Busybody Politics

Written by Jeanne Martinet on . Posted in Uncategorized.

To intercede or not to intercede

By Jeanne Martinet

The other day my friend Henry was hurrying along 14th Street near Seventh Avenue when he overheard a woman asking a passerby how to get to Times Square by subway.

“Just walk one block over to the A train, and then take it uptown to 42nd Street, said the man, pointing west with cheerful confidence. Henry, of course, knew these were poor directions; not only was the woman currently only steps away from the entrance to the 1/2/3 train, but taking the A would necessitate her walking the long, crowded avenue block along 42nd, to get from Eighth Avenue back to Seventh. Henry slowed, considered turning back to correct the passerby, then thought better of it. He did not want to embarrass the man, and he figured the woman would get to her designation eventually. And after all, it was really none of his business.

But five minutes later Henry found himself feeling slightly guilty. He knew he could have saved the woman about 20 minutes’s not to mention a lot of walking. But wouldn”t it have been presumptuous for him to step in, unasked? Most of us are happy to stop and help when someone approaches us directly, but when you offer unsolicited help, are you being a Good Samaritan or just a Nosy Parker? Is it a New Yorker”s duty to butt in when it comes to matters of mass transit or urban geography? And if you don”t, are you complicit in sending the stranger in the wrong direction?

The problem is that talking to strangers can be daunting enough, but interrupting someone else”s two-way conversation goes against our social instincts. When you are interrupting with the sole purpose of correcting someone, you are risking embarrassment all around. The person who is giving the wrong directions may be embarrassed because you have criticized his knowledge. (He may even argue with you.) The person who is doing the asking may be embarrassed to seem to need help from more than one person. And you may end up embarrassed, should the first two turn to you with annoyed, “Who asked you? expressions. The question is, does being right justify being a busybody?

One of the important factors in deciding whether or not to intervene is the magnitude of the error. If you know the mistake is really going to cost someone (for example, if he is about to be sent to the Bronx instead of to Brooklyn), you are pretty much obligated to interfere’s otherwise it is like seeing a crime being committed and doing nothing about it. But what if the directions you are overhearing are not wrong per se, but are just not great?

If it is just a question of your route being a little more efficient’s like the difference between two cross-town buses’s you may want to keep your preferences to yourself.

It is a different situation if you are on the subway, or standing in a line. In a group of standing-still strangers, it is a natural thing for anyone within earshot to jump in and say, “This train does not stop at Franklin Street. On the other hand you can take helpfulness too far. Information is one thing, but unsought opinions are another. It might not be considered heroic to intrude into someone”s conversation with, “Wait, you”re trying to get to Bed Bath and Beyond? I know a better place!

Certainly there is a good way and a bad way to go about contradicting an erroneous direction-giver. You definitely don”t want to leap in with, “That”s nuts! The 2/3 train is right here! Be nonjudgmental and polite while correcting the mistake, and try to offer some kind of face-saver. (“Excuse me for interrupting, but actually the 2 or 3 train’s right behind you?’s goes directly there. Some find the A train can be more reliable/less crowded, but right now the 2/3 is running just fine. It”s really much more direct. ) Or you can wait until the person with the bad directions is gone, and then approach the direction-seeker with, “Sorry, but I couldn”t help overhearing you talking to that other gentleman. That route he suggested will take you out of your way; the best way to get there is to take the 2 or 3 right over there.

New York City can often be hard to navigate, so I believe in erring on the side of interceding. But remember: When you decide to swoop in and second-guess someone else”s directions, better be sure you are armed with accurate information. There is nothing worse than a Know-it-all who doesn”t know his Noho from his Nolita.

Jeanne Martinet, aka Miss Mingle, is the author of seven books on social interaction. Her latest book is a novel, Etiquette for the End of the World. You can contact her at JeanneMartinet.com.

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