A Swiss Driving Lesson

Driving in Switzerland is, for the most part, quite civilized.  Perhaps it's those speed cameras that dot the highways and roads, or perhaps it's the tendency of the population to "follow the rules."

But what really strikes me as odd, in a nice sort of way, is the absolute willingness of people to give way to the other guy when two lanes of traffic are merging into one or when one road meets another, and both have long lines of cars.  One by one, we take turns, until the line nicely assimilates the other cars that also want to go down our road.  My Swiss friends refer to this as a "zipper."

The reason that I find this so remarkable is because this same rule absolutely does NOT apply when you queue up outside of a car.  Man, if you want to see the "every man for himself" theory in action, try standing in line at your butcher shop 15 minutes before closing on a Saturday afternoon (remember, the Metzgerei takes Sunday off with all the rest of Switzerland).  There's none of this, "oh excuse me, were you here first?"  No way.  It's "too bad so sad" if you can't push your way in.  Or try getting out of a train during rush hour (no, on second thought don't try that...you'll get stampeded by those getting in).  Maybe you could just try getting out of an elevator.  Yes, you'd suffer far fewer injuries if you wanted to test out this example.

And it's not just the train or the butcher.  The act of weighing produce at Migros is like a little contest.  I have learned to size up the folks around me (secretly, of course) with the zucchini in my bag, and then--without giving away my intentions--I lunge for the scale to weigh them.  It's important to look like you don't see anyone around you while trying this maneuver, and if you can drop your produce onto that shiny rectangular plate first, you'll win.  It works every time.  I know--I've developed this technique after the first time I tried in vain to weigh my carrots...and lost.

In the United States it's quite the opposite.  When we're lined up at the deli counter, we're such an apologetic crowd--looking out for who was there first, not daring to cut someone off or, God forbid, accidentally step in front of someone else.  There are so many "pleases" and "I'm sorrys" and "oh, were you here first?"  And if you DO see someone who was there before you, and the gal behind the counter looks at you as if you were next, it's your American duty to proclaim, "Oh no, this lady was here first."  If you do, you will certainly earn the admiration of those around you, and self-satisfaction of knowing that your "queuing karma" has just been increased in your favor.

But when we get into our cars, anonymity takes over.  We will cut off anyone, just to save a couple of minutes.  Driving too slow?  We'll pass you the first chance we get and give you a dirty look as we're zooming by.  Speed limit?  If there are no cops around, and you're sure you won't get caught, it's perfectly fine to put the pedal to the metal!  Merging?  Are you nuts?  If you see someone who actually looks like they want to get in front of you it's your duty to speed up so that they can't.  After all, who are they, looking for that kind of favor from you?  They don't know you and never will!  And hopefully, when you cut that guy off on your way to work, you WON'T end up parking next to him in the company lot.

Why is this?  Why are Swiss drivers so remarkably controlled and pragmatic when they are waiting in line in their cars but not so much when they are waiting in line at the butcher's?  And why, on the other hand, are Americans so doggone rude on the freeways but outwardly kind and patient while waiting in line at the bakery?

I can answer the American question, I think.  And it's not such a pretty picture of American culture.  The short story is that we've always been taught to "act nice."  From the moment we can interact with other children, our mothers and caretakers tell us to be nice, and to share, and that the interaction between ourselves and another human being is only successful if there are no hard feelings and if each party leaves the interaction not having upset the other.  And so we oblige our mothers in social situations, and are rewarded by society.  But deep down, Americans are a selfish lot.  We want our own homes, our own space, not one but two or even three cars, our own new and shiny everything.  We want to be first, and we don't want to know about the other guy, and especially not if our being first puts him at a disadvantage.  And when we are in our cars and behind our sunglasses and tinted windows, we are anonymous.  And then we carry on in our true character, because our mom's can't see us.

But as for Swiss cultural norms, I can only look to a very informative book given to me by our Human Resources director on the day I began working in Switzerland to try to understand better. In her book Beyond Chocolate: Understanding Swiss Culture, Margaret Oertig-Davidson describes the tendency of Swiss society to hold the rights of the individual in very high esteem--but only to the point where that right does not have impact beyond the individual.  She uses an interesting example about the individual's right to listen to music, loudly if they wish, but if that music is not something the neighbor wants to hear then the neighbor's right to quiet will supersede the other guy's right to loud music.

It's an interesting thought--the zipper is necessary because if you don't let your fellow driver in to the fold, the traffic just gets worse.  You delay more people, engines run for a longer time, and noise and pollution are increased.  If enough people behave in that same negative way, traffic, pollution, and noise will continue to get worse. But at the butcher's counter, whether you or Frau Schmidt is served first really has no impact on anything long term.  Consequences, if any, are short lived.

Another thing I have noticed is that when attempting to convince the Swiss of anything, they need to first see the point.  They need to know why...and if they agree with the reasoning they are cooperative and supportive.  In our driving example the zipper technique is proven, it works, and therefore they are on board with it and it has been adopted by the culture as a norm.

But the disproportionate dislike for queues could also be rooted in the expectation of efficiency.  One of the most wonderful things about living in Switzerland is that life, generally speaking, is efficient and predictable.  We are used to having things run efficiently, on time, and as agreed.  Waiting is not something that we do very well.  (Notice I say "we" here--believe me, it's really easy to get used to stuff running on time and I consider myself officially integrated when it comes to this point).

When the expectation is high that the wait will be short, the frustration and aggravation that is experienced when the wait is longer than expected (even if it's not really that long) is relatively much higher.  To illustrate my point, observe the behavior on the train during rush hour as the rare overhead announcement is played that the train will be delayed.  The groans, the end-of-the-world sighs, and the eye rolling are almost funny, once you begin to speak the language and realize that the announcer said that the train will be starting out "in the next few minutes" and not "in the next few hours."  It is not even worth wasting the breath in your sigh to complain about it.  But to the Swiss, any inefficiency seems to be cause for disappointment, regardless of how small.

I know, I observe and speculate, because that's what I do.  I may never really know the real "why" behind the behavior.  But until then, I just want to say thanks to every car that has let me in front of them in the long queue.