Are you relatively new to this bustling metropolis? Don't be shy about it, everyone was new to New York once upon a time, except, of course, those battle-hardened residents who've lived here their whole lives and Know It All. One of these lifers works among us at Gothamist—publisher Jake Dobkin grew up in Park Slope and still resides there. He is now fielding questions—ask him anything by sending an email here, but be advised that Dobkin is "not sure you guys will be able to handle my realness." We can keep you anonymous if you prefer; just let us know what neighborhood you live in.

This week's question comes from a New Yorker agonizing over a common fear: making conversation with a casual acquaintance she encounters on the subway.

Hi Jake,

When I ride the train, I like to just listen to music, read a book, and try to forget that I spend two hours a day underground. So, when I see a casual acquaintance on the platform or enter my train car, I get filled with dread by the idea of having to forgo the only relative peace and quiet I get daily for gut wrenching small talk. Do I have to sit with them and chat the whole ride? Or would a simple smile and wave suffice, and then we can go back to respecting each other's space?


Social Captive

A native New Yorker responds:

Dear Social Captive,

I feel your pain, fellow introvert! I usually ride the subway with my earphones in and my glasses off, just to avoid just these kinds of situations. If someone sees me and wants to talk, it's on them to come over and say "what's up, yo?," because I'm not going to see or hear anybody. Avoidant behavior like this might be one of the reasons I don't have a lot of friends!

Jake Dobkin pretends to smile for a selfie with his roommate after they bump into each other on the F train. (Courtesy Jake Dobkin Private Collection)

So, to help you out, I've polled my more neurotypical native New York friends, and they said that pretending not to see people is "weirdo" behavior. Their consensus on subway conversations seems to be based on two factors: proximity and relationship.

If you're close friends or family, they say, you are expected to speak even if it means crossing the length of the car. If you're only acquaintances, you're only required to converse if you're standing right in the same part of the car, for instance, by the same door, or within a couple of seats. If not, you can just give a wave or smile and then pretend they're not there.

Speaking for all weirdos, I still feel like this leaves a lot of gray area. What about close Internet friends, like the people whose Instagram pictures you comment on the most? Shouldn't you cross the car for them? What about old friends who you lost touch with for a GOOD reason? Are you really required to dredge up the past when you were just trying to get home from work? And what about co-workers? You just spent a whole day together at the office, and now you're expected to talk again? I really have no idea here.

One of the best essays I've read on social anxiety was written by local nervous polymath Paul Ford. It's called "How to Be Polite," and if you find, as I do, that people make you uneasy, I advise you to read it now. For everyone else, I will summarize it as three helpful tips: 1) always be polite, 2) remember to be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle, and 3) see how long you can go in a conversation without asking somebody about work.

This last one is important, and in the months since I read Paul's essay, I've tried to practice it. It turns out you can go a very long time indeed without mentioning what you do for a living, and not talking about it makes the conversation a lot more interesting and less emotionally fraught.

Here are some topics that almost any New Yorker can converse on for several minutes: recent good restaurants they've visited, the best new music/books/tv/movies/apps they've enjoyed, a trip they took or are going to take. It is Zen to show affection to casual acquaintances, and it turns out that making conversation is just a skill like any other—even introverts can do it well and painlessly with practice.

Or fuck it, try biking to work! I've been biking the 4 miles to and from our office every day since March. If you're physically lazy, as I am, I find that this is easier to do if you just adopt a rule and stick to it. My rule is "if the pavement is dry and it's above 40 degrees, I bike." I cannot recommend this enough; exercise gives you a lot more energy, you save money on commuting, and you feel much more relaxed after biking for an hour than you would if you just went right home from work on the crowded subway. Also you don't have to talk to anyone, except maybe the assholes in the cars honking at you to get out of their lanes.


N.B. People with minor social anxiety can cure themselves just by embracing situations that make them nervous over-and-over- eventually the anxiety fades. For more serious cases, consider a combination of meditation and cognitive-behavioral therapy. That stuff really works!

Ask a Native New Yorker anything via email. Anonymity is assured.