Friday, April 20, 2007

An Ode to NYC

Oh boy, New York looks like a first-cousin (certainly richer) of Mumbai”, I thought as I got into a limousine after getting out of the airport. I continued to discover striking similarities in the days to follow- people stood in queues even in front of elevators (I have been told this is true in most parts of US) which in India, as far as I know, happens only in Mumbai. Local trains are the preferred form of transport in both cities as traffic jams are equally frequent and common in either place. Mumbaikars and New Yorkers have an air of professionalism as they go about their work; there is a sense of purpose about them when they walk on the road, you wont find them loitering and staring blankly and aimlessly.

Obviously NYC’s infrastructure is far better and your daily life-optimization goes much further; especially when you use a GPS with a sexy female voice to decide whether you need to take a left or a right, and you monitor weather forecasts & traffic jams online. An interesting question to ask would be whether tough environment (read weather) forces optimization? Surely in Darwinian terms, natural selection favors the efficient and hence optimization could evolve to ridiculous lengths. The general discipline in the city is so conspicuous that I am sure that it hurts some of us back home- for instance there is a natural split even on an escalator, people who wait for the escalator to take them up, stand on the right side leaving place for people who are in a hurry.

I used to sit on a ‘futures’ trading floor; a trading floor, for the uninitiated, is an awe-inspiring piece of architecture with an assembly line of money producing machines (read traders). Traders, I noticed are extremely bright people- obviously brilliant at their job, but with a conspicuous childish streak. The legacy of the Salomon Brothers is still palpable, so I was disappointed when I did not run into any of the characters from ‘Liar’s Poker’. The high point of my stint was a debate on the trading floor with a famous energy analyst who came on Bloomberg TV every alternate day.

One of the most interesting features of American people (to my mind) is their famed diplomacy and their obvious linguistic supremacy. You might recall that the phrase ‘collateral damage’ is an American invention. If you stepped on an American’s toes, he/she would never say ‘ step off my toes’, instead the response would be something like ‘ Do you think putting your shoes elsewhere is a viable alternative?’. Your boss would never say, ‘You are fired’. What is more likely is a 120 slide deck explaining the company’s 40 year long –term plans followed by a nice farewell party with a ‘ we have to let you go’. Americans are heavy users of sarcasm which automatically makes them my favorites; surely there is a mouth-watering debate about the superiority of satire over other forms of comedy such as goofy, slapstick etc which are more popular in India, but I’ll let that pass. An interesting question to ask is – why are these guys so good at communication? It cannot be explained by ‘English is their primary language’ reason alone; English is the primary language for Australians, Canadians and of course the English themselves and yet we don’t place them on par with Americans. I suspect that it has something to do with the kind of institutions that exist in US, in particular the legal system. Think of it this way; what does it take to succeed in a country where the legal landscape has a far reaching influence into everyday life? Obviously the ability to represent yourself in a sophisticated way offers a compelling competitive advantage; this translates into being politically correct, simultaneously being courteous and sarcastic, euphemizing skills etc. Therefore a war of words fought at a sophisticated level often decides winners and that’s why you will see politicians (George Bush is clearly an exception) paying particular attention to their choice of words-which often ends up the influencing the vote.

I think Mary Schmich put it best in her immortal ‘sunscreen’ song. “Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard.”