Obstruction of Justice, or ‘Normal New York City Conversation’?


A conversation here might be conducted at full volume or in a whisper, accompanied by baseball bats or by bird song, but if it does not include real estate, transit routes, office intrigue or the best place to get a certain kind of foodstuff, it cannot be considered “normal.”

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Juan Carlos Domingo at work on Thursday at Shining Barber Shop in Upper Manhattan.

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Karsten Moran for The New York Times

What else?

Donald Trump, Donald Trump, everything is Donald Trump,” said Juan Carlos Domingo, 37, who was cutting hair at Shining Barber Shop in Washington Heights. “They’re going to get him out. Some say so, others don’t think so.”

Deborah Tannen, a native of Flatbush, Brooklyn, and professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, said she saw no elements of normal New York City conversation in Mr. Trump’s remarks, especially his indirect suggestion that Mr. Comey lay off of Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser. New Yorkers, Ms. Tannen said, do not indirectly suggest.

“That’s the opposite of New York style,” she said. Normal conversations here, she said, are characterized by “an emphasis to involve the other person, rather than being considerate.”

“It would be asking questions as a show of interest in the other person,” she said, “whereas in other parts of country, people don’t ask because it might put the person on the spot.”

New Yorkers stand closer, talk louder and leave shorter pauses between exchanges, she said. Often they talk along with the other person. “I call it cooperative overlap,” she said. “It’s a way of showing interest and enthusiasm, but it’s often mistaken for interrupting by people from elsewhere in the country.”

As early as 1896, the linguist E. H. Babbitt wrote, “New York City and vicinity is, and always has been, something distinct, not only from the rest of the State, but from the whole current of Anglo-Saxon traditions which has dominated the foundation and continuance of the American commonwealth.”

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Andrew Vladeck, who performs as Hopalong Andrew, said that a “normal New York City conversation” dealt with “a late train, an odd person, an odd smell.”

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Edu Bayer for The New York Times

At La Pequeña Colombia restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens, a manager, Daniel Maya, said that “normal” in a New York conversation was a matter of speed, not content. Whether his customers speak in English or Spanish, about sports or deportation, he said, “Most people here don’t have time to have a filter, they just say things.” Mr. Trump, the president from Queens, did the same thing, Mr. Maya said.

In Highbridge Park in Upper Manhattan, Ira and Karen Simon, who moved to the city four years ago, said a normal New York City conversation was often one struck up with strangers.

“We go out of our way to act as an ambassador of the city,” Ms. Simon, 66, a retired teacher, said. Her husband, a retired principal, added, “And then we demand loyalty from them!”

Of course, it is possible that the normal New York City conversation is a local myth, like alligators in the sewers or affordable two-bedroom apartments. The linguist William Labov, author of a landmark 1966 study, “The Social Stratification of English in New York City,” said on Thursday, in response to a question about Mr. Christie’s remark, that “there’s nothing known to linguists about ‘normal New York City conversation.’”

Stephen Tabone, 72, who was in Jackson Heights awaiting knee surgery, said there was a reason for that. In New York, he said, “People don’t have conversations — they’re out on their own.”

Andrew Vladeck, 46, who performs as a singing cowboy under the name Hopalong Andrew, said that a “normal New York City conversation,” if such a thing existed, was an attempt to connect — about “a late train, an odd person, an odd smell” — and was characterized by “speaking clearly and directly.”

“It’s not speaking in innuendo or a vague manner,” Mr. Vladeck said.

Of Mr. Trump’s remarks, Mr. Vladeck said, “That wasn’t a New York conversation,” but “more like an Atlantic City conversation, if you get my drift.”

Correction: June 10, 2017

An article on Friday about the reaction of several New Yorkers to the phrase “normal New York City conversation,” used to describe President Trump’s remarks to the former F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, misstated the age of one of them. Andrew Vladeck, a singing cowboy who performs under the name Hopalong Andrew, is 46, not 39.

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