaging in “high-involvement cooperative overlapping.” 
Cooperative overlapping — talking as another person continues to speak — is typical of Jewish conversational style, according to linguist Deborah Tannen, and can be a way of showing interest and appreciation.
What I call New York style and what Tannen calls Jewish Style are same. I've got a Jewish friend who grew up in St Louis. I've told her that I think everyone from New York is Jewish even if they are not, and no one from St Louis is Jewish, even if they are. Maybe that explains something.

It's not just Jews, in my experience. I've been around Italian families that operate the same way. Everyone is interrupting, arguing, talking at the top of their voices, even yelling, and it sounds like love to me. That's the same style.

I remember so clearly the first time I became aware of the contrast in styles. I was in California, in a checkout line at the Milpas Street Trader Joe's store, in the line nearest the door, reading an article on my cell phone as I waited. That's how clearly I remembered it. It was a revelation to me. And I remember channeling my inner New Yorker and talking to the person on line behind me to share this insight.

I'm even more aware of New York style because of some recent conversations with my new buddy Mark Lesser. Mark and I have a bunch of things in common. We're about the same age (I'm a bit older); we're both MIT grads; we're both from New York; we're both Jewish, though not practicing; we both ended up in Maine; we both married women who are not in tech, and who are not Jewish (but we both put out Weihnachtspyramides at Christmas time)

And we talk New York style. For hours. Fast. Loud. Talking over each other. Interrupting each other. Changing subjects.  The article quoted from above says:
Other features of Jewish conversational style include a preference for personal topics, abrupt shifts of topics, unhesitating introduction of new topics and persistence in reintroducing a topic if others don’t immediately pick up on it.
I'm not sure we have a preference for personal topics, but personal topics are not off limits and salted throughout our conversation. We've each said that we've reached a point in our lives where we don't feel any need to hold back. Mark's said it kind of like that. I've said something more like "I don't give a fuck what anyone thinks about me." Same thing. Slightly different language.

We also stop from time to time and reflect on our conversation, how it's different from the conversations we typically have. We both talk to our wives a lot, but not this same way. Because they're not New Yorkers? Or not Jewish? Not us? I don't know.

Little by little the restraints we've adopted drop away in favor of a conversational style that's is stylistically more natural and uninhibited. And we'll interrupt the flow of conversation periodically to confirm that we each understand the meaning of the way we're expressing things as well as the meaning of what we're talking about.

I tried to find the article that I was reading in Trader Joe's and invested a little time doing it. It would be nice to go back and rediscover that moment. Meanwhile, I'm continuing to explore the boundaries of New York style.

So let me close with a favorite joke:

Q: How many New Yorkers does it change a lightbulb?
A: (Shouted) Who the FUCK made it your business?

I love Maine. And I ❤ New York.