The Urban Etiquette Handbook

Rules of the road: (1) No raking women with your eyes; glance quickly and respectfully. (2) Offer to share a taxi rather than fight over it. (3) Babies in strollers get right-of-way—until they abuse it. (4) Still no ogling girls—c’mon! (5) And skateboarding, are you kidding me? (6) Not everybody loves your dog as much as you do. (7) No bicycling on the sidewalk unless under the age of 6. (8) Pedestrians can die of secondhand smoke, too. Photo: Photomontage by Peter Rad

Etiquette. The word may seem quaint and ironic to progressive New Yorkers, bringing to mind doilyed scenes of high tea with extended pinkies and stilted conversation. After all, many of the original “rules” were based on traditions steeped in emotional constipation—hardly appropriate for a modern, expressive, liberated city. But, in fact, the nature of New York is precisely why we need etiquette more than ever. First of all, it’s so crowded: This city is home to almost a million more people than it was fifteen years ago. We’re literally on top of each other: We share wireless, cram into subways and cubicles, and rent shared apartments with roommates years after our peers in the rest of the country have invested in a summer home.

And these days, there are unprecedented opportunities for new offense: You’ve got interfaith-interracial partners, gay married couples with kids from a best friend–cum–surrogate, friends in ridiculously disparate income brackets, threesomes, twosomes with an “understanding.” Who walks the bride down the aisle—especially when there are two brides? (Anyone she damn well pleases, most likely.) And what does the polite guest bring to an “I’m Divorced!” party? (First, find out who got possession of the good crystal.) How do you react when someone introduces a colleague to you as “my lover”? (Step one: Do not spit out drink.)

And that’s just the beginning—in a new era, age-old questions become vexing all over again. As a city of early adopters, New York has embraced countless communication-facilitating services and gadgets, which have simultaneously brought us closer together and pushed us further apart. On the one hand, technology is the great equalizer; on the other, it’s created brand-new sticky situations. We expand our social networks via Friendster and MySpace but often end up with an unmanageable list of mere acquaintances or even strangers. We can feel like we know someone intimately whom we’ve never met while never speaking to the person who’s worked down the hallway for the past four years.

Traditionally, New Yorkers have had a reputation as habitually, even genetically, rude. (It’s the one place in the world where the phrase “fuhgeddaboudit!” sounds less like a pardon than a threat.) And, yes, it will always be a source of local pride to be savvy and street-smart. Twenty years ago, when crime was up and graffiti was more than just guerrilla marketing, New Yorkers could be forgiven for walking around with their defenses up. But our crime rate is now one of the lowest in the country among big cities, so we can be polite without getting mugged. Usually.

If blogs, reality television, tell-all memoirs, talk shows, lo-risers, and overly loud cell-phone conversations (“Really? A goiter? Where?”) all mean our once-held notions of privacy and personal space have evolved—or devolved—to the point where they’re barely recognizable, does that mean discretion is obsolete? That civility is extinct? That manners just don’t matter anymore? Some would say, Of course not! Some, Absolument pas. Still others, Up yours! To which we ask, Can’t we all just get along?

We say yes. To find out how, read on. Or rather, please read on.

Love & Sex
What obligations does one have after a one-night stand?
They correlate directly to the expectations raised the night before. If you wooed your one-nighter to bed with promises of Central Park picnics and weekends in the Hamptons, you are obliged to follow through. But if you made no false promises in order to close the deal, then you simply need to be polite. If the liaison takes place in your own apartment, let your new friend stay the night and offer to cook/pay for a quick breakfast, but don’t dilly dally in your effort to get to that place you “need to be” the next day. If the tryst is at the other person’s place and you wish to depart, engage in light caressing and conversation for at least twenty minutes. If you decide to sneak out at 5 A.M. instead, leave a YOU WERE GREAT LAST NIGHT note on a Post-it or napkin. Don’t ask for a phone number if you have no intention of dialing it, and don’t leave yours if you plan on accidentally making the “6” look like a “0.”

How do you politely determine the level of commitment of a gay couple?
One approach, of course, is to do it the same way you would for a straight couple: Ask how long they’ve been together; determine where Party A lives and, later in the conversation, ask Party B if he lives in Chelsea/Park Slope/Hell’s Kitchen, too; ask one of them if he has a dog and listen to see whether the other speaks about it with a tone of ownership. Cohabitation isn’t necessarily a sign of commitment, though: Many gay men have open relationships, so the only surefire way to know the level of commitment is to offer to go home with one of them.

Who pays the bill on a date?
The asker pays, unless the woman does the asking—then the man should pay. If the check’s on the table and her suitor hasn’t moved for it, a woman should allow him a one-bathroom-trip grace period. If it’s still there when she comes back, she should split the bill but is entirely free to silently ruminate about what a cheap jerk he is. (For same-sex couples, the asker really does pay.)

When can you get together with your friend’s ex?
The simple answer is never, for the sake of simplicity, good karma, and world peace. However, if you suspect this could be a case of Romeo-and-Juliet love without the suicide, there are certain requirements that should still be met:
• The statute of limitations has passed on your friend’s right to be possessive (three months for every year they were together). A man should wait longer to do the asking, not out of politeness to his ex but so he doesn’t come off as a dog. A woman can always pretend she needs a shoulder to lean on when what she really needs is a tumble in the hay.
• The uncontrollable feelings have been discussed in a considerate and sensitive conversation with the friend. Initiating said conversation falls to the pursuing friend, not the ex.
• The friend has moved on and is in a wholly satisfying, happy, healthy relationship.

