Recently, I wrote a post about how baffled I was by the very strict adherence to seemingly arbitrary rules in the United States. Now I am living in Germany, another country which is famous for it’s love of rules. However, the norm for following the rules that I have observed in Germany manifested itself in a very different way compared to what I have observed in the US.
It all started one day when my boyfriend was driving me to work.
Near our house, there is a very short stretch of road with almost two dozen traffic lights. This is because, for some reason, it was decided that this perfectly average part of town could not possibly simply have pedestrian crossings, but rather each one has to also have it’s own traffic light. We were trying to figure out which building a certain school was in, and by looking around at various signs my boyfriend accidentally rolled through one of these red lights.
It was not an intersection, and whatever pedestrian had pressed the button to change the light had either decided not to cross or had done so a long time ago. We were going perhaps two miles per hour, the street was deserted, there was not the slightest chance that anyone could have gotten hurt, and it was quite clearly an honest mistake.
A loud, long blaring of a car horn made us jump in our seats. I looked back, thinking that someone had gotten into an accident and had their head against their car horn. All I saw was another car behind us, dutifully waiting for the light to turn green. Nothing had happened, we were not in danger of hitting anyone, the person in the car behind us was simply expressing their outrage that we had accidentally rolled through a red light.
I told the story at work, and I was informed that I will be lucky if that person had not also taken down our license plate number and reported us to the police. While I understand doing something like that if someone is driving erratically or drunkenly, but I could not fathom why someone would even bother honking at someone for such a minor infraction, let alone going through the trouble of calling the police. “But those are the rules”, I was told with a shrug.
I was soon to discover that it is quite common for people here to get angry at others for not following rules. If you jay walk, you will often get looks of disgust from those who are patiently waiting for their turn to cross, especially if they have children with them*. I later would witness multiple occasions of people honking at infractions they spot on other streets, despite the fact that they were nowhere near the site of the infraction, nor in any danger of being involved in an accident in any way. Once, when riding my bike home, a random German man leapt out of nowhere at me at started shouting, which I later discovered had to do with my bike light being somewhat flickery. I was surprised not so much by the following of the rules here, but by how passionate a reaction people got when they saw that others were not following the rules in the same way.
In Italy, rules are very much about context. Why is it illegal to cross the street on a red light? Because it is dangerous and you might get hit by a car. What if it is 2AM and there is not a single car as far as the eye can see? Then the rule no longer applies, because the danger is no longer there, so go ahead and cross the street whenever you want. I tried to make that argument with some people here, but they shook their heads. “Nope”, they said, “I will wait until the light turns green, even if I am in the middle of a straight road completely empty of cars. Because those are the rules”.
I didn’t get it. I still don’t get it, but that’s why it is a cultural difference.
However, it did explain to me why some Germans I have met seemed to have a problem with people whom I considered to be amongst the most likeable people on the planet.
If any of you work in science, or know anyone who works in science, you know that office hours do not apply in this field. If you want to get your PhD done, if you want to publish within a time frame that is expected of you, and if you work with live organisms, there is no such thing as “home by 6pm” or “no work on Sundays”. You work when you need to, even if that means working on the weekend, at 10pm or on Christmas day. You take time off, but your time off is not decided by an arbitrary hour or date on a calendar. There is no overtime, just your project and how quickly you want to finish it. German law, however, does not recognize this, and we are “supposed” to work a 40 hour week as if our job was like any other office job. That’s the rule, and many Germans I have met follow it, even in this particular field.
Some Germans, and pretty much every single non-German in here, however, work the hours that all scientists around the world do, meaning many late nights and weekends. Those who do follow the rules dislike that, and get annoyed with those of us who “break the rules”. When I met the nicest, sweetest person I have ever encountered, and discovered that some people she used to work with had a problem with her, I realized this was why. Because she was breaking the rules. She was not confining herself and her work to the established 40 hours, and that bothered them. Context did not matter. The fact that science is different from answering phones at a call center did not matter. Those are the rules, and breaking them basically makes you a scab. This emotional reaction to how other people live their lives, this policing of others’ behavior, is the core of the cultural difference regarding rule following that I have experienced here.
I would like to note that, despite the fact that Italians could give two shits about whether or not other people are breaking the rules, so long as it doesn’t affect them, they sometimes do police other people’s behavior, when motivated by jealousy. It is an embarrassing, nasty undercurrent in our culture which I hate to even talk about. Italians won’t call the police with your license plate number if you roll through a stop sign, but they might sic the IRS on you if they see you have a fancy big house, a booming new business or a couple of nice cars that they could never afford. Italians would never admit to doing this, because their reason for calling the police is not an effort to ensure that you are following the rules, but because they are jealous of what you have, and that’s just plain sad. Everyone knows it happens, no one ever admits to doing it, and yet police stations still get these kinds of phone calls every single day. Some Italians might get mad at me for admitting this ugly underbelly of our culture, but it exists, and there it is.
*Side note: the expectation that some parents have that perfect strangers should be setting a good example for their kids is a particular pet peeve of mine, but that’s a rant for another day.