Friday, May 31, 2013

Not Doing It Yourself

In many countries, taking on small household tasks without professional help is not only cost-effective and at times pleasant, it is a marker of self-sufficiency and ultimately social worth.  Not so in Switzerland.  Why?

An Englishman whose fan belt breaks or whose drywall needs replacing is likely to make a trip to the shop, invite over a friend, and start bashing away at the problem.  For the Swiss, the first recourse is almost invariably to call in a professional.  As usual, there are a host of explanations for this, some with more explanatory power than others.  Swiss homes are notoriously difficult to work on – the solid concrete walls require hammer drills with diamond-tipped masonry bits just to hang a picture, and the inconsistency in the colours of electrical wiring is surprisingly, and dangerously, un-Swiss.

More important, though, is the Swiss attitude toward expertise. The Swiss education system does not produce generalists: students are streamed from an early age and most careers involve a long and in-depth combination of formal training and internships. The result is a remarkably skilled population who are uniquely well-prepared for their station in life, whether butcher, baker, or cardio-thoracic surgeon.  

The other result is that the Swiss often regard most endeavours outside of their own professional and Freizeit bailiwicks with wariness.  Further, Swiss perfectionism means that 'good enough' is never just that, and that plasterwork or car washing must never be approached in a casual manner, but instead be attacked with the vigour and expertise that the journeyman earns through years of careful training. 

Surely, then, re-wiring a light switch box is something best left to the professionals?

Friday, May 24, 2013

Being Romantic

The Swiss are not famous for being particularly amorous, but they are tremendously Romantic. Why?

Note that this is not 'Romanticism' in the sense of 'being inclined to lovemaking,' but rather the classical sense of a predisposition (despite their famous reputation for cool precision) to emotion, adventure, and above all a rejection of the collective and rational in favor of the personal and subjective. 

This is not surprising, however, to the anthropologist: although the romantic hero is often imagined as Byronian, the movement originated with the German Sturm und Drang defiance of the petty imposition of enlightenment rationalism on the hearts of dreamers everywhere. German Switzerland is a ironclad redoubt of this brand of Romantic thinking: it shapes everything from their government to their gardening.

It is perhaps the medical anthropologist who finds the richest ethnographic soil in Teutonic Romanticism: what the empirical, Enlightenment-tainted doctor of Great Britain calls "chronic congestive heart failure," the German condemns as 'Herzinsuffizienz.' The insufficient heart is clearly a problem of the highest significance in so Romantic a culture, threatening as it does to undermine the very nexus of the patient's connection with nature. Lynne Payer reminds us that German-speaking doctors are, indeed, the only ones in the world who regularly medicate their patients in order raise blood pressure values that elicit applause from doctors almost everywhere else.

We therefore discover another crucial lens through which to understand the Swiss, another factor to hold in our heads when confronted by the apparently inscrutable: Romanticism.

Whether any of this makes the Swiss especially adroit lovers is anyone's guess.

Thursday, May 16, 2013


What do the Swiss have when they don’t have work? They have Freizeit.

Of course, in German all nouns are capitalized, so the upper-case ’F’ here should not be a cause for concern. It is visually important, though, especially for the non-native speaker of German, and the word itself is just slippery enough in translation to be more compelling still. A compound word that is transliterated as “Freetime,” Freizeit eludes simple translation. The English language is not nearly as free and easy with compound words as the German, where any number of words or phrases even loosely related are gladly turned into words as eye-watering as 

das Vierwaldstätterseedampfshiffsfahrtsgeselschaftskapitänsmützensternlein, 

a word that in English is a rather long and almost independent clause: "The star on the hat of the Captain of the steam ship, on the Four Woods Lake": 

Therefore for Anglophones, “free time” is cheapened by its construction: the position of the modifying adjective “free” suggests that this is only one of many modulations of time: before we know it, it will be “work time,” “quitting time,” “commuting time,” “dinner time,” and “bed time.” 

Surely this is roughly what the prophet of Ecclesiastes had in mind when he intoned that ‘To everything there is a season’? 

Not so for the Swiss-German speaker, for whom Freizeit is an island entirely unto itself, requiring entire wings of department stores and subsections of websites to be devoted to it. In fact, in Switzerland life seems to be divided into Freizeit and Everything Else; Arnold van Gennep has warned us of the psychic dangers of dichotomizing the universe in this way. 

And so perhaps with Freizeit we arrive at another fundamental rich point of Swiss semiology; the irreducibly untranslatable. 

Who understands Friezeit, understands Swissness.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Trusting People

When riding Swiss trains, the passenger is expected to punch her own ticket before boarding. A conductor may never check, but woe (and substantial fines) betides the Schwarzfahrer who is caught. Equal parts carrot and stick, the widely-used honor system in this country gives us a unique insight into Swissness. How?

Much critical ink has been spilt following in the (large) intellectual footsteps that Bentham and Foucault left as they wrestled with the panopticon.  (The panopticon is a perfect prison, in which a central guard tower surveys the cells arrayed around it like spokes from a wheel’s hub. Importantly, the prisoners can’t know if they’re being watched at any particular moment, and as such essentially police themselves.)

Appropriately, the symbol on those Swiss ticket stamping machines is not a thumbs-up or a smiling conductor.  It is an all-seeing eye:

Is Switzerland a panopticon writ large?  

This is perhaps too easy an assessment. Instead, we might say that the honor system appeals to the Swiss love for small government and limited intrusion, and allows them to feel morally upright at least once daily.  These are closer to the heart of Swissness than a love of omniscient authority. When a Swiss bookshop sends you a paperback in the mail along with an invoice, they enjoy trusting you enough to wait for the payment. You, in turn, enjoy being trusted.  

It is, in fact, a magical phenomenon – it is reciprocal exchange, but delayed just enough to make it alien to modern capitalism. Marcel Mauss reminds us of the power that delayed reciprocity has to strengthen social relationships; the Swiss honor system is therefore neither a quaint economic anachronism nor a concession to efficiency: it is the glue that holds Swiss society together. 

Still, it is hard to stop feeling followed by that eye.

Friday, May 3, 2013


It is often said that Switzerland is a hyper-efficient country, though this is not entirely true.  It is more accurate to say that the Swiss are perfectionists who love work.

Where Americans, for instance, might be said to have embraced the potential of technology to eliminate labour, the Swiss are more interested in its ability to elaborate labour. In other words, Americans double their productivity in tribute to Henry Ford, while the Swiss put their shoulder to the wheel for Calvin.

The goal in Switzerland is not to be without labour; this is not only unproductive but immoral. In many parts of the world there is a trend to de-formalize work, to work from home, to dress more casually; in Switzerland the opposite is the case.  Indeed, more than once Swiss voters have actually held referenda to refuse longer holidays or shorter work weeks.

This baffles outside observers, but only those who are not anthropologists of Helvetican Quotidianity.  

We are reminded of Nestor the Chronicler’s account of the arrival of the emissaries of Christianity and Islam making their respective cases to Vladimir the Great for theirs to become the state’s official religion.  Vladimir’s response was that Islam’s prohibition on alcohol would be fatally incompatible with the Russian psyche, his people’s position on the sweet hereafter being substantially more flexible than their position on vodka.  Russia has been Christian ever since.

And so it goes with the Swiss, who can no more become idle than Vlad the Great’s people could become teetotal.