If you start dating someone you met online, at what point should you take down/hide your personal ad?
Taking down your personal ad, like referring to someone as your “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” is a step that should be taken once you have reached Mutually Acknowledged Monogamy. You can’t make any assumptions until you’ve had The Talk: Until you utter or hear the words “Let’s be exclusive,” you can’t expect your partner’s ad to come down.

How do you respond to an online personal message from someone whose picture you don’t like?
If you’ve established an e-mail connection before seeing the other person’s photo, which then reveals a mullet or other disturbing feature, you must suffer the consequences of jumping the gun. Set up a very brief coffee date and hope that the person doesn’t photograph well.

At what point in a flirtatious conversation should you mention you have a significant other?
If you have a suspicion that your conversation partner would take his clever remarks elsewhere if he knew you were officially off the market, then it’s only fair to release him to said market. Casually mention your boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife in passing, but don’t belabor the point: No single person will miss that sign, and if he continues, it probably means he’s actually interested in having a conversation, but not one in which he’s battered over the head with reminders of his partnerlessness. (If you keep chatting for upwards of an hour, it’s well within his rights to forget about your boyfriend/girlfriend—because it appears that you have, too.)

How do you decide who gets what restaurants, bars, and friends post-breakup?
Distinguish between those acquired before and during the relationship. What was yours before remains yours afterward—the same goes for your ex. As for items, book clubs, pets, and dining preferences acquired as a couple, the person being dumped gets first dibs on everything—as a general rule, the one whose heart has been put through the blender claims the social detritus of the relationship. Except for friends, of course—they make their own decisions which side to choose. As for that mythical unicorn, the mutual breakup? Those freaks of nature clearly don’t need any help.

How do you respond if you’re straight and a gay person asks you out?
Laugh and say, “I don’t think my girlfriend/boyfriend would approve.” It won’t become awkward unless you become patronizing. (“Oh, that’s so sweet! I would love to go out with you. It’s so unfortunate that I’m straight. I wish I were gay! I mean, not like that, but … ”) If you’re not sure if you’re being asked out, just drop an unmistakable hint into the conversation referring to your heterosexuality. Next: David Cross on How Not to Alienate a Celebrity

Photo: Lester Cohen/Wireimage

{brushes with fame}
Where Do I Know You From?
How not to alienate That Guy From TV.
By David Cross

I am a somewhat known person, and by person, I mean face. At 7B one night, someone walked over, stood in front of me staring, then snapped his finger literally inches from my head and shouted, “Name!” Thus my first and foremost guideline to dealing with celebrities: If you don’t know who he is, ask your friend. Or a stranger. Don’t ask him. And certainly don’t ask him to keep listing his résumé until you realize he’s the guy from Blade of Innocence 2 who lost his shoe and got killed by the vampire with outer-space AIDS.

Other scenarios that will result only in a terse, rude response from your celebrity: He’s upset (people break up with and cheat on famous people, too); he’s in a hurry; he’s standing somewhere like a bank line from which there is no escape. Or, and this is the single worst situation, you are doing it for no other reason than to have contact with someone famous so you can mention it at the next 58 Thanksgiving dinners. Talking to someone who holds me in no more regard than a guy from the Real World who became a celebrity by throwing up on a girl he was trying to date-rape seems a little demeaning to all the actual work I’ve done. Though I will cut in line if that’s cool.

This is not to imply that there aren’t times when some recognition isn’t appreciated and even desired. The situation I value above all others is, of course, if you are a pretty woman who finds me attractive. I know it’s extremely obvious, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t note it. Or perhaps I have just completed my 1,000th performance of my one-man show, David Blaine: Son of God. I would be proud of that and want to talk about it, particularly if I was by myself in a strange town. As for the best approach technique ever invented: I’ve always been (and always will be, until I need an operation) a big fan of the free beer. There’s something very communal and unpretentious about it. Although even if you send a free beer, please don’t walk up to me and start making fun of my friends. I don’t know what you’re thinking—they’re my friends! Don’t raise your beer and, while toasting, say, “Personally I think [fill in the blank] is a dumb bitch!” This actually happens, frequently, and I’ve never understood it.

Is anything else acceptable? Beer … ladies … nope, I can’t think of anything else at the moment. It all really does come down to one thing—the approach. That will always be the deciding factor in the end. Respectful and smiling: hanging out for at least five minutes. Loud and drunk: terse response, brief mention in whiny New York Magazine piece. Next: The Office

The Office
What do you do when someone asks you for help getting a job you don’t think he deserves?
If this individual is not a close- enough friend that you can tell him the truth, you may have to resort to one of the following humanely disingenuous approaches: (1) Respond enthusiastically with information of limited value: “Would it help if I gave you the name of the human-resources person? I think I might even have his e-mail!” (2) Issue a self-deprecating disclaimer of helplessness: “I don’t know how much my word counts on this one … ” (3) Technically do the favor, but warn off the prospective employer either explicitly or between the lines: “An acquaintance of mine is looking for something. I’ve known him ever since we went to Bennington! He dropped out though.”

What do you say to someone who’s just been fired?
Handle the situation as you would a friend’s breakup: Immediately disparage the ex-job. Remind the firee of his many highly employable talents and cast the job as an anchor keeping him from either success in his field or his true dream of becoming a novelist-restaurateur. Do not allude to unemployment benefits, which conjure up images of Soviets waiting in line for sugar, or the possibility of escaping the careerist New York rat race, which conjures up images of trite cinematic journeys to Middle American hometowns.

