I 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.
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.)
It’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?