Following the Rules Part II: Policing Others’ Behavior


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.

Comments

  1. Menyambal says

    Thanks for the fascinating insights to other cultures. It is interesting what we will live with, assuming it is the only way to live.

    I liked the bit about jealousy. I think maybe many religious people are jealous of those who don’t have to follow their rules. I also think that some of them are secretly resentful of all their religion’s rules, and they snap when the government adds even more rules to their lives – I have read a few rightist rants where the word “God” could have replaced “government”.

  2. says

    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*.

    Oh, I will not give you the stinky eye. I, or my children, will loudly say something about your behaviour. Yes, your setting an example. Your setting a dangerous example for children who are not able to differentiate between “it’s ok to walk now despite the light still being red” and “it’s dangerous to cross now”. Yes, society is a huge complex monster where either everybody takes some minimum care and responsibility or it’s a shithole.
    But if you think it’s OK for you to ignore the rules you must also accept that it’s OK for us to loudly complain.

    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.

    Uhm, no. Many people in Germany don’t work the traditional 9-5 job, but there are rules about length of work and breaks. They are actually there to protect workers from exploitation. People who constantly ignore those rules are creating pressure on others to do the same, making fields worse for everybody in them, especially women who are still expected to do most of the childcare.
    In summary, yes, I’m one of those rule-loving Germans and I’m sick and tired of people who think that rules are “guidelines subject to personal interpretation” because there’s usually two ways this works out
    A) They misjudge “this is totally safe” and cause horrible accidents.
    B) They benefit from their rule-breaking to the disadvantage of others.
    Would you think it fair if society decided NOT to cover treatment for burn out because people ignored the work time limits? Or not to cover the injuries of a pedestrian who misjudged “I can cross here” and got hit by a car?

    • Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

      Uhm, no. Many people in Germany don’t work the traditional 9-5 job, but there are rules about length of work and breaks. They are actually there to protect workers from exploitation. People who constantly ignore those rules are creating pressure on others to do the same

      Very interesting point about work hours, because while I understand the first part, the bolded part didn’t really come to mind before I read your comment.

      I’m also starting to understand some cross looks I would get when I stayed overtime the first year or so at my current workplace. I thought they were jealous because they thought I was being payed overtime (I wasn’t), but it was probably exactly what you point out, now that I think back about some comments.

    • says

      Yeah, it’s way too easy to slip from “working long hours” to “long hours are the norm”. And by easy, I mean that it has already happened in science. So much hate for the expectation that I work 50+ hours a week. If they need that much labor, they should hire more people, reducing unemployment.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      OK, this will be a long response.
      About the work hours
      I am aware that not all Germans work 9-5, but according to our contracts in the institute I work in, we are expected to work 9-5 Mon-Fri, no more, no less. That just isnt feasible in the live sciences. For example, I posted previously about how to do lifespan experiments in c. elegans. In order to do this experiment, you have to transfer the worms at least every other day. Your worms (or mice, or flies, or cells) dont know and dont care that it’s a weekend, theyre born when theyre born, theyre ready when theyre ready and you have to be there. In this case, the 9-5 model that is supposed to protect workers is actually making us work more. For example, I have to be in on Sunday to pick my worms, so why don’t I shift my other experiments, do them on Sunday, and take Monday off instead? I cant do that, unless I want to burn a holiday day. As far as HR is concerned, if I wanted 2 days off a week I shouldnt have come in on Sunday. I broke the rules, so when I have lifespan experiments running I have to work 6 day weeks. This rigidity in the rules is harming scientists, not helping them avoid burn out.
      Another thing to note is that science is international and highly competitive. If I want to stay in research I have to publish this year, not just if I want to stay in my lab, but if I want to get a job in any lab in the world, I have to publish this year. I made the decision to work my butt off this year to make that happen. Maybe you wouldnt have made that decision, but rather would have chosen to side step into a techician role, lab management or industry. Many people make that choice and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. You might also make the argument that science shouldnt be that competitive, that the scientific community should reevalutate how it assesses a scientist’s merits and strenghts, and that is also a perfectly legitimate argument, but that’s something that needs to be addressed on a global scale at scientific meetings, and ragging on me for staying in late is not going to change how science works or affect your future in science in any way.
      What I’m trying to get at is context matters. You might be sick and tired of people questioning the reasons behind rules and interpreting them, but different contexts bring different circumstances. Of course I understand why labor laws exist and I am all for them. Of course I understand how factory workers and office workers can be exploited, and that they should have all the rights they have, and not be expected to work twice the hours stipulated by law, but live science is not the same as making t-shirts or crunching numbers. Saying “Oh it’s 5pm I’m going home I’ll do that tomorrow” can mean trashing a 2-week long experiment that you’ll have to start all over again.