Is it ever acceptable to talk to a stranger on an elevator?
If there are six or fewer people on the elevator, no. However, if the group is larger than six, you have achieved an Elevator Humor Quorum and someone must make a remark about the elevator’s lack of size or speed in order to relieve the tension created by standing in a tiny space with six or more strangers. If another member of the group makes the remark first, Elevator Humor Solidarity obligates you to chuckle mildly.

Which officemates are you required to invite to your wedding?
Allot invitations in the following order: (1) officemates you consider close friends and genuinely like and want at your wedding, (2) your direct managers or those one position higher with whom you interact on a daily basis, and (3) people who can fire you. The issues often come from those who straddle those lines, like co-workers you merely deem acquaintances and direct managers you simply don’t like. In the former case, don’t lose sleep over losing their invitations in the mail; if you don’t think they’re worth $150 a plate, consider this a perfect opportunity to establish the parameters of your relationship. In the case of a disliked manager or a boss, it’s actually in your best interest to suck it up and invite them; if you don’t, you’ll have to spend months skulking around and hoping no one mentions the wedding around them, and if you do, the most you’ll have to do is pay a tiny amount of attention to them on the day itself.

What do you do if you see someone crying at work?
Rather than approaching your co-worker with concern or consolation (a further imposition) or ignoring the tears entirely (a sign of coldheartedness or contempt), ride the line with a reaction that has become a mark of just this occasion: the Unobtrusive, Empathetic Wince. Cast a second glance toward the weeper (who will be looking at you to gauge the damage). Scrunch your face as follows: Push your bottom lip up toward your upper gums to create a combination smile-frown, add some worry brows while nodding or tilting your head, then glance down and away. That sends the message “I understand, I will not interfere, and your secret is safe with me.”

When does an e-mail exchange end?
At the office, acknowledging receipt of requested work or information is entirely appropriate and necessary, but acknowledging receipt of receipt-acknowledgment is superfluous.

What if you see someone from work in a compromising situation elsewhere?
Immediately remove yourself from the situation and pretend it never happened. Next: Cell Phone Conduct and Proper iPod Interaction

Practicing Proper Cellular Conduct

“Excuse me, I’ve got to step out and take this call related to the birth of my child.”
• Movie theaters, at any time
• Quiet/romantic restaurants
• Dinner parties
• Any date
• Elevator
• During a commercial transaction
• On the treadmill*
• Public bathrooms*

* You can skip the step of excusing yourself in this situation; it would probably make the people around you more uncomfortable.

“Hey, let me hunch over slightly to indicate that I’m ashamed to be talking on the phone in this situation and call you back in a second.”
• Any one-on-one conversation
• Very loud restaurants
• Moderately loud bars
• Moving motor vehicles of any kind
• Landed aircraft
• Dwelling places where you do not pay rent

Bro!!! Yeah, I’m in my home, a completely open public space, or a relaxed work environment. Whassup???”
• Sidewalks
• Loud bars
• Cabs
• Hallways
• Lobbies
• Your desk*
• Anywhere you pay rent

* Calls announced by a ringtone that you’ve forgotten to turn off must be ignored as penance.

The Four Levels of iPod Interaction
Whom you do and don’t have to unplug for.

Continue at full blast. Consider increasing the vigor of your head-nodding and/or humming.
• Guys passing out bargain-electronics-store flyers.
• Idealistic-looking whippersnappers holding clipboards.
• Scientologists.

Subtly turn down volume.
• People in the elevator you don’t know.
• Someone attractive who sits down next to you on the train while you are listening to the Goo Goo Dolls.

Make a big show of pressing PAUSE.
• Anyone who approaches you while you’re working out.
• Non-panhandlers on the subway (may be helpfully pointing out that your bag is open, may be distracting you in a Gangs of New York–style pickpocket ruse).
• Co-workers you hate.
• Friends.
• Your parents, if you’re a teenager.

Remove headphones, toss them jauntily over shoulder.
• People in the elevator you know.
• Anyone taking your money or instructions about how to prepare your food.
• Co-workers you don’t hate.
• Your parents, if you’re an adult.
• Police officers.

Completely remove and enclose in nearest pocket/bag/ purse.
• Co-workers who could have you fired in less than an hour.
• Anyone who’s crying.
• Police officers standing next to someone who’s pointing at you and saying, “That’s him!” Next: City Living

City Living
How do you walk into your apartment building behind a woman while letting her know you’re not a mugger/rapist?
First, know what you’re dealing with: She fears getting into the elevator with you, she fears your walking up the stairs on her tail, and she fears appearing like she’s rattled by either. The gentlemanly thing to do, then, is to make a concerted effort to avoid all of the above. In an elevator building, find a reason to hang back and let the doors close on her alone. In a walk-up building, however, fiddling at your mailbox will just force her to adopt a more panicked pace. Consider answering a pretend cell-phone call: “Hi, Mom!”

If mentioning your connection to a famous person is relevant in a conversation, how do you do it without being a jerk?
Don’t mention it at all, of course, unless it’s necessary to preempt a question about how you got a piece of information you otherwise wouldn’t have known, and acknowledge the details of your connection immediately after the drop. As in, “I actually heard from Steven Spielberg—I met him at a Tribeca screening last year that my friend was doing publicity for—that Munich was originally conceived as a farce … ” Never first-name-drop (“I heard that from Dave … what? Oh, David Letterman”), a reprehensible behavior whose legality is one of the few universally acknowledged downsides of the First Amendment.

