In the summer of 2013, Gothamist published the first of many advice columns from native New Yorker Jake Dobkin, kicking things off with the timeless question, "Is It Normal For Roaches To Crawl Through My Hair At Night?" Nearly six years later, the popular series has been turned into a book, Ask a Native New Yorker, with ALL NEW essays from Jake. This week we are running excerpts the book, which is on sale now! Today's question comes from Chapter 1: "How to Recognize a Real New Yorker" and concerns the local tendency to gripe.

Dear Jake,

When I lived in the Midwest and saw New Yorkers on TV shows, they were always so tough; you know, the gruff, no-nonsense guys you see on police shows. So I was kind of shocked, after I moved here, to find that almost all of my New York acquaintances complain constantly about their lives in the city. What's up with that?

Yours truly,

Stiff Upper Lip

Dear SUL,

Many things you learn about New York from television are wrong; for instance, the size of the typical New York apartment, the number of murders that take place in an average year, or the odds of acquaintances bumping into each other on the street every day—all three are grossly overstated on typical shows. So it's no surprise you got the wrong idea about how New Yorkers act. I know of no locals who embody the most common stereotypes—the New Yorker as stoic and sullen or loud-mouthed and sarcastic—though of course everyone I know here passes through these attitudes from time to time. I've also never seen anyone jump in a cab and scream, "Follow that car!"

Do real New Yorkers complain a lot? Yes, of course. They complain because living here is hard—physically, socially, emotionally—and despite its challenges, they want to stay. So what else is there to do besides let off some steam? Especially about things everyone can agree on: that the rent is too damn high, that whatever train you rely on takes forever, that car alarms were created by the devil to torture innocent people and have never once stopped a vehicle from being stolen. Without this type of therapeutic kvetching, who knows what number of senseless acts of violence would occur every day?

(For many New Yorkers, cursing is a similar means of harmlessly reducing tension. This sometimes shocks or frightens new arrivals who hail from places where "fuck" isn't used as a routine intensifier, as in the sentence "Look at this fucking line—there's no fucking way I'm waiting forty-five fucking minutes for a fucking burger with a fucking bun made out of fucking ramen.")


Whining about shared problems also creates an important sense of community here. This is important because, in a dense metropolis, it is critical to experience a sense of connection with others. Casual relationships with coworkers, neighbors, and social acquaintances are maintained and strengthened through the frequent rehashing of these common problems. People who suffer in silence miss out on this camaraderie and magnify their troubles.

Complaining serves another purpose, which is that it allows New Yorkers to identify where they fall in New York's complex web of class, race, and neighborhood identity. You can bet that the swells in Manhattan's more exclusive neighborhoods like Gramercy spend less time complaining about rent than working class families in Sunset Park do, but they spend a lot more time complaining about bike lanes and Citi Bike docks taking over their carefully cultivated streetscapes. By griping about the right mix of things, you show others here where you come from and where you belong.

Complaining about gentrification is a perfect example. Talk to any New Yorker who's been here longer than three years, and eventually the conversation will come around to what the city was like at some earlier time, and how much more real/better/cooler it was back then—even if back then was only eleven months ago. This type of complaining is a demonstration of a New Yorker's bona fides, a show of how real they are disguised as a little aria about how New York is always getting worse. Don't take it at face value.

Despite their income or race or location, there are some commonalities in New Yorkers' complaints. I've noticed we rarely gripe about topics that are really big or really small. For instance, no one ever seems to mention the threat of climate change or a terrorist attack when they're venting with friends. Existential risk is something we New Yorkers bring to our therapists but not to brunch. Same with stuff at the other end of the spectrum: piddling troubles, like a cockroach crawling through your hair in bed or stepping knee-deep in a corner slush lagoon in winter— those things seem to be taken in stride and treated as beneath our dignity to complain about.

Ask A Native New Yorker, now available in book form.

When the really bad stuff happens—fires, explosions, blackouts, floods—you never hear New Yorkers complain. No one says, "Why us?" No, we just go right to work helping each other—calling on the rich social networks that all our daily bitching helped create. So, in a sense, I think the day-to-day gripe-a-thon is one of the secrets of New Yorkers' incredible resilience in times of adversity. Also, you try being a Mets fan.

Here is my advice: join in. Find a group of friends, get comfortable, and then tell them everything about this place that's driving you crazy. It's better to get it out in an understanding environment, rather than save it all up and explode one day on the subway platform.

In solidarity,


N.B.: Some of New York complaining has cultural roots in our various ethnic traditions. My people, the Jews, have a rich history of complaining that has woven its way into the typical New York attitude. It can be summarized by this classic joke: A Jewish grandmother is watching her grandson play on the beach when a huge wave arrives and pulls him out to sea. She prays, "Please God, save my only grandchild. I beg of you, please bring him back!" Suddenly, another big wave comes and throws the boy back onto the beach, unharmed. She looks up toward heaven and says, "He had a hat!"

Ask a Native New Yorker anything by emailing Jake here. Anonymity is assured.