Uncommon Courtesy

We keep hearing about the death of civility -- but it's alive and well in a place you'd least expect.

By Neena Samuel and Joseph K. Vetter from Reader's Digest | July 2006

A woman heads into a popular New York City coffee shop on a chilly winter morning. Just ahead of her, a man drops a file full of documents. The woman pauses, and stoops to help gather the papers.

Six blocks away, a different man enters another shop, but not before politely holding the door for the person behind him. A clerk at another busy store thanks a customer who’s just made a purchase. “Enjoy,” the young woman says, smiling widely. “Have a nice day.” She sounds like she really means it.

Whoa. Common courtesy on the mean streets of a city known for its in-your-face style? Have New Yorkers suddenly gone soft?

In her international bestselling death-of-manners manifesto Talk to the Hand, author Lynne Truss argues that common courtesies such as saying “Excuse me” are practically extinct. There are certainly plenty who would agree with her. Consider that in one recent survey, 70 percent of U.S. adults said people are ruder now than they were 20 years ago.

Is it really true? Reader’s Digest decided to find out if courtesy truly is kaput. RD sent reporters to major cities in 35 countries where the magazine is published — from Auckland, New Zealand, to Zagreb, Croatia. In the United States, that meant targeting New York, where looking out for No. 1 — the heck with the other guy — has always been a basic survival skill.

The routine in New York was similar to the one followed elsewhere: Two reporters — one woman and one man — fanned out across the city, homing in on neighborhoods where street life and retail shops thrive. They performed three experiments: “door tests” (would anyone hold one open for them?); “document drops” (who would help them retrieve a pile of “accidentally” dropped papers?); and “service tests” (which salesclerks would thank them for a purchase?). For consistency, the New York tests were conducted at Starbucks coffee shops, by now almost as common in the Big Apple as streetlights. In all, 60 tests (20 of each type) were done.

Along the way, the reporters encountered all types: men and women of different races, ages, professions, and income levels. They met an aspiring actress, a high school student, a hedge-fund analyst and two New York City police officers. And guess what? In the end, four out of every five people they encountered passed RD’s courtesy test — making New York the most courteous city in the world. Imagine that.

A for Effort
While 90 percent of New Yorkers passed the door test, only 55 percent aced the document drop. Are people less likely to help others when doing so takes extra effort or time? Not always, the reporters found. Take the pregnant woman who thought nothing of bending down to help us with our papers. Or the Queens woman named Liz who precariously balanced two coffees, her keys and her wallet on a takeout tray with one hand, while picking up papers off the wet pavement with the other. Her reason for helping? “I was there,” she said matter-of-factly.

Part of the Job
Nineteen of the 20 clerks who were subjected to service tests passed. Roger Benjamin, the manager and coffee master at a Manhattan Starbucks, acknowledged that the chain trains its employees to be courteous. And some baristas the RD reporters encountered went beyond basic niceties. “You have to feed off people’s vibes,” said one clerk. “You go out of your way to show customers they did us a favor by coming here.” At another store, a green-apron-clad attendant said that while courtesy was part of his job, he sought respect in return: “It’s contagious.”

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