Is it okay to smoke pot at a party?
Marijuana is considered by most New Yorkers under a certain age (and over a certain age) to be harmless at the least, and at the most a public good that belongs equally to all people, like radio airwaves and the national parks. Nonetheless, it is always imperative to ask the host before lighting up any sort of THC delivery system, and consumption is always forbidden if there are children or teenagers present, or if anyone in the room is 30 years older than someone else in the room. An exception to the latter rule exists, however, if the elder reveler is overheard discussing a “gig” or relating an anecdote involving Janis Joplin.

What’s the best way to hush someone in a movie theater?
Before actually speaking, you’re obligated to make two meaningful glances or clearly intentioned throat clearings, the second directed at the disruptive viewer’s embarrassed cohorts, if that’s physically possible (and they actually seem embarrassed). Then you can ask, politely, once. After that, if you haven’t received a groundswell of support from surrounding patrons, you really have no choice but to just move, because an argument is only going to inflict the disruption on everyone else. Or, to ensure that you can avoid the situation completely, limit your moviegoing to midday, midweek screenings at the UA Battery Park City 16 cinema.

How should you indicate to a cabdriver/person sitting next to you on a bus that you don’t want to chat?
Give a few polite yet terse one-word answers delivered with a tooth-free smile. If that doesn’t work, try—again with a demure smile—inserting your iPod earphones and then staring somberly out the window, or closing your eyes and rubbing your temples as if you have a migraine. Consider telling a little white lie: You’re sorry, but you’re coming up on an important test/presentation/audition that you need to think about. If all else fails, pretend you have fallen asleep or died.

What do you do when you find money/a purse/a phone in a cab?
Return the purse or phone yourself. If you find loose bills, leave them for the cabdriver, who probably needs the cash more than you. Unless you’re the star of a blockbuster thriller about an ordinary man forced to take extraordinary action by the hand of fate, you’re not going to find more than $20 in a cab anyway.

Is it okay to use wireless if your neighbors don’t password-protect it?
Yes—free wireless is a karmic gift bestowed by the rental gods to make up for all the times you’ve experienced your neighbors’ sexual encounters, arguments, and guitar practice in startling sonic clarity, gotten roaches because you live in the same building as a restaurant, and sampled the tapestry of malodorousness that is the ethnic-food/cigarette-smoke/pet-by-product–scented apartment hallway. Your only obligation as a wireless sharer is to avoid massive bandwidth-hogging downloads.

How do you break up with your stylist?
The concept of breaking up with a stylist is going the way of breaking up with a casual romance. Nowadays, you don’t. Instead, you do what the best daters do: You don’t break up, you take a break. Just don’t call back for a while. For all your stylist knows, you’re in London or L.A. for a bit.

How do you make appropriate donations when you’ve got 30 friends asking you to buy tickets to their fund-raisers?
Close friends and bosses get yeses no matter what: If that many people are asking, either you can afford it or you’re social-climbing and it’s time to pay the piper. For everyone else, feel free to offer to write a check directly to their charity, which will test whether they are genuinely philanthropic or just looking to ostentatiously fill three tables and move up the fund-raiser-scene totem pole. And if you really can’t afford it, tell them you limit your giving to [insert a group of charities you actually give money to].

What’s the best way to get someone off the treadmill/bike/elliptical when they’ve gone over the 30-minute limit?
Unless it’s a known repeat offender who feels like he owns the gym, face-to-face is the first course of action. Cardio-trainers can enter a trancelike state of intense Just Do It–ness that leaves them unaware of the time, and will be perfectly obliging when snapped out of their cardio-delirium. But if you ask and are rebuffed, it’s perfectly acceptable to notify the front desk, which is usually staffed by someone with intimidatingly large pectoral muscles for this very reason.

How much locker-room nudity is acceptable?
Nudity is allowable, nay, inevitable, while changing and during showers. Otherwise, if you’re holding something that could easily be used to cover your genitals, cover them.

Is it okay to hit on someone at the gym?
Only on men, and only under the following circumstances: if you’re a gay man, and you know he’s gay too, or if you’re a straight woman and he’s a straight man. And never suggestively lick sweat off a treadmill.

When is it okay to ask a stranger about something in the newspaper he’s holding on the train?
Paper-snooping is acceptable in only two situations: (1) if it’s a news story of sufficient importance that the next people you see outside the train will be talking about it, or (2) if it’s sports news with commiseration potential. (“Traded who for hot-dog-concession equipment? Fuckin’ Isiah.”) Even in the random event you see an article mentioning your own name, you probably shouldn’t say anything: Either it’s in a flattering light and you’d be boastfully massaging your own ego, or it’s in a non-flattering light and the person reading the paper probably doesn’t want to know that he’s just met the Park Avenue Pervert.

If you see someone litter on the street, should you let it go because he might be crazy and kill you if you say something?
It depends on where you are—if the surroundings are unfamiliar, keep to yourself. If it’s your neighborhood, say in a forceful, faux-friendly tone, “I’m sorry, sir, you dropped something. Can I get that for you?” In all likelihood, he won’t pick it up, and you probably won’t want to, either, but the proper message has been sent.

