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.
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.
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."
Overall, men were the most willing to help, especially when it came to document drops. In those, men offered aid 63 percent of the time, compared to 47 percent among women. Of course, men weren't entirely democratic about whom they'd help. All of them held the door for RD's female reporter, and were more than twice as likely to help her pick up fallen papers than they were to help our male reporter. "I'll hold the door for whoever's behind me," said Pete Muller, 27, an account executive from Brooklyn. "But I'm definitely more conscious of women!" he added with a smile.
By far, the most common reason people cited for being willing to go out of their way to help others was their upbringing. "It's the way I was raised," said one young woman who held a door open despite struggling with her umbrella on a frigid, sleety day in Brooklyn.
Her sentiment was echoed by Christine DuBois, a 49-year-old sales manager from Bayside, Queens. DuBois was headed to the gym when she stopped to retrieve a pile of scattered papers. "It's something that's taught to you when you're young," she said.
A few people, including Frederick Martin, 29, credited their mothers' influence specifically. "My mom brought me up like that," Martin said. "It's pure manners."
Another reason people are quick to be courteous: "You do what you'd want other people to do if it happened to you," said Christine Rossi, who pitched in on an early-morning document drop. Dennis Kleinman, a 57-year-old doctor and writer, used one word to sum up what drove his impulse to help: "Empathy." He came to the aid of an RD reporter when a middle-aged woman ignored a pile of papers in front of a shop on Manhattan's East Side. "The same thing happens to me, and I appreciate it when someone takes 10 to 15 seconds of their valuable time to help," he said.
The reporters did run into a few courtesy clods. In one case, while an RD staffer was inside a Starbucks interviewing a woman who'd passed the door test, a dozen oblivious people stepped over a second staffer's fallen papers. Another time, a wise guy offered only a snarky comment on our clumsiness: "That guy had too much coffee!" he cracked.
And just when we thought we'd heard every excuse in the book for not helping, along came Margot Zimmerman. The 44-year-old computer saleswoman was on her way into a Queens Starbucks when a reporter dropped his folder of papers right at her feet. Looking down, Zimmerman stepped gingerly around the papers, then entered the shop. "I'm probably one of the most courteous people," she insisted later. "I pick up every other person's dog poop. I help old ladies across the street. But when he dropped his papers, he made such a face."
Thankfully, such responses were the exception, not the rule. Which makes New York City a pretty darn polite place -- the most polite major city in the entire world, in case you missed it before. We realize this isn't a rigorous scientific study, but we believe it is a reasonable real-world test of good manners around the globe. And it's comforting to know that in a place where millions of people jostle one another each day in a relentless push to get ahead, they're able to do it with a smile and a thank-you. Hey, if they can make nice here, they can make nice anywhere.
World of Courtesy: Ranking of 35 Cities
Below is a ranking of the most courteous to the least courteous -- 35 major cities included in RD's Global Courtesy Test. Figures reflect the percentage of people who passed in each city. When multiple cities had identical scores, they are listed in alphabetical order.