      About the jaywalking
      Of course you have the right to complain. I never said “stop yelling at people” or “get off my ass” or anything of the sort, nor do I think that jay walking should be legal. I just reserve the right to be surprised that anyone would care that much about it. It’s not a judgement, it’s just a difference in cultures.
      However, I will have to completely disagree with you about the “setting a good example for our kids” argument. It is not my responsibility, nor any stranger’s responsibility, to set an example to your children, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve met Americans who have used this argument as an excuse to shout abuse at people who smoke in public, saying that their kids will see them and think its OK to smoke. I hate this argument. In my opinion they’re your kids, you chose to have them, to keep them and to raise them, so it is your job to parent them and yours alone. You can see a person jaywalking or smoking or drinking and use them to teach your kids not to do those things, sure, but those strangers are not raising your children, you are.

      • Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

        I really should be studying so just a short one:
        While I absolutely don’t think anyone has the right to yell at you for doing something that’s setting a bad example to their children, I do believe that you (general you) should act in a good-example way if it’s no or little trouble.
        Since jaywalking is our go to example:
        It’s such a little effort to wait a couple of seconds more until the green light turns on, so why should I not wait? Because some little kid is watching curiously and because of myself and also because of other adults who might feel embarrassed about crossing when others are patiently waiting. It’s not my duty, but it’s just a nice and considerate gesture that really costs me nothing. You know, like trying to make some noise when walking behind someone in an empty street at night, so as not to scare them or seem like you’re creeping. Just small social niceties that cost nothing, but help us all feel safer and better.
        And in case of children, makes their parents’ lives a bit easier too.

        • thoughtsofcrys says

          I agree that everyone should try to be respectful and nice to others. I also never said that parents dont have the right to be upset at strangers for breaking the rules. I just think that “what about teh childrenz” is a tired, worn out argument used as an excuse to be nasty to perfect strangers for living their own lives. The argument “you shouldn’t jaywalk because it’s dangerous and harmful and it costs you nothing to wait a little longer at the light and lets all try to live in a way that is safer for everyone” – perfectly fine argument I agree with completely. “you shouldn’t jaywalk because MY kid might see you and you have a responsibility to teach MY child that jaywalking is not OK” – that’s where you lose me completely, because I did not chose to be a parent to your child

        • blondeintokyo says

          I am have to agree that it’s up to parents to teach and discipline their kids. I don’t have kids for the very reason that I don’t want the responsibility, and the idea of a parent telling me I’m somehow, by my existence as an adult, responsible for children regardless, is just ludicrous, in my view. You don’t get to define my responsibilities, and if you yell at me for setting a bad example for your kid, I’m going to utterly ignore you.

          Besides that, adult behavior is not for children to emulate, and that goes from cursing to jaywalking to having sex to drinking alcohol. If kids are out of control because their parents didn’t teach them that kids can’t expect to be able to do all the things that adults do, then I’d say that’s the parent’s fault.

      • says

        I am aware that not all Germans work 9-5, but according to our contracts in the institute I work in, we are expected to work 9-5 Mon-Fri, no more, no less. That just isnt feasible in the live sciences.

        That is a problem with your particular lab and contract, nit with “Germany” and “German rules”. My BIL got his PhD in biology in Germany and is working in research ever since and he never had that kind of issue because he had a different contract.

        I hate this argument. In my opinion they’re your kids, you chose to have them, to keep them and to raise them, so it is your job to parent them and yours alone.

        You’ll have to live in a society populated mostly by other people’s children. One day other people’s children will have to care for you. They’ll bake your bread, be your doctor, repair your car. They aren’t pets. I wouldn’t yell at you for smoking or drinking, because those things are perfectly legal (I would not accept you smoking in a non smoking environment because you think rules are for others), but when you’re jaywalking you’re actually breaking everybody’s rules. You are actively contributing to a selfish society in which people think they can do what they want because they think they know better.
        That may sound harsh, given that we’Re talking about jaywalking, but as I said, we share the social space and all need to take care of it.

