Mayor asks New Yorkers to try a little kindness, please

City renowned for its rancor prefers to be known for nice.

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Could it be working? Could New York really be trading nasty for nice?

For generations, this city has defiantly championed its surly demeanor as its own distinct urban signature.

But last week, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani struck another blow for civility in his ongoing, finger-wagging campaign to improve New Yorkers' manners. He handed out palm cards to police, instructing them to say, "Please" and "thank you," and to address citizens as "sir" and "madam." He also suggested the public could be a little nicer to the cops by addressing them as "officer," instead of "some derogatory name."

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Some in the city greeted the news with what at best could be described as a Bronx cheer.

"You asking me about politeness?" says an incredulous Mike Dobin, a tough-talking kitchen-appliance salesman from Staten Island.

But for many others, the effort to introduce a little civility into the impatient city's daily discourse is a welcome addition. In fact, it appears to be part of a much larger national movement that is trying to trade the harsh hostility that has entered the nation's political dialog, for a more understanding and tolerant approach on all sides.

Congress has now instituted annual retreats for political leaders to relearn high-school lessons on decorous debate. And religious leaders are holding civility summits around the country, hoping to remove the demonizing from the nation's sermonizing.

"At least it's a start, you know, but it is a two-way street," says Bradley Duncan, a building attendant at 500 Fifth Avenue, who came to the city from Guyana 18 years ago.

Most people interviewed agreed with Mr. Duncan.

"It's not wrong to say 'thank you,' " says Alex Batista, a dietician from Washington Heights. "It's a good idea. Cops should be nicer. Everyone should be nicer all the time."

And while that was the prevailing view in Midtown, many people also were concerned that the emphasis on manners could be used to divert attention from much deeper problems - such as race relations between city police and the community.

"I think it's irrelevant to the issues that are going on," says Ruben Ramirez, a student at City College. "We need something more profound to make a change in the discrimination and racism in New York City. What we need is more understanding between the communities."

But Miss Manners believes good etiquette is exactly what's called for to help solve some of the city's more intractable problems. In fact, she doesn't find any humor at all in the cynicism that's greeted the mayor's efforts. And she has a quick lesson for those who complain that emphasizing politeness is a bit of a joke, if not a waste of time entirely.

"If you think that etiquette isn't a big factor, why don't you wander around until you find a gang of youths, and then try treating them with just a minor form of disrespect, and see what happens," says Judith Martin, the nation's doyenne of good manners.

Even New York's Transit Authority is remembering the importance of the little niceties, although there was the recent lapse. In an effort to save a precious five seconds at every stop, the Transit Authority had ordered its conductors and motormen to drop the word, "please" from their regular announcements and admonitions to unruly riders.

"Who cares if they say please if they need to move the subways along," says Mr. Dobin, who regularly rides the underground rails as he goes from job to job.

But many other riders were offended. So last week, the word "please" was reintroduced to the standard phrase New York's subway riders have grown accustomed to hearing: "Please stand clear of da closing doors! Hey! You in the white shirt. I said, STAND CLEAR OF DA CLOSING DOORS."

The addition of "please," for many, is a welcome return of what may be described as a modicum of courtesy. While they are quick to admit that New Yorkers may appear to be gruff on the surface, many also believe the city's gotten an undeserved rap as the capital of rude.

"When someone needs help, I've seen people in this town walk an extra mile," says Roy Lloyd, a longtime Manhattan resident. "So often you see an aberration rather than the reality."

Even Staten Island's Dobin believes that underneath their sometimes-ornery exterior, New Yorkers are really fine, helpful, and generous at heart.

"When someone is rude to you in the street, you just turn around and ask them what town they're from in New Jersey," he says. "Like I said, it's not the people from New York."

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