How do you ensure the silence of your doorman after he witnesses an indiscretion on your part?
Don’t do anything rash like offering him a bribe the next day. If he’s a gossip or a snitch, you’re toast anyway and a bribery attempt will only worsen matters (“Then he tried to give me 50 bucks … ”). But chances are he’s not, and you gain points for exhibiting trust. Simply give him the usual nod when you see him again, and maybe a slightly extended bit of polite eye contact to acknowledge your new familiarity. Then, at the next natural opportunity, reward his loyalty. Maybe the firm’s Yankees tickets are available. Or, if Christmas isn’t too far off, slip him an additional 30 percent in the bonus envelope. Nothing needs to be said—it’s his job. Next: Subway Decorum and Politely Stealing Cabs

Rules of the underground: (1) Knees may be no more than six inches apart. (2) If you can't control your offspring, watch as a stranger does it for you. (3) What did we say about checking out the girls? (4) The Post is only 25 cents—buy your own. (5) Holding the subway door makes everyone on the train love you. (6) As does loud music. (7) Lie down on subway only if dead.Photo: Photomontage by Peter Rad

{mass transit}
Breaching Subway Decorum
When it’s okay to annoy strangers on a train.
By Adam Sternbergh

Crime: Not offering one’s seat to an obviously pregnant woman or obviously elderly person.
Rudeness Factor (out of 10): 10
Why It’s Inappropriate: If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s the continued propagation of the species (within reason). And if you don’t give your seat to an elderly person, when you grow old you can expect to be cast out and set upon by wild dogs. It’s called karma.
When It’s Appropriate: Maybe if you have a serious, demonstrable impediment. Such as a wooden leg. Although even then—she’s pregnant! On your feet, pirate.

Crime: Staring.
Rudeness Factor: 7
Why It’s Inappropriate: It’s a subway, not a bar.
When It’s Appropriate: Let’s face it—this is a city full of beautiful people who sometimes wear noticeably revealing clothing. But always observe the two-second rule: Never let your eyes linger longer than a two-count. It’s a fine line between flirt and perv.

Crime: Holding the closing doors.
Rudeness Factor: 2
Why It’s Inappropriate: It’s the perfect illustration of Spock’s famous tenet: Sometimes the needs of the many (people already on the subway) outweigh the needs of the few (person rushing to catch the subway).
When It’s Appropriate: When you’re the person rushing to catch the train. Hold that door!

Crime: Plucking eyebrows, curling eyelashes, flossing teeth (!), or clipping fingernails (!!) on the subway.
Rudeness Factor: 8
Why It’s Inappropriate: Because a civilized society is measured by the delineations between its public-transit vehicles and its bathrooms.
When It’s Appropriate: If it’s your absolute last chance to freshen up before a job interview, funeral, or proposal of marriage.

Crime: Eating messy food or consuming a perilously sloshing drink.
Rudeness Factor: 9
Why It’s Inappropriate: Because subways were practically invented to send your sloppy foodstuffs onto the shirts and laps of the people around you.
When It’s Appropriate: Only if your drink container has a cap and you’re eating a type of food—say, the vacuum-packed chicken NASA prepares for astronauts—that, in the event of a sudden subway lurch, won’t leave a splatter pattern on the people around you.

Crime: Riding with a large, space-consuming backpack or suitcase or stroller.
Rudeness Factor: 4
Why It’s Inappropriate: The smooth operation of the subway requires that people be able to (a) board the car, (b) disembark the car, and (c) ride and not get smacked in the face by the travel mug lashed to the back of your pack as you traverse the continent.
When It’s Appropriate: Packs should be kept on the floor between the legs. Strollers are granted extra leeway, though people with extra-large models that include cup holders should consider a more crowd-friendly mode of transporting their young.

Crime: Turnstile hopping
Rudeness Factor: 6
Why It’s Inappropriate: If you need to ask, we’ve already lost you.
When It’s Appropriate: Hopping, never. Ducking under the turnstile if you are short enough and under 5 years of age, all right. But we’re watching you, junior.

{solo transit}
Stealing a Cab, Politely
How to outmaneuver your competitors on the curb.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod

If you’re the second cab-needing party to the corner and don’t want to simply wait, it’s entirely acceptable to cross the street (as long as it’s two-way). Asking about sharing a ride is a rarely used but effective technique. And if your predecessors aren’t pregnant, carrying luggage, or otherwise visibly mobility-limited, walking against the flow of traffic to gain a positional advantage is permissible under the “it’s a jungle out there” ethos—but you must walk at least a block before putting your hand back up; otherwise, the other group is within its rights to chase you down, call you a jackass, and attempt to jump in the cab in front of you. Next: Family

How do you turn down a playdate with a child whose behavior you don’t like?
If you can’t feign scheduling difficulty, decline the playdate in a way that the other parent could possibly interpret as complimentary, such as “I’m afraid your son is so much bigger and stronger than my poor little runt—the last time Nick and Ely played, Ely had bruises for a week … ” By the time your child is about 7 years old, you should be letting him pick his own friends anyway, in which case he can be assumed to act in his own physical self-interest.

Whom do you invite to your child’s birthday party?
Assuming he’s under the age at which he’s already formed a naturally apparent group of friends, the standard expectation is to invite the whole class. If this is not physically or financially feasible, shrink the group size by inviting only those classmates who fit a limiting but nonjudgmental criterion: only kids who live within neighborhood-radius X, only kids from the carpool, only girls (though not if your child is male).

When can you bring children to a dinner party?
If the people throwing the party have kids of their own and your child is young enough that he’s guaranteed to fall asleep within minutes of arrival, it’s acceptable. If there’s even a chance that the unfamiliar setting or the presence of peers will adrenalize your kid into becoming a homewrecker, it’s incumbent upon you to ask whether he can come along (“Will there be other kids around?”). If the hosts don’t have kids, assume you aren’t welcome to bring yours unless some sort of babysitting crisis occurs (and bear in mind that you will thereby be limiting your ability to use a contrived babysitting crisis as an excuse to ditch future events).

How do you find out what exactly your friend’s kid did to get sent home from college/boarding school?
Raise the subject so quickly that you can plausibly feign ignorance—casually inquire as to how the kid in question is doing. If the family doesn’t tell you, you’re not allowed to ask straight-up—you’ll have to rely on gossip or, if the misbehavior in question was of sufficiently impressive scope, media accounts or widely circulated Internet video footage.

