Playing by the Rules

vintage-confusedI love rules. Rules make my life comfortable, they help to organize my brain, they ensure my husband and I have an hour or so to ourselves in the evenings. Granted, maybe I am not as fond of rules as a group of ten year olds who seem to require 249 different and separate rules while playing a recess game, but in general, I’m a big proponent of rules.

Without rules, there would be chaos. Without rules there would be social anarchy, there would be pushing and shoving and line cutting and elbowing and chucking old ladies out of the way. For my fellow Danish expats, think of Lagkagehuset when the ticket machine is out of order. We need rules to keep the cogs and wheels of society well oiled. We need rules to keep things neat and tidy.

I am a neat and tidy person. It should follow then, that I am a lover of rules. For the most part, I am.

Except when no one tells me what they are. Or when they don’t make sense. Or when I can’t understand them and no one is willing to help translate or explain.

One of the things you notice when you are living in someone else’s country is that the rules are different. Everyone should play by the rules, but it sure would help if you knew what they were before the timer started.

I imagine that some expat packages include cultural classes along with their relocation services, little rule books that explain whether it is a criminal offense to spit on the sidewalk or merely frowned upon. Maybe you even get a key chain or a pen light with common phrases. Ours did not. Ours was essentially “you start work on Day X, send us your flight details.” We didn’t even get a list of recommended doctors or the number for the local electricity company, forget lessons on what cultural differences to expect. As luck would have it, the cultural rules of Cyprus are about as far removed from the cultural norms of Denmark as you can get. Both have odds and quirks that differ greatly from my own experience as an American who grew up in the US.

I’ll say it again: if you don’t know the rules, if no one takes the time to explain them, it’s pretty damn near impossible to follow them.

1950s Family In Backyard Beside Pool Having Cookout Of Hot Dogs and Hamburgers

Say for instance you are an expat living in an apartment block in Switzerland. Say it’s Sunday evening and your favorite jeans are dirty and you want to wear them Monday morning. Imagine your surprise when you open the door to the police informing you that a neighbor called in a complaint about the noise of your washer. (One of my former Swiss expat friends told me this one, and apologies for not remembering who). Apparently you are only allowed to use your machine to wash your clothes at certain times of the day in Switzerland. From what I gather about Switzerland, this type of rule is common. An American friend and her family here in Denmark were told they couldn’t mow their lawn between 12 and 6 pm lest they interrupt the relaxation time of the neighborhood. Great. The problem is, when no one tells you the rules before hand, and then you are chided like a naughty toddler for breaking the rules, it sometimes makes you mad. Or contemptuous. Or hungry for revenge.

Take the neighbor who told us the other day we shouldn’t be grilling on our balcony because it was interfering with his ability to sit  on his balcony. Now, granted, had we been smoking anchovies for twelve hours in order to feed the 500, well then I could understand. But we were grilling a piece of steak. We like our steak medium rare. Do the math. The thing is, I don’t know the rules. If one neighbor is doing something that is bothering the other, which one trumps the other? Does a baby sleeping in a pram in a shared court-yard mean that other children in the building shouldn’t play outside? Is there a rule? As we are in Denmark and the Danes take a “the more rules the better” approach to life, there probably is a rule. All I know is that it made me want to start smoking anchovies.

After three and a half years of living in Cyprus, I knew that if you told a Cypriot they couldn’t grill on their balcony, there would be souvlaki duels at dawn. After two and a half years here…I’m not sure. If the Danes think that the good of the whole should be put before the good of the individual (more on that later) than the Cypriots, like the Americans, balk at being told what they can and can’t do.

The little things, things that are tacitly understood by the people who grew up with them, these are the things no one tells you. You end up bumbling and blustering, making an oafish fool of yourself. As an American abroad, I’m more than a bit wary of being seen as an oafish, bumbling stereotype. Not knowing the rules niggles at me.

(As a side note, I’m always amazed at communities in the US that have restrictions in place about hanging laundry or house paint colors. It always seemed thoroughly un-American to me. As such, there is almost always someone who flaunts the rules and paints their house neon purple.)

man-opening-door-for-lady-tmIt’s unpleasant to live your life unsure of the rules, always trying to figure out if you’re doing something that’s against some unseen code of conduct. Is it ok? Is it not? Will someone tell me? Will I get a tut and a glare and a very loud shush? Will I get flipped off, told off, yelled at?