        • thoughtsofcrys says

          Im not making the argument that there is a problem with Germany or German rules. In my response to you comment, I am simply trying to explain why, sometimes, being rigid in the rules can cause more harm than good, and why I personally look for context, and the reason behind the existence of the rules, when judging how strictly to follow them. In my post I wasn’t even saying that, I was just pointing out how Germans differ from Italians in their reactions to rule breaking, without making any judgement about who is “better” or “worse”.

          As for the jaywalking, I feel I need to repeat again that I understand why it is illegal and I agree that it should be illegal, and that people shouldn’t do it, nor do I begrudge you or anyone else for getting annoyed with people who do it. I just never liked the argument of “you have to set an example for my kids” – I clarified this in my response to Beatrice so a little copy and pasting here:
          I agree that everyone should try to be respectful and nice to others. I also never said that parents dont have the right to be upset at strangers for breaking the rules. I just think that “what about teh childrenz” is a tired, worn out argument used as an excuse to be nasty to perfect strangers for living their own lives. The argument “you shouldn’t jaywalk because it’s dangerous and harmful and it costs you nothing to wait a little longer at the light and lets all try to live in a way that is safer for everyone” – perfectly fine argument I agree with completely. “you shouldn’t jaywalk because MY kid might see you and you have a responsibility to teach MY child that jaywalking is not OK” – that’s where you lose me completely, because I did not chose to be a parent to your child

          • says

            I wouldn’t rag on you for working over 40 hours. Obviously it’s a large problem and a few individuals aren’t going to change much.

            Now, the people I’d really like to complain about are all the advisors out there who say “I worked 60 hours a week when I was a student, why can’t you?” And unfortunately, those are precisely the people I have the least power to complain about.

  3. Siobhan says

    Perhaps the Germans take their rules seriously because the last time they didn’t, really bad things happened? 😛

  4. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    Hm, I’m somewhere in between. On one hand, at 2 am, on en empty street, I’ll check the road and cross the street at the red light. I take it as a natural exception to the rule – because no rule can cover all situations, it has to cover most while at the same time keeping to its own point (in this case, road safety) so there will exist some situations that are “natural” exemptions.

    On the other hand.. .where’s the limit? So there’s where I see Giliell’s point. To me, the limit is a basically safe road crossing. To someone else, it’s running across the street at red light ,during rush hour, because they are sure they calculated the speed of an oncoming car correctly.

    I think it’s also important to think how our own rule breaking influences others. For example, before I started taking driving lessons, I used to cross a street to my parents’ apartment where there’s no pedestrian crossing. I always took care to cross when the red light was on for cars coming from one side, and the cars from the other were still too far away. I honestly believe there was never any chance of accident. But then I started driving and worried whenever I saw a person standing at that spot, waiting to cross. I realize that drivers have to keep vigilance all the time, but why cause them more stress than necessary? I always knew when I was crossing that I would wait until it’s safe, but someone in the car just sees an idiot in low start, at an unmarked crossing .. how are they supposed to know that I’m not going ot be an even bigger idiot and start walking across right in front of them?
    (and all I have to do is walk a couple of meters back and wait for a green light.)

    I also look forward to the post concerning your post script, since it seems we’ll have some disagreements there too (so I’m leaving that topic for then).

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      Given the fact that it came up in the comments, Ive summed up my PS argument in my response to Giliell’s comment. Feel free to jump in, if you still disagree!

    • wereatheist says

      Beatrice, you better avoid Italy as a driver. People there cross the street at will. And drivers have to be prepared for this.

      • Kilian Hekhuis says

        I’ve had the dubious pleasure of driving through Rome years ago, before we had luxury things like navigation software or mobile phones. I had to use a paper map. Was it bad? Yes. Did I survive? Yes. The upside to unregulated traffic is that if you yourself need to get bold because, say, you’re at the left most lane in a provisionally five lane (but actually three lane) road and your right turn is coming up, just signal and go! People will give you some way and everything works out fine. I did have to reconfigure my outside mirrors though, as it’s way more important to know what’s directly besides or behind you, than what’s happening 50m behind.

