I’m back in Bern after thirty days in the US. With my nephew getting married in Napa Valley, my husband and I decided to drive from Vancouver, BC, where I did my last two years of high school, to Calistoga, CA, via Washington, Oregon, and the northern Californian coast. It was a great trip that ended with a beautiful, joyous wedding.
I’ve come back sharply aware of the many differences between Americans and Swiss, the two groups of people I share citizenship with. One contrast is how much more space Americans take up. Their houses and cars and grocery carts are bigger, their streets are wider, their parking places are vast (at least outside the big cities). Their bodies are larger, and their voices are louder. They play music in restaurants, stores, and elevators and, in general, sound off with gusto. In Switzerland, I have a loud speaking voice; in the US, my voice disappears.
One reason that Americans use more space because they have more space, much more than the Swiss do. Seventy percent of Switzerland is made up of mountains (the Alps and the Jura), and between these two ranges lies the Mittelland. This remaining thirty percent of the country is where over two-thirds of its 8’770’283 people live. In other words, the Swiss are crowded! If we were as expansive—in every sense of the word—as Americans are, we would drive each other crazy. Instead, we are highly conscious of each other’s physical and mental space. Although there are always exceptions, as a group we are quiet in public and even at home, since we are uncomfortable about disturbing our neighbors. (Note that only 25% of all Swiss own a house; the majority live in rented apartments.)
Something else I observed on my recent visit to the States has to do with boundaries as well, but in another sense, and it’s a difference I’ve been aware of since I first moved to Switzerland over thirty-four years ago and asked my Swiss husband why “no one here smiles at me.” The extraordinary friendliness of Americans is a phenomenon that I took for granted when I lived with them and that now strikes me, as it strikes many Europeans, as one of the nicest things about visiting the US.
But since I’m by training a sociologist, I can’t just leave it at that. (Not to mention that after all my years in Switzerland, I now know that the Swiss are friendly, too.) So I’ll point out some differences between the two countries’ definitions of good manners, starting by comparing . . . bus drivers! In Swiss cities, bus and tram drivers sit enclosed by glass, and there is a sign on the compartment telling passengers not to talk to them. Many American bus drivers may long for such privacy, but, instead, they are expected to interact with passengers all day long, including while they are driving, especially if they happen to have someone chatty sitting in the front seat.
In other words, when Swiss men and women are on the job, they are not trying to be likeable. A Swiss bus driver is not your friend, nor is he or she expected to act like it. If a Swiss is your tax advisor, food server, doctor, plumber, or florist, their role is to greet you courteously and apply their skills to your needs in a competent way, whether it’s fixing your sink or listening to your lungs. They will probably smile a couple of times in the course of their interaction with you, but they won’t ask you personal questions, chat about the weather, or try to engage you in a conversation unrelated to their task. Unless, of course, you tell them that you are buying flowers for your sister’s birthday or that you just got back from a holiday in Majorca. Then they are likely to abandon their professional role to comment briefly on birthdays or holidays. But they won’t get into an extended exchange with you—it would be considered unprofessional, inappropriate, and sometimes even rude.
In addition, the Swiss never address a client by their first name (unless, of course, the two of them are already acquaintances.) Compare this to the first-name badges that so many Americans wear on their jobs, inviting you to cozy up and chat with them.
In 1983, an American sociologist named Arlie Hochschild wrote a book called The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, which forever changed the way I thought about friendliness on the job. Using flight attendants as its main focus, Hochschild’s book shows how employers expect workers—especially women—to manipulate their emotions and “pretend” to be cheerful, warmhearted, motherly, and soothing, in addition to performing the occupational tasks they are officially paid for. The book asks if bosses should have the right to demand what Hochschild calls “emotional labor” from the people they employ.
I love how friendly and talkative most Americans are under all kinds of circumstances. But today that sometimes-forced friendliness is not the norm for me, as it used to be when I lived in the US. After my years in Switzerland, I no longer expect wide smiles and animated conversation from strangers, especially not from a person I’m paying to do me a service.
I think many Americans feel that friendliness to strangers, including their clients, is one of the ways they add fun to their workday—something they do voluntarily and not because it is expected of them. If that is the case, then I accept their smiles gratefully. But I don’t want anyone to have to perform “emotion work” for me. Competence and courtesy are enough.