Management / The American View: Success in the City

The American View: Success in the City

Traveling to new cities helps you see the world from a different perspective. Business Reporter's resident U.S. 'blogger relates how people’s pop-culture diets tend to negatively skew their attitudes towards other places and peoples, thereby limiting their personal and professional growth.

Something odd tends to happen when I leave Dallas for other cities: strangers stop being afraid of me on-sight. I have no idea why this happens, since it seems like it’s the exact opposite of what you’d expect. Texas is, after all, the self-proclaimed ‘friendship state.’ I’ve lived in Texas for (more or less) thirty years. I know the local dialect. I can understand and speak in the drawl. I can even adopt the mosey [1] when it’s socially appropriate. I’m as native as it gets, near as makes no difference.

I bring this up because I just got back from a week-long trip to Illinois. It may be early spring in Dallas, but it’s still the dead of winter in Chicago. The temperatures dropped below freezing every day. It sleeted and snowed just to keep my life interesting. Despite that, I made it a point of walking the two kilometres from my hotel to my office (and back again) every day. Partially to save the company a few quid, but mostly for exercise and to get to experience the city first-hand.

On one of my break-of-dawn jaunts to work, a stranger with a rollaway bag hailed me and asked me how to find the train station. By happenstance, I’d passed the entryway to the downtown train station every day and so was able to give the fellow exact directions by street names and landmarks. He thanked me and set off, leaving me flummoxed. I looked around and confirmed that the street corner was packed with people. This fellow could have asked any of fifty strangers for directions, and he felt confident that I was the most approachable person passing by. That seemed … weird.

I’ve been advised on several occasions that my ‘military bearing’ comes across as intimidating. I find that amusing, since I was frequently dressed down by my sergeants and commanders for being 'too casual, cheerful, and laid back.’ Can’t win for losing. 

That wasn’t a one-time thing. When I spoke at the European Information Security Summit, I was stopped twice by strangers needing directions. The first time was by an older gentleman who needed help finding the immigration office so that he could drop off paperwork towards pursuing UK citizenship. We were on a packed street during morning rush, and the man ignored a dozen well-dressed civil servant types to ask me.

The second time it happened was late at night. My wife and I were returning from a dinner with one of my former editors from Business Reporter when we were hailed by a group of American ladies who needed directions to a tube station. They were … let’s say ‘startled’ ... when we gave them directions in American accents. This time, there were only very few other passers-by, but it was night and I was an adult male on a dimly lit street, and yet, these ladies felt confident approaching me to ask for help.

It’s not that I mind. Despite being a curmudgeon in the office, I enjoy helping strangers. All my years of training Boy Scouts must have nudged me towards being more friendly and helpful. That said, I only get this sort of opportunity when I’m in other people’s cities; in Texas, I’m often told by my business peers that I come across as ‘too intimidating.’ That I frighten strangers just by existing. I had to grow a silly beard and get a trendy haircut to soften my image (and perhaps stop spooking random co-workers).

What really makes the whole thing weird is that I’ve been told all my life that people living in big metro areas like Chicago, London, New York City, etc. tend to be colder, more hostile, and more aggressive than folks in Dallas and Fort Worth. For a very brief period when I was being transferred to our firm’s Boston office, [2] one older director from our practice – let’s call him ‘Bob’ – tried to explain the difference in interpersonal attitudes by home city to me by referencing the comedy television series Sex in the City.

… at an appropriate time, and in an appropriate venue. Preferably not at work, in public, or around impressionable children.

‘Pick any episode of that show,’ he advised. ‘Watch a scene where the main characters are on the street. Notice how the scenes are blocked and how the characters act. They’re always socializing freely. Crowds melt and give them a lot of space. No one’s the least bit upset at four women with large handbags taking up an entire sidewalk. Everything’s well-lit, no one seems put out by the weather, and the audience can understand everything that’s being said because there’s no intruding background noise.

‘You need to understand,’ Bob continued, leaning forward to emphasize his warning, ‘that the real East Coast city people are nothing like that!

I told Bob that I understood the artificial nature of television. He dismissed me with a wave. ‘That’s not what I mean,’ he said. ‘That is, yes; it’s all fake because it’s TV. That’s not it. Those actors are … Californians …’ (he said the word like he was choking back vomit) ‘imagining what New York life must be like because they’ve never been there. People Out East™ are surly, sullen, angry, standoffish, and rude. It’s because there are too many people too close together and there’s no way to get any sense of space or privacy. So, they all always do their best to ignore one another as a kind of courtesy. If you get too close to one of them, or if you try to talk with them on the street, they’re going to act mean towards you in order to frighten you off.’

