Monday, April 17, 2017

Bumbling Though Swiss Social Conventions

After years of fairly graciously weaving my way through Swiss cultural proclivities, my US American perspective still trips me up unexpectedly at times, making me feel like a bumbling idiot. Yesterday was a good example.

My nephew threw himself a 40-year-old birthday party. This is the custom in Switzerland whenever you turn a new decade. Some 50 people, family, church and close friends, were invited to help him celebrate the event in his church’s fellowship hall.

Before the party even began, my first blunder was misunderstanding the invitation. It said: “informal come-and-go, drop-in party with appetizers beginning around 3 pm.” So in my US understanding, that meant show up, grab a handful of chips, a drink, make small talk with those you know while avoiding those you can’t stand. An hour and a half commitment stretched to two hours if there was a particularly interesting person you met. I estimated that we would arrive a bit before 4 pm and leave at around 7 pm. However, by 9 pm, no one had yet made the slightest move to leave. I guess my definition of the informal “go” part went missing.

Another mix-up came by way of the invitation. It specifically stated “no gifts; your presence is enough, but if you insist, we’d be very happy for cash toward our family vacation.” So we took that literally. A little card with a large bill stuck inside. When we made our way to the gift table to proudly place our card among the others, we were surprised and embarrassed to see dozens of large, creative gifts piled on the table. Oh, my, I guess Google Translate doesn’t do so well with Swiss German.


My nephew, center, breaking balloons with clever gag gifts in them for each year.
The next gaffe was made upon arrival. About a third of the guests had arrived before us. At least our concept of “come” was similar, we didn’t need to be exactly on time. Esther and I entered, congratulated the birthday boy profusely, then shook hands and greeted those who we knew. Then we grabbed a handful of salty snacks and a drink and sat down. At a US American event, we can enter, wave and say “hi everyone,” then head to those we know to strike up a conversation. Shaking hands no longer seems necessary. In Switzerland, however, social conventions are different. As more people streamed in, they went around the whole room, shaking everyone’s hand and introducing themselves. Oops. What an ungracious, social nincompoop I am.

My next faux pas was related to drinking conventions. I was accustomed to waiting at a sit-down meal in Switzerland, until the host offered a toast before beginning to drink. But this was an informal buffet, with people milling around, coming and going as they pleased, so I could drink without the formal toast, right? Wrong! Whenever a new drink was introduced, white with the appetizer, red with the meal, schnapps at the end of the meal for digestion (yes, this was in a church fellowship hall), a new toast had to be raised to the two or three gathered nearest you. Even across the room, before anyone would take their first sip, they would offer an air toast to anyone within eyesight.

And then the refills. Swiss tend to sip their wine, and US Americans tend to gulp theirs (subject of another post). Even using my most patient sipping skills, my glass was empty before anyone else’s. Just grab the bottle in front of you and fill it up, right? Wrong again! Before pouring for yourself, you must ask everyone else near you if they want more. Only then is it proper to serve yourself.

Food provided the next vehicle for exposing my social ineptness. Informal buffet, remember? Well, by the time we finally got to serve ourselves, I was pretty hungry. I was the second person through the line, and sat down with my brother-in-law, looking to him for cues on when to begin. He wasn’t very helpful, as he kept being distracted by questions from another passerby waiting in line. Not only was the smell driving me crazy, but my food was getting cold. When nobody was looking I sneaked a bite. I knew it was improper, because before you eat, you must wait to say to everyone around you, “E Guete;” the Swiss equivalent of the French “bon appetite” or the Spanish “buen provecho.” Unfortunately, I must point out the paucity of the English language. We have no equivalent expression. Or maybe it’s a paucity of formalities. Either way, I was hungry!

After eating and conversation it was now 9 pm. My brain had dealt with as much Swiss German as possible without being fried. It seemed like time to go, but as stated earlier, no one else showed any inclination to leave. Yet, if we wanted to catch the train that would get us home before 10 pm, we had to make our move. Awkwardly, we made our way toward the door. Since we had a train to catch, I thought that people would understand if we left without shaking all 50 people’s hands. In the USA, we can make our exit, wave, and say: “See ya.” Esther assured me that I was wrong once again. So dutifully I went around the huge room shaking everyone’s hand and trying to say their name while biding adieu. Under such pressure, I doubt if I remembered a third of their names. They all seemed to remember my name. I’m afraid it was an association with the current president of the USA that served as a memory crutch for them.

We made the train in time, and on the way home I reflected on my incompetence as a Yankee in Esther’s court. In spite of my social blunders, I had a wonderful time. I made a number of new friends, particularly the pastor of the church and a woman from Canada who married a Swiss man. She spoke Swiss German better than I (boy that was hard to admit. Guess my Swiss “Demut” is taking hold). Perhaps at the next Swiss social event I can sit back, relax, and participate in the conventions without looking so foolish. Truth be told, most of my errors were due to impatience and self-centeredness.

Indeed, social conventions are important to hold a society together, and need to be learned when crossing cultures. In the end, however, more important than making exactly the right move or saying the proper thing, is the willingness to open relationships across cultural divides. I don't think I'm a bumbling idiot at doing that.



2 comments:

  1. Danger lurks in every social interaction, even in your own culture and cultural blending serves to amplify the risk! Experience is still the great teacher.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, Bill. Very insightful. Yes, experience is the best teacher, but with all the experience I've had, I still make blunders. Just can't take myself too seriously--that comes easier with age.

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