Cultural Differences: Trusting Authority

Note: This is a post from last year, from the old blog.
Another country, another opportunity to spot the cultural differences that make life so interesting.
When I moved to Germany, I noticed that this was a place in which caution was very much in the common culture. Germans have insurance for things that would never even cross my mind. When discussing these issues, people would ask me things like “well, if you are walking down the street and you pick up a piece of wood that someone was throwing away and the pile of wood falls on you, then who is responsible? Which insurance pays?” Um… if a pile of wood fall on you cause you were messing with it, that gets filed under sad day for you? No? Does this filing chapter not exist here? OK.

This observation came into conflict with a reaction to something that happened in the institute. There was an accident, which resulted in a certain amount of a volatile toxic chemical to be released into the air. The lab and the labs surrounding it were evacuated and the situation was assessed. While the room in which the accident happened was determined to be too contaminated to use, the room immediately next to it, which connects to the contaminated room through a normal door, was not determined to be unsafe for use. I needed to do something in that adjoining room, but I decided to wear a mask in there anyway, just in case. My Mediterranean colleagues, though not known for their extreme caution, fully supported this decision. When I was walking there with my mask on, however, a German colleague said to me “why are you wearing a mask? You don’t need one in there, they said it was safe”.
What?! These super cautious people are now the ones telling me there is no need to be cautious? What is going on here? Then it hit me.

Germans trust authority far, far more than Italians or other Mediterranean people do. They assume that, if something is determined to be safe, it is because people who know what they’re doing thoroughly checked the situation and made this determination accurately. If in Italy something dangerous happened in a lab and then someone came out and was like “No problem! You can come back in everything’s fine!” We’d all be like

Yea right! We’re going home. For the rest of the week.

Our people just don’t trust people in authority with anything. Many would say with good reason, but it is the one time that you will find an Italian who is more cautious than a German.

Oh sweet irony, how you make life fun!


  1. Golgafrinchan Captain says

    I noticed an interesting thing once when on vacation in Cancun. I’m normally bombarded with internet ads saying things like “Doctors hate this man because…”, “Local mom infuriates doctors with her…”, etc. But when I was in Mexico, the ads changed to “Doctors recommend this…”, “Doctors love new…”.

    I figured the biggest reason was probably a different level of trust in medical professionals but that things like a tendency towards conspiracy theories might also be factors.

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