I thanked Bob for his advice and made an excuse to leave the building. The man’s … let’s say ‘intensity’ … was disturbing. His advice seemed genuine, if made the heck up.

I tried to interpret Bob’s perception on my first trip to Boston. The night before I reported to my ‘new’ office, I caught an episode of Sex in the City on my hotel TV and took notes. [3] The next day, I tried interpreting the street scenes the way Bob had recommended. Yes, most of the people I passed kept their eyes down and didn’t speak. Everyone seemed to be making an effort to avoid bothering others. Then again, it was January in Boston, which meant it was (in the local dialect) ‘wicked cold.’

One inch of snowfall will paralyze Dallas traffic. Bonstonians aren’t so much as inconvenienced until their front door is completely buried. 

It didn’t take me long at all to realize that Bob’s biases and blind-spots were just as imagined as his interpretation of the producers’ biases and blind-spots from Sex in the City were. He was projecting his assumptions onto people that he’d never met.

Contrary to Bob’s beliefs, I’ve found that people are pretty much the same everywhere. That is to say, everyone spends most of his or her time lost in their own drama. The people you pass on the street are often a thousand miles away mentally and are letting their well-honed instincts get them from one problem to another. It’s only when they have problems that they shake themselves out of their insulated thought bubble and engage with the strangers around them. Bob was wrong: just give people a little space, treat them decently, and let them get on with their lives. They’re not hostile; they’re busy and they don’t know you. They will talk to you if they need help. Or directions.

I’ve related this to older Scouts who are considering relocating to large city after they graduate. I advise them to ignore the horror stories that their friends and family will tell them about how ‘everyone in [CITY X] is a mean, grumpy, hostile sociopath.’ That’s the same sort of nonsense as Bob told me. Well-meaning people might refer to a different pop-culture touchstone instead of Bob’s favourite urban sex comedy. The classic 1974 Death Wish, for example, or 1979’s The Warriors.

I advise Scouts to ignore all the doom-saying; it’s all just fearful projection based on stereotypes, mass media tropes, and unfounded assumptions about The Other™ as a fictional character rather than as a living, complex person among millions of other equally-complex real people. Personal and professional success comes from embracing opportunities and broadening one’s horizons, not from avoiding the strange and confusing. Besides, there are a ton more business opportunities for a young person in a huge metro area then there are in a sleepy Dallas suburb.

What would you rather take inspiration from when you look out your window? A bustling neon-lit cityscape where thousands of industrious people are doing interesting things at all hours of the day and night? Or a silent, empty street featuring the occasional confused squirrel?  

‘Go try something new somewhere else,’ I advise. ‘Just be sure to remember the Scout Oath and Law and treat folks decently. In turn, those strangers will show you a part of the world that you’ve never seen before from their perspective. Take a gamble on travel or relocation and go learn something. And hey … if you get turned about, ask a stranger for assistance. You’ll be a better person for the experience.’

‘Moreover, make it a point to be open to engagement with others. Leave the earbuds at home and put your phone in your pocket. Keep your eyes up and pay attention to other people as you go throughout your day. There’s a good chance that you’ll wind up being the “local” that they choose to engage when they need help getting around.’

To be fair, I do have slightly different advice for people who are considering migrating to Dallas. ‘It’s a great place to live, the cost-of-living is pretty cheap, and the people are usually friendly, however … be aware that some random folks are going to decide for no logical reason whatsoever that the sight of you frightens them. Yes, I can back that up with stories. No, I don’t know why … and if you ever figure it out, please explain it to me.’


[1] A ‘mosey’ is like a slow walk with no notable sense of urgency; slightly faster than a shuffle, slightly slower than a meander. Now you know.

[2] This was from a ‘mandatory relocation’ order that lasted all of two days before it was randomly reversed, but that’s another peculiar story.

[3] I made it through fifteen minutes of one episode before I had my fill for a lifetime. No disrespect for the writers, producers, or cast, but it wasn’t my kind’a show.

Title Allusions: Darren Star, Sex in the City (1998-2004 TV series and 2008 movie)


POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.

You can buy his books on IT leadershipIT interviewinghorrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.

Keil-Hubert-featuredKeil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).

Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.

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