Thursday, January 16, 2014

Clash of cultures!! Maybe one day I'll get this Swiss thing right...

A little over a week ago, I posted the following status on Facebook:
Just got back from a short trip to Lyon. It was fun and the food was great, but I was surprised by how dingy the city seemed. I think this was mostly because it was raining the whole time, so we hardly went out, and when we did explore the city, everything was cold, wet, gray, and miserable. But I think it's also because Switzerland has messed up my expectations of how clean and new everything needs to be.
A couple of days later, I got a reminder of the fact that the amazing cleanliness in Switzerland does come with a price...

I was sitting at home watching my kids and the kids of a friend of mine (well, passively -- I was also doing my skype German lesson).  The kids had recently come in from playing outside when I heard a knock at the door.  It was my neighbor, who had come to tell me that the kids had tracked mud in the hallway -- and to explain to me that I need to tell them to wipe their feet carefully before coming into the building.

You may be thinking that's kinda weird.  If you are thinking that, then you have never lived in Switzerland.  In Switzerland, this is totally normal, expected behavior.  In Switzerland, if you are doing something wrong (making a mess or excessive noise, for example), you can pretty much expect that someone is going to tell you, politely (usually), that you are doing it wrong, and need to knock it off.

This system has certain advantages.  Remember that problem with le merde in France?  I probably don't have to tell you that they don't have that problem here.  Plus there's something to be said for a direct approach.

From my own experience, Mormon culture encourages exactly the opposite approach:  conflict is to be avoided at all costs, so when there's a problem, it often festers and escalates and then comes out in passive-aggressive ways.  (See these discussions.)  In this case, however, this is the first complaint this neighbor has made in the year we've been living here, and now I feel fairly confident that I'm not doing anything else that's too big a problem.  If I were, someone would tell me.

And, of course, that was the next part of the story.  Can you guess?  My husband and I received an email from the same neighbor a couple of days later complaining that we hadn't vacuumed the hallway.

The funny thing is that it was simply a clash of cultural expectations.  There really wasn't that much dirt in the hallway (well, by American or French standards, anyway) and the hallway is cleaned regularly.  I had assumed that by apologizing and promising it wouldn't happen again, I was done.  But a Swiss colleague confirmed that when a Swiss person points out a mess that is your fault, that means that you are to clean it up immediately.

Now it's funny to me to re-read the post on Swiss etiquette I wrote after about a year of living in Switzerland.  I had mentioned a person silently hinting that someone was doing something wrong (failing to move to the "standing" lane on the escalator) as an example of Swiss politeness.  It was a funny scene, but clearly I was interpreting it through my own cultural lens of what constitutes polite behavior.  Now I think that guy was probably a foreigner. ;)

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