Doors Are From Mars, Stops Are From Venus

Anyone who’s ridden in one of the city’s shiny new subway cars has probably noticed the recorded voices that have replaced the traditional crackling from live conductors. “Stand clear of the closing doors, please,” a male voice firmly instructs. “Next stop is: Chambers Street,” a female voice intones.

It’s all pretty formulaic, but after listening a while, we were struck by a pattern: The female voice always tells the stops. The male voice always warns.

Waaaiiit a second. Was there some kind of gender subtext rolling beneath the city? Had the Metropolitan Transportation Authority bought into some pop theory that people take commandments (“Stand clear!”) more seriously if delivered by a man and, conversely, absorb factual information (“23rd Street!”) better if it’s received from a woman? You know-he commands; she provides and reassures ?

“It certainly seems possible, even likely, that many people are more likely to take seriously a warning from a man,” said Deborah Tannen, the Georgetown University professor of linguistics.

“It’s not necessarily that we ‘want’ men to give us our orders,” said Robin Lakoff, a sociolinguistics professor and language and gender specialist at the University of California at Berkeley. “It may be, though, that if the goal is obedience-and fast-we are more apt to obey a man, even if we don’t like it.”

As it turns out, the he-said/she-said voices on the train weren’t a gender-conscious move. In fact, the M.T.A.’s assistant chief mechanical officer, Gene Sansone, said the M.T.A. originally intended to use all-female voices on its trains, since it believed that female voices were more effective. “Like the mother to the newborn,” Mr. Sansone said. “Our mothers’ voices are the first we all hear, so we’re more in tune to them.” He also said that research by the Air Force had shown that fighter pilots responded more urgently to female voices.

Butthen Mayor Michael Bloom-berg’s company, Bloomberg News, provided, free of charge, its professional news readers to record the M.T.A. voice tracks. Both sexes were used, and there was no calculation as to who got what. “There was no debate or discussion about who was going to do what when, no divvying up along gender lines,” said Charlie Pellett, co-host of the Bloomberg Radio Money Show and the M.T.A.’s male vox . (The female voices are Bloomberg Radio’s Jessica Ettinger Gottesman and Dianne Thompson.) “When I walked in, I was given a long list of possible recordings, and I just picked the first thing, which was ‘Stand clear.'”

Ms. Tannen said the M.T.A. may be on to something. New research, she said, has shown that alternation is the key; people pay more attention when a recorded announcement switches between male and female voices. “I can imagine people getting used to the expectation that the next stop is going to come through a woman’s voice while the door-closing information will come through a male voice-though it could just as well be the reverse-and orient to them that way,” she said. “That seems like a good idea, to cut through the auditory overload and help riders know what to attend to. So even if it happened by accident, it’s a happy accident.”

-Lynn Harris

The Unluckiest Diner

“Again?” a man asked the other day as he spied the darkened windows of Neil’s Coffee Shop on 70th and Lexington Avenue.

Again. For the second time in two years, Neil’s-since 1960 a lovably greasy, red-neon-signed Upper East Side institution-is closed because of fire. The first time, in June of 2000, the fire began in the restaurant and shut it down for almost two months.

This time, the fire began next-door, at Michael’s Tailor Shop on 70th Street. Police believe it was set by 21-year-old Artur Avulov, who allegedly set fire to his uncle’s tailor shop because he’d been fired for stealing several months ago. According to police, Mr. Avulov poured gasoline all over the store and ignited it, causing a blast that blew glass and bits of wood all the way across the street. Neil’s was open, and its customers ran out after all the windows shattered. “Thank God nobody got hurt,” said Neil’s owner, Teddy Kaloudis.

Mr. Kaloudis, whose family purchased Neil’s 22 years ago, has every reason to believe that somebody’s out there waiting for him with a voodoo doll. But in the wake of the accident, he refused to dwell on his misfortune. “Things happen,” the five-foot-tall owner said. He was wearing a black jacket and jeans, and staring through the coffee shop’s new glass window-its second since the new millennium.

“I just want to fix my place again and go back to business,” Mr. Kaloudis said. “In the back, there’s a lot of work-ceiling, floor, walls, everything.” He planned to open up the front of Neil’s in a few days, but admitted that it had already cost him “a lot of money.”

“I hope it won’t happen again,” said Mr. Kaloudis. But he wasn’t going to call himself unlucky. “You walk on the street and you fall down and you break your arm; this is part of business.”

-Alexandra Wolfe

Wild Over Winking

When you wink in public, you look like sort of a ding-dong. Same thing goes for when you say the word “winking” out loud. It doesn’t roll off the tongue. But writers use the word “winking” a lot.

Sometimes a writer sees a word in print ( snarky, boho) and thinks, “Man, that sounds fresh!” and tucks it into his own prose. But then the word gets repeated in magazines, newspapers and chitchat, wears thin and dies a swift death. But that won’t happen to “winking” (and it’s -ly sister, “winkingly”). Though used all the damn time, nobody really notices it, so it doesn’t get tedious. Here it will remain, stealthy, hiding, in print.

It may be efficacious to explain what kind of winking this is not. This has nothing to do with hoodwinking, tiddlywinks, winking out (like a lamp or a candle) or Mona Lisa’s wink.

To writers, “winking” can be used as a way of saying something’s being ignored- the U.S. is winking at human-rights violations in China. You can wink at piracy, nuclear terror, sexual harassment or a failed coup. It’s also a way of saying something’s cute, clever or soft-core, i.e., “the winkingly pornographic Maxim .” “Winking” is also a nouveau substitute for ironic . See, a lot of editors hate “ironic.” But “winking”? Editors wink at winking like doormen do at lithe 18-year-olds with fake ID’s.

“Winking” seems especially useful in movie reviews. Why, just the other day, the Post said the Bond flick Die Another Day “pays winking homage to its predecessors.” Earlier this year, the Boston Globe raved over the “winkingly clever photo collages” in The Kid Stays in the Picture , which “suggest what a high time everyone was having-in every sense-while hinting that the bottom could drop out at any moment.” For The Royal Tenenbaums, the Seattle Weekly raved about “an exhaustive Tenenbaum home floor plan winkingly done in the style of The New Yorker ‘s Roz Chast.” And The Times charged that Pumpkin “attempts to overcome its ambivalence by winking while it is trying to elicit tears.”

This fall’s sexy independent film Secretary sparked a winking bonanza. It’s a “feminist screed … shrink-wrapped in winking SM allusion” ( Nerve ), with a “winkingly over-the-top romantic conclusion” ( Seattle Weekly -them again). Even the actors in Secretary got into it: “She’s simultaneously winking at the audience and playing it straight,” director Steven Shainberg said of his actress, Maggie Gyllenhaal.

You’ll find some real “wink” whoppers in music writing. Those guys love the flexibility-use it as an attribution, plop any adjective after it, whatever. In NME , a song features “winking melancholy”: in Time , Madonna’s music has “winking decadence”; and the online music zine Pitchfork recently noted how They Might Be Giants “eschew lo-fi pop for a half-earnest, half-winking full band sound.”

Half-winking. Full band. Got it?

-Meghan Sutherland

Doors Are From Mars, Stops Are From Venus