What are the rules for disciplining other kids when their parents are around?
The same rules apply to adjusting other people’s yoga poses when the teacher is around: It’s just not done. The only exception is in matters of safety when the other parent isn’t paying attention (throwing toys, biting). As they always say (and by “they” we mean Oprah), the only person you can truly change is yourself; similarly, the only kids you can change are your own. If the parents are deadbeat do-as-you-willers, all you can do is make sure your own kid takes away the lesson, like, “That little boy is not being nice by doing that, but we know not to rob liquor stores, right?” As a last resort, you can always decide it’s time to go home.

What social obligations do you have to a stepparent or stepchild you don’t like?
As a parent of a new stepchild, you made the choice to enter the family, and you can’t eat just the frosting because you don’t like the cake. Attend whatever school plays, birthday parties, and gatherings your spouse does. Never be rude or argumentative with a stepchild in front of his friends. You’ll only end up isolating yourself, which, one would presume, was not the point of remarrying in the first place. As a child of a new stepparent, you didn’t choose the arrangement, so your social obligations are fewer. Be as evasive as you’d like, as long as you don’t try to use the stepparent as an excuse to offend another family member—or you’re under age 18, in which case honor, obey, and pray for the quick passage of time.

How little money can you give to your child’s private school?
Swallow your fury, mentally berate the social-climbing slimeballs who make New York such a dishonesty-filled place to live, give a bare minimum of $300 at annual-fund time, and consider it part of tuition. But no matter what you do or don’t give, the school is never allowed to hold it against your kid.

What if you don’t like one of your teenager’s friends?
If you merely don’t like that he’s wearing his jeans under his butt cheeks or has weird parents, you’re not on solid ground. If, however, the friend is obnoxious or disrespectful to you, smokes, cuts class, or seems to have increasing piercings or tattoos (i.e., high-risk behavior you must admit you did on your way to hitting the hard stuff yourself), you have every right to tell your kid you don’t approve—and explain your reasoning. If said friend really is bad news, don’t let up. You’ll be the bad cop, but that’s the point. Think of all the people you know who say, “My mom/dad is my best friend in the whole world.” Are their marbles in place? Exactly.

What are you obligated to tell your kids when you write the will? If you’re a kid, whom can you ask about wills and what can you ask?
Estate squabbling can tear a family apart as few other problems can, and the best way to avoid that is to work out as many details as possible in advance. Parents should always tell, and kids should always ask (though don’t be glib about it—the middle of a long weekend together, or after a period of exceptionally frequent calls home, will get the best results). That’s an immediate-family-only rule, though: Weaseling for information about grandparents or rich aunts’ wills, directly or indirectly, is just morbid.

How do you get friends to write school recommendation letters for your child without being crass?
Powerful people don’t necessarily mind being reminded of their extensive influence, so don’t be too shy about asking. If it’s not someone you’re very familiar with, though, put the request in writing (as in actual writing, on a real piece of paper), emphasizing your seriousness—but acknowledge that he may be too busy to deal with your imposition. And don’t be surprised if you’re asked to write the letter yourself: That happens pretty much all the time, which is why the value of a recommendation letter gets more watered-down every day. Next: What the Waiter Wants

What the Waiter Wants
How to give orders the nice way.

Only four Manhattan restaurants still require jackets—but good manners are de rigueur everywhere. During a noon round table at Pravda, our six food-and-drink-service vets drew up a list of dos and don’ts for restaurant dining.

Kathleen Flanagan, waitress, the Mermaid Inn; 12 years’ experience
Troy Daigle, beverage director, Le Bernardin; 20 years
“Chops,” bartender and owner, King’s County Bar; 10 years
Jim Hutchinson, wine director, Centovini; 23 years
Adrian Murcia, waiter, Chanterelle; 18 years
Daryl Dismond, maître d’, Pravda; 18 years

Is there a best way to order?
Dismond: Acknowledge the server and look at him. You don’t have to make eye contact the whole time, but it’s very offensive to give your order and never even look up. Flanagan: I am a big fan of “May I?” “I’d like to … ” “Could you please?” I don’t need to be bowed down to, but I don’t like “I’m gonna take the … ,” “Could you get me the … ” Murcia: I don’t need “please” and “thank you”; just don’t be rude.

Is it okay to send back a bottle of wine?
Flanagan: When you order a wine you are not that familiar with, you’re taking a risk. If you don’t love it, you don’t get to send it back. But if I suggest something and you don’t like it, then that’s my fault. Daigle: Because we have over 800 labels on our list, we have to guide people and allow them to try something different. If they’re not ecstatic about it, I’m taking it away and bringing something else.

What about food?
Daigle: Do it politely, but let them know how it’s different from what you expected. Flanagan: It’s not that big a deal to send something back. It’s not offensive. Dismond: Remember your server didn’t cook it.

How can I signal that I don’t want to be hurried through my meal?
Murcia: Put a fork on the left-hand side of your plate and the knife on the right, leaving them half on the plate, half on the table. To show that you are done, put the fork along with the knife parallel, bottom right to top left. When you want your wine glass cleared, put it in the center of the table.

Is it ever appropriate to tip less than 20 percent?
Flanagan: Not unless something goes terribly wrong. Daigle: A bad tip is counterproductive for everyone. There’s no excuse. Chops: Say yes to 20 percent tipping. We remember good tippers. Dismond: Fifteen percent is not a shabby tip. Anything less—especially under 10 percent—should happen only if your server continues mixing up orders, bringing out the wrong food, and is generally rude and inattentive. But if the food comes out prepared incorrectly, that’s the chef’s fault.