It’s not just Denmark or Cyprus of course. Every country has social norms, little things that when they are ignored or overlooked or run rough shod over are noticed. In the US you don’t cut lines. In the UK you always thank the person who let you out in traffic. As an American it makes my blood boil every time I hold the door open for someone and they breeze right through without acknowledging me. But neither the Danes nor the Cypriots (or Europeans in general) are bothered by what I would call ‘niceties’. Thing is, a Dane in the US might get a tut or a glare from an American for not saying thank you. If they’re in New York, they’ll likely get the second door slammed in their face. So take note if you are a European moving to the US:  always thank the person that holds the door open for you.

See? If you know the rules, it makes it a hell of a lot easier to follow them.

What are some differences or rules that surprised you or threw you off balance?


27 thoughts on “Playing by the Rules

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  1. i like neon purple, but there is a village close to me with ordinances where you have to have permission to paint your house a certain color as it has to fit in to the society code there. It is partly historic but I find it ridiculous. if you own it, you should be able to tie dye it if you’d like:)


    1. That’s what I mean. It seems to go against everything that most Americans stand up and shout about. I mean, really…you can open carry a loaded weapon in Target but you can’t paint your house purple? It seems a bit ridiculous when you break it down. But Americans in general loathe having anyone tell them what they can and can’t do–evidenced in the number of states that don’t have seat belt of helmet laws.


      1. In this country we have laws for everything, it gets ridiculous and we find most responsible gun owners don’t have issues, it’s when the kids get hold of them or Rob a house and steal one. Every state is different so you never know what the rules are and the list seems endless:)


  2. When we moved to Switzerland, there was a book that covered some, although sadly not all, of these cultural expectations. It was called “Living and Working in Switzerland.” It was very helpful. It was from that book that I learned that men are not allowed to pee standing up after 10 p.m. We assumed that it was for apartment-dwellers only, as I distinctly recall my husband getting out of bed in the middle of the night once when we lived in our cute little Swiss chalet. (I am not the source of the washing machine story — but I’m sure it’s true. The Swiss do have rules for everything.)

    Then we moved just across the border, and all bets were off.


    1. I imagine expats in Switzerland are required by law to have a book that explains the rules to them. From what I hear, there are a lot of them. And a lot of people willing to get in your face to let you know when you are not following them correctly. You have to wonder how thin the walls/ceilings/floors are in Swiss apartment blocks if you can’t pee standing up for fear of waking a neighbor though. That’s a new one to me!


      1. When we were first married our apartment neighbour (in UK!) tried to persuade us not to use the loo, talk or have the TV on (low) after 10pm. It was ok for her to play weird whale music at top volume though. Apparently young people were nightmare neighbours with no thought for the elderly and we would get our comeuppance in our twilight years.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m with you on the rules thing. I also believe rules are meant to be broken, but, how are you supposed to know when to break the rules if you don’t know what the rules are? I live in SE Louisiana. Most of our rules have to do with eating crawfish and cheering on the Saints. It is pretty easy to keep up.


  4. As someone who really wants to live overseas, I know I’ll struggle with rules if I ever do. I wish I could tell my upstairs neighbor not to pee standing up at midnight, because it sounds like he’s peeing on my head……………

    But, I think a lot of these ‘rules’ are merely people trying to enforce their worldview on you. I always try to be considerate of others, but some people are bullies in how they expect the world to conform to their needs. Like your neighbor.


    1. Andra, you are right. From a sociological standpoint, I find it really interesting, especially in a socialist, communal country such as Denmark where they really do place a high value on the whole (which I think is great). It would seem though in my everyday interactions that there’s a whole lot of assumption that one person’s view is the same as everyone else’s. That may well be the case. Did my neighbor, for instance, naturally assume that everyone else would be bothered by 10 minutes of grilling and therefore seem justified in his complaint? Or was he just being an ass? To be fair to him, I don’t think he was particularly rude about it, but he definitely felt that he was ‘in the right.’ Mind you, after talking to some others about their experiences with neighbors, I think we got off lightly.


  5. I think the biggest shock for me was visiting Belfast in the eighties by which time I’d been living in the affluent South East of England for years. It wasn’t the soldiers with guns on the streets, or the graffiti, it was walking into a pub in the city centre in the hope of finding a quick bite to eat. Every man in there – and they were all men – turned and stared at me, and when I asked at the bar if they did food the barman gave me such a withering look I thought my knees would give way. I never did find out how to get lunch in that city as a woman on my own.


    1. That’s horrible, I’m sorry. No one should be made to feel inadequate or wrong, there’s really no need for it, especially if you are just trying to get a sausage roll. There’s really no excuse for it.


