3 Subtleties of New York City Etiquette

New York is unlike any other city that has ever existed. It is arguably the center of modern culture, business, fashion, art and everything else that defines our society, and the city has its own specific personality and characteristics. With that come many quirks that could be surprising– or unfamiliar, at best– to those who have not spent significant time there. The subtleties of New York etiquette could be characterized as strange, but they are not without purpose.

3 Subtleties of New York City Etiquette

In a city of over 8 million people, everyone is jammed in together in close quarters, and they are all in a hurry to get wherever they are going. In order to keep the city from spiraling into complete chaos, New Yorkers have developed a complex set of rules and standards to which all are expected to adhere. Although many of the actions within this etiquette come off as rude to those from the outside, they exist to be mutually beneficial for everyone who lives and travels in this cramped, busy and otherwise chaotic city.

This guide is designed to go over some of the more subtle elements of this code of behavior in order to help prepare visitors and tourists for what is ahead. Just remember that almost all New York etiquette is based on efficiency; natives are not being brusque because they do not like you– they just have their own lives going on and cannot waste valuable time to chit-chat or exchange unnecessary pleasantries.

1. Walk like you are driving

The sidewalks in Manhattan are some of the most crowded and fast-paced parts of the entire world, and there is an unwritten set of rules that help guide the masses of humanity that flow along them each day. If you are totally unfamiliar with New York sidewalk etiquette, the simplest way to get by is to act as if you are driving.

  • Always walk on the right side.
  • Do not stop abruptly on the sidewalk.
  • Do not text and walk.
  • Do not take up more space than necessary.
  • Slower traffic, stay to the right.

2. Be efficient 

As mentioned above, much of the etiquette dealing with New York foot traffic is based on efficiency. In fact, this is the governing characteristic of all New York traditions and customs, and you should always think efficiency over everything else. This can be difficult for tourists who want to take their time and take in all the amazing sights and sounds, but there is a balance you can find here.

3 Subtleties of New York City Etiquette

The key is understanding when it is acceptable to take your time and when you should move along quickly. As a general rule, New Yorkers stay in constant forward motion, so there are times when it is acceptable to stop and smell the roses. However, anything that is designed specifically for tourists– such as the popular TopView bus tours, guided museum tours and other tourist-specific activities– may allow you to take your time.

  • When ordering at a counter, place your order quickly and get out of the way.
  • When viewing an exhibit at a museum, do not stand directly in front of it for 20 minutes when others are waiting to view.
  • Get in and out of bathrooms quickly– this is especially important for women.

3. Be space-conscious

In addition to the fast pace, the other defining characteristic of the city is its limited space. Crowds will exist no matter where you go in New York, and you should expect to alter your concept of personal space upon arrival. Always remember that there are over 8 million people living in this city– and countless others visiting it– and do not take any more space than you need.

  • When travelling as a group, do not spread out and take up all the room on the sidewalk.
  • Carry a small umbrella in case of rain.
  • Do not put your coat, shopping bags or other belongings in a seat on the subway or in a restaurant– an actual human would be much more grateful for that seat.
About Simon Petersen 506 Articles
Travel blogger, journalist, sports and movie fiend. Chronicling the life and times of a Kiwi at home and abroad.