How should I calculate the tip when an expensive bottle of wine or caviar radically pumps up the price without requiring extra service?
Hutchinson: If you spend that much money, the restaurant probably merits that gratuity. If you’re just eating a sandwich and opt for the $200 bottle of wine, then you might not leave the full 20 percent. Tips depend on context.

How do you tip when you are treated to something on the house?
Murcia: Add the amount of the free food or drink as if you paid for it, and calculate the tip based on that. If you get a full comp, tip based on the full amount. Chops: What I do is send a cocktail to the whole kitchen.

Is there anything else one can do to express appreciation?
Murcia: Send a card. It’s such a nice gesture: Letters are read aloud at staff meetings—the good ones and bad—and nothing feels better. Flanagan: Next time you’ll be recognized and treated even better. Next: Friends

Rules of the dinner party: (1) If you’re going to get wasted, make sure you’re not the only one. (2) Kids allowed only in event of verifiable babysitter emergency. (3) All drugs must be shared. (4) After spills, apologize once, clean it up, then let it go. (5) Air kiss over handshake. (6) Men over the age of 40 should never wear leather pants. Anywhere.Photo: Photomontage by Peter Rad

When can you send a thank-you via e-mail?
A mass e-mail is actually preferable when thanking people who combined to put together a work project or totally rockin’ party, as it emphasizes the communal nature of the achievement and offers the opportunity for public praise. Everything else (e.g., weddings, gifts, anniversaries, job promotions or interviews, etc.) still goes on nice, high-fiber stationery or a store-bought card.

How do you handle it when you, in full party panic, can’t remember the name of someone you know?
Blame the panic! In fact, don’t just blame the panic, inflate it. Begin talking about how flustered you are: You thought it was Thursday for a second, you put your drink down five minutes ago and can’t find it, you are so out of it that you’ve forgotten the name … of someone across the room whose name, in reality, you do remember! Then, conspiratorially ask the person whose name you can’t recall to introduce herself to the third party—as you laugh all the way to the First National Bank of Knowing Everybody’s Name.

How do you bring up the subject of a friend’s serious medical problem?
The simple answer is, you don’t. If someone has a medical condition that’s serious but not visually detectable, and he hasn’t broached the subject with you, chances are it’s because he doesn’t want it broached at all. People have all sorts of legitimate reasons for wanting to keep health issues private. You can let your friend know you’re concerned—without embarrassing him—with an earnest gaze and a sincere “So, how are you doing?” which communicates empathy without raising the subject out loud if he really doesn’t feel like talking.

How do you acknowledge obvious plastic surgery?
If the intentions were subtle, pretend you don’t know exactly what change your friend has undergone, even if she looks like a convenience-store thief masked in Saran Wrap. Something like, “Oh, wow … you look great. I can’t put my finger on what’s different, but you look years younger.” If the operation was done expressly to garner attention—say the former B-cup is now a DD with the top three buttons undone—well, then just let it rip: “Wow! Those hooters are like big twin Hindenburgs!”

What’s the best response to a racist remark at a dinner party?
Nervous laughter is the inevitable reflex. But the failure to respond will certainly add to your hangover, no matter how much gin has been consumed. The first line of defense against bigotry is to assume that it’s a joke, and say so. “You must be joking … though it’s not really that funny.” Try to smile as little as possible while holding out the possibility of forgiveness. You could also accuse the person of being drunk, which is almost always the case. But if someone is offering an entire line of argument that is clearly bigoted or otherwise beyond the bounds of civilized discourse (“I don’t want them in my neighborhood”), someone is honor-bound to make an Atticus Finch–like declaration of belief.

Should the wealthier half of a friendship be expected to give more-expensive gifts?
In an ideal world, no. But in the real world, yeah, pretty much. A rule of thumb: Give according to your means, not the recipient’s. If you’re the richer friend, your impoverished friends will appreciate your generosity infinitely more than a cheap trinket you purchased so as not to embarrass them. If you’re the poorer friend—and you’re worried about being outclassed—get together with other friends of lesser means to pool resources on an item of greater value. Better still, spend extra effort on a thoughtful but nevertheless affordable gift that shows you’ve actually paid attention to your friends’ most obscure tastes and interests.

What’s the best way to avoid awkward crossed-signals handshake-meets-cheek-kiss encounters?
Remember: You can usually get away with unwarranted familiarity if your intended recipient sees it coming. Strike early:
• If you or the person you’re greeting is a woman, start telegraphing your intentions before you make eye contact, either extending your hand or opening your arms according to whim. (Under no circumstances should you give a woman a fist pound.)
• If it’s a masculine pairing, make eye contact and form your hand into the appropriate shake/fist pound/gangster-style-clasp shape before raising your arm. (And never give an elaborate handshake to the uninitiated.)

What do “I’ll call you” or “Let’s have lunch” mean?
In a non-dating situation, these hollow parting comments often translate roughly to “In all likelihood, I won’t call you” and “Let’s not have lunch, though I have generally positive feelings about you.” (Though the recipient has no choice but to be agreeable in the moment and assume the phone won’t ring.) If you’re prone to such phrases, consider deploying “It was good to see you,” which, while perfectly pleasant, won’t confuse anyone.

Can you reject a Friendster, Facebook, or MySpace friend request from someone you know?
No. It’s not as though adding someone to your online social network costs anything: The only potential damage is to the perceived quality of your accumulated friends. And if you know someone who judges you based on your Friendster network, then, well, like Mom said, he’s not your real Internet friend anyway.