  6. Dina, this is so spot-on! My biggest blunder against the (unknown) rules happened within 2 weeks of moving to London. We rented a TV, took it home to our temporary flat, and plugged it in. The next thing I knew there was an Officer knocking at the door, informing me that I was in trouble because I hadn’t paid the TV tax. I was dumfounded. They explained that I had to pay a tax to be allowed to watch TV in my home. Of course I was totally ignorant of this rule, so they hauled me into court where the judge informed me that ignorance was no excuse and fined me an ungodly amount. Ever since then I ask, “What are the TV rules?” 🙂 ~Terri


    1. YUP the TV licence is a nightmare in the UK, it is used to subsidise the BBC – all other channels are commercial. You have to pay it if you have the TV connected to the live TV service (even if you don’t watch BBC) but not if you only have it connected to a DVD etc. Thing is the shops that sell and rent TVs have to notify the purchase to the licencing authorities and they start writing threatening letters straight away – even if your TV is not connected. It can take months to prove that you are not liable for the tax, it is quite contentious and some people have been sent to prison for refusing to pay.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Snigger. Shame the BBC turns out some decent programming. But that is wrong on every level! The tax, the hauling off to court, the assumption that you would know. I’m curious to know what response you get when you ask what the TV rules are when you go someplace new. My kids would look at you and say, “none before bedtime” ;-).


  7. Great article. After 20+ years in the UK I still make mistakes when I am there. I am sure that I have made blunders aplenty in the other countries I have lived in. Petrol stations and the etiquette of filling your tank are ripe for blunder.


    1. There are so many, really, no matter where you are. All those little niggly things that make one country run smoothly but throw everyone else for a loop. I think the Northern Euro countries are the worst. Seems the colder the country, the more rules are in place. Living in Cyprus for 3.5 years, the only rule was the no one followed all the rules!


  8. Laugh out loud and love it to bits… You have NOT covered it all yet….so looking forward to the part 2. You forgot the part of walking down the road without shifting when someone walks towards you. My son learnt the same lesson of holding the door on the first year we were here. On the second year, he learnt and taught me to ‘DO NOT MOVE Mummy, just continue walking, just hit the (damn) Danes as they never shift’

    Love it !


    1. I’ll have to save some up for Volume II….but the US is no better. It just depends on what you are used to, I think. Although I have to say the Danish like a good game of chicken when you are walking down the street!


  9. The flip side — always wondering if you’re unknowingly doing something socially unacceptable (but having no idea) — is challenging in another way too. I find it pretty paralyzing sometimes… I try to not care, but it’s really hard. It’s frustrating that you can’t just can’t trust your own judgment in the same way you can in your own culture…


    1. IT’s true. I’ve compared it to letting out a huge breath when you didn’t realize you were holding until you land in your home country. It’s like knowing when it’s ok to flip someone off or not. I mean, I’m not condoning such inappropriate behavior (oh hell, yes I am), but don’t do it outside home if you don’t know how seriously people take it!


  10. There’s a book called ‘Culture Clash, Denmark’ which is insightful. I can lend it to you if you like. Love the door opening and traffic thanking references btw. Drives me nuts!


    1. Does it say anything about getting tutted at for buying too much food at the grocery store or as Cherry mentioned, the daily games of chicken you have to play on the sidewalk? If so, I’d love to borrow it!


  11. Mr DW is a stickler for rules and after eight years of dating a German, when he first moved to New York he wouldn’t jaywalk or cut across the grass in parks sticking religiously to the paths instead. New York and I got him to walk on the wild side…eventually. However, he never embraced the freedom of Cypriot parking—sidewalks, crosswalks, stairways. He was THAT ONE CAR parked between the lines at Alphamega/Mall of Cyprus, THAT ONE CAR dutifully going 100km/hr out to the Karpaz (and I think THE ONE CAR that left Cyprus after 3 yrs without a ticket). Bless.


    1. I’m with Mr. DW on the parking. I could never bring myself to embrace the Cypriot propensity for parking diagonally across the lines. It still makes me shudder to think about it. And mad. I think Mr. WC(D) disabled his 100 Km/h speed enforcer thereby circumventing the rules. He embraced the lawlessness much better than I did!


  12. And it is not only the ‘proper’ rules but the unwritten ones too like walking into a restaurant in the UK and just knowing that it is a self-service/order your food at the counter place and not one where you sit and wait for the waiter. so weird how we are just expected to know stuff – our new job in zambia came with no booklet either…


    1. I have to admit, I like the order your food and pay for it before you sit down service that seems to be the norm in Europe–that said, if you don’t know how it’s done, then you could be sitting there for a very long time waiting for service (BTDT)! I’d love to hear how things differ in Zambia–


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