Friday, April 19, 2013

Staring at People on Trains

In many cultures, staring at people is a guilty pleasure: we learn, as children, to obey the unwritten social rule that staring is rude. The social contract, alas, comes before our own curiosity. Not so in Switzerland. Why?

The answer is not that the Swiss are rude. First, they aren’t. Second, the very definition of ‘rudeness’ is so contextually contingent that cross-cultural comparisons of politesse inevitably degenerate into anthropological parlour games. Why, then, is carefully regarding fellow users of public conveyances so popular in Switzerland? The Swiss stare to ensure their very survival.

It is important to remember that Switzerland has been neutral since 1515; the effect this position has on the Swiss national character is hard to overestimate. Nor is it a ceremonial or technical neutrality – it is in fact a policy of Nietzschean independence writ large. 

A small country in the midst of large and warlike neighbors, Switzerland has for many years relied on a citizen’s army to defend its borders. Domestically, an army of lace-curtain police defend the social order every bit as carefully: by keeping an eye on one and all, the Swiss ensure that all is right with their world. You are also stared at when you litter in the street, or neglect to tie up your recycling correctly; the Swiss collectively agree to enforce a broad and intricate set of social regulations that ensure their uniquely lovely way of life remains intact. 

Therefore it is not simply an impertinent pensioner or curious carpenter who stares at you on the train: it is the whole of Switzerland.

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