How do you end an exchange of witty, flirtatious e-mail banter?
The exchange of witty, flirtatious banter is admittedly the e-mail quagmire with the fewest number of obvious exit strategies. Nonetheless, it should be resolved like real-time witty, flirtatious banter: with one party either summoning the courage to ask for a date or ending the quasi relationship by means of unexplained unresponsiveness.

What do you do when you’ve attended a performance by your aspiring actor/singer/comic friend—and you were driven to tears by its utter banality?
Always lie, but try to do it in ways that aren’t so liar-y. Gush about aspects of the show that weren’t horrid (“Such exquisite costuming!”), compliment the very particular elements of his performance that were adequate, or say something not-technically-false like “That’s exactly what we’ve come to expect from you!” Long-term encouragement of delusional artistic aspirations, though, is impolite: If the invites are repeated, let your nonattendance send a message.

If you accept a dinner invitation and have a miserable time, must you reciprocate?
If someone treats you to dinner at a restaurant or in their home, you owe them the same honor. But if you really can’t stand the inviting individual/couple, a good compromise is to invite them to your next big party. This sends the message that you are thinking about them while minimizing the probability of actual contact.

How far are you obligated to go to accommodate vegetarians and vegans in your home?
If it’s a dinner party, you should have at least one option for each course that suits everyone’s dietary needs, though restricted eaters have the responsibility of letting you know what they can and can’t eat. If you’re the guest, you should politely inform the host of your regimen by way of offering to bring a dish that suits your needs that everyone will “enjoy.” (The less appetizing it sounds—e.g., seaweed dogs—the more likely your horrified host will come up with something better.)

How do you pick restaurants and other social activities in circles that involve widely varying incomes?
Inviting the whole gang over for dinner solves some problems—the poor people won’t have to choose between missing a credit card payment or being treated, and the richer folk get a nice meal if you’re a generally decent cook. Of course, it creates an altogether new problem: In your sensitivity to everyone’s income issues, you alone wind up underwriting the entire evening. That’s fine some of the time, but for another alternative, choose an under-the-radar, inexpensive restaurant where everyone will feel cutting-edge—self-congratulatory hipsterdom knows no class boundaries.

What’s the best way to split the check in a group?
At a group meal, an equal split should be the baseline expectation: It falls to those who ordered more-expensive dishes to offer to pay more, not to others to pay less. Failure to partake in the appetizers or the wine can be cited as a reason to cut one’s contribution only if there was some socially sanctioned reason for declining (veganism, Islam, pregnancy). If you just got the soup and you don’t think that’s fair, well, think about whether it’s “fair” to make your friends eat dinner with a buzz-killing cheapskate.

When it’s a “conversation” in the sense of “The New School Presents a Conversation With Harold Bloom” and you’re there. Otherwise, never. This remains one of society’s most frequent breaches of basic human decency. Seriously, what is wrong with those people?!?

Tell him a story in which you use your own name, clearly enunciating where he’s got it wrong. For example, if you were Ralph Fiennes, you’d say, “I called him and said, ‘Hi, this is Raaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafe Fines.’ ”

Yes! If you’re leading a nighttime raid in Tikrit. Otherwise, Hummers have returned to their rightful place as a semi-obnoxious, semi-absurd rarity. Accepting a ride is different: In New York, being a passenger in any vehicle, matter how gauche or fuel-inefficient, is a rare treat. Next: Amy Poehler’s 8 Simple Rules for Being a Civilized New Yorker

Photo: Jill Greenberg

{survival guide}
Amy Poehler’s 8 Simple Rules
For being a civilized New Yorker.
By Adam Sternbergh

Amy Poehler has two main qualifications for judging the city’s manners. One, she’s starred on Saturday Night Live since 2001—which means she works at Rockefeller Center, a maddening, tourist-choked hellhole for most of the TV season. (“You get used to people asking you, ‘How do I get to the ground-zero gift shop?’ ” she says.) More important, she logged many, many hours waiting tables—the etiquette equivalent of years spent in the foxhole on the front lines of boorishness. “My absolute pet peeve is people who are rude to waiters,” she says. “Any guy who’s in any way difficult, your lady-boner immediately goes to zero.”

And yet, on balance, she thinks New Yorkers are exceptionally polite—at least by the local definition. “Etiquette in New York is all about time management,” she says. “In other places, you seem rude if you see someone and don’t talk to them long enough. But here, it’s all about speed. And people are fine with that. It’s like, ‘Hello. It’s nice to see you. Thank you for giving me your kidney. I gotta go.’ ”

Of course, New York also offers its own unique etiquette conundrums: catcallers, meeting Oprah, the correct response to someone crapping in public. Thankfully, Ms. Poehler was kind enough to offer eight handy rules for civilized interaction in the city.

1. Be nice to everyone, especially people wearing hospital bracelets.
2. Don’t ask white girls if they “left their ass at home.”
3. If you have to bring your baby to a movie, make sure he laughs at appropriate times.
4. Don’t eat Cheetos and then sit down at a fancy hotel piano.
5. If you are in Central Park and think you are getting mugged, first check to see if maybe you’re just part of a student film.
6. If you see Oprah at a fancy function, don’t grab her wrist and ask for money. Quietly sneak up behind her and whisper, “You give me that money, Oprah. You hear me?”
7. When walking on a New York street, try not to spit, litter, bleed, or take a crap.
8. If you need to do any of these things, try to do it between two parked cars. BACK TO THE BEGINNING: The Urban Etiquette Handbook

The Urban Etiquette Handbook