  5. jcsscj says

    Talking about crossing on red light:
    In the Netherlands they researched it and the conclusion was that people that walked through red light watched out better when crossing the road.

  6. jcsscj says

    The most unbelievable parking ticket I got in Germany is the following:
    It is on a street just wide enough for tree cars with not a lot of traffic. From my driving direction it was allowed to park on the left side of the road. I saw a space that was very easy for me drive into, so I did.
    When I wanted to drive away I had a parking ticket because my car was pointing in the wrong direction.

  7. Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought says

    Another thing: Croatia is very similar to Italy in this, both with following the rules mentioned in part I (job’s worth, etc.) and part II, including the jealousy. I hate that. “Rules are meant to be broken, except when it suits me to use them against you.” Ugh.

  8. ivo says

    I lived in Germany for two years and i haven’t noticed any particular obsession with rule policing, but that is probably because I’m Swiss. I have noticed, on the other hand, how easily they start shouting at random people in the street. I found it rarher upsetting. You see, we Swiss are usually more polite with our rule-policing (but no less unforgiving!). And by polite, i mean we mumble withering insults behind the rule-braker’s back, rather then confronting them and standing up for our values.

    Now that i live in France, i constantly have people jumping in front of my car when i drive and trying to run me over when i walk, as if traffic lights were just some random decorarion. And after they’ve nearly caused an accident, they don’t even think they’ve done anything wrong!

    I hate this uncivil, irresponsible insouciance. I truly do. I’d take back German rule-policing any day.

  9. says

    During the years I lived in Germany (1985-97), one of the things I learned is that many German seniors are notorious tattle tales. In one apartment building where I lived we had “Treppendeinst” every other week when I had to mop that stairwell of the building from my landing down the stairs to the landing below. One of my neighbors, a woman of 70+, used to constantly complain to me and the landlord that I was using the ‘wrong’ brand of soap. Fortunately for me the landlord gave me permission to tell her to ‘slide down my ass’ and mind her own business. 😀

  10. sonofrojblake says

    The comedian Al Murray, in character as the satirical caricature of the right wing “Pub Landlord”, nails it nicely:

    “Those are the rules. Where would we be if we didn’t have any rules? France. Where would we be if we had too many rules? Germany.”

  11. blondeintokyo says

    Germany sounds a lot like Japan. 🙂

    J.R. Buckley – in Japan, the elderly are the “garbage police”. They look through the trash every trash day to check if you’ve sorted it correctly. If they find one soda can, one plastic wrapper, one mis-sorted piece of paper, they show up at your door and complain. Vociferously. If you’re unlucky they’ll contact the landlord, and try to get you evicted.

  12. Kilian Hekhuis says

    “For example, I have to be in on Sunday to pick my worms, so why don’t I shift my other experiments, do them on Sunday, and take Monday off instead? I cant do that, unless I want to burn a holiday day. As far as HR is concerned, if I wanted 2 days off a week I shouldnt have come in on Sunday.”

    HR is checking whether you are in on Monday? Or your collegues are going to rat you out? I think this is all very silly and childlike behaviour. Glad I don’t live there…

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      My colleagues would never rat me out, thankfully, but they can still catch you. It’s not like we punch in and out, but if they call the office for whatever reason and find out you’re not there, or if they stop by to get you to sign a paper, or if something happens in the lab and you’re not part of the head count… there are many ways that they can find out you’re not at work when you should be, and people here just don’t bother pushing those limits. No one wants to feel like they’re clandestinely skipping out on work. We’re supposed to even take a half holiday day off if we want to come in or leave right after lunch, never mind if we worked 14 hour days up til that point and put in far more than our 40 hours. The rigidity can be suffocating.

  13. Kilian Hekhuis says

    Ouch, that sounds really bad. Here in the Netherlands, we’re far more pragmatic, and you can make a deal with your next-in-command without getting into problems.

  14. anat says

    When I was a grad student in Israel, grad students were not considered employees – we got a stipend rather than a salary. So we came and went as our work and studies required, but on the down side had none of the benefits that employed people have (for instance only minimal insurance for accidents, maternity leave was not paid). But post-docs were employees, so were subjects to both rules and